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February 8, 2011

Let the right cake in -- a Tuesday rant


You want to give a restaurant owner a real thrill? Insist on bringing in your own cake.

I spoke to handful of restaurant owners about this. Their responses were all over the place. One patently refused to allow customers to do it and has lost business over it. Another few allowed it all the time. In between, there were a few that allowed it, reluctantly, but charged a plating fee for it.

I had thought, incorrectly, that bringing in your own cake was  something that was actually forbidden by health-code regulations. Not exactly.

What you may not do, what is expressly forbidden, is this: You may not bring a cake that you've made yourself into a restaurant. (For that matter, you can't bring in any food you've made yourself into a restaurant.)

You may, however, bring in a cake from an approved food provider (approved, that is, by the State of Maryland and/or local municipality) At least you can legally do this -- individual restaurants will have their own policies.

This is all according to David Paulson, the communications director for the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.

Local municipalities are responsible for enforcing the State code and can, if they choose, take an even stricter stance. The city of Baltimore's policy is aligned with that of the state's, according to Brian Schleter, Paulson's counterpart in the Baltimore City Health Department, who found the appropriate language for me in the Code of Maryland Regulations (known and loved as COMAR):

"The person-in-charge [restaurant owner] shall ensure that food served to the public is wholesome and free from contamination, not adulterated, safe for human consumption, obtained from an approved source...."

The truth is that cake-smuggling is seldom (never) enforced.

The code clearly places the matter in the hands of the restaurant owner, and it is reasonable to expect a restaurant owner to exert control over what is brought into the his or her restaurant. It is unreasonable, or at least tacky, for a customer to throw a fit when told otherwise.

There are good reasons, apart from health concerns, not to allow in an outside cake, and, as always, so mcuh depends on what restaurant we're talking about. A pizza parlor probably wouldn't mind your doing it; a restaurant with its own pastry chef would.

It depends, too, on whether you've rented out a private room for your party. I think it's perfectly reasonable for a restaurant not to control cake-importing simply on aesthetic grounds. Who knows what dreck someone will show up with!!

It's like I always say -- unless it's a Mylar balloon, nothing brings down a room faster than a sheet cake.

Recently I wrote a little bit about proposed corkage legislation. I wish it well, but the legislative process is awfully frustrating to look at, what with all the rampant venality and stupidity.

And then it occurred to me -- I could make laws myself!!

Or at least rules.

Here's my first draft on a list of rules for bringing cakes into restaurants:


I. Call first, every time, at least two days in advance, but preferably further.

IA. If the restaurant advise you that it does not allow patrons to bring in cakes from outside but that one can be produced for you by the restaurant's in-house baker or provider, you should either accept that option or look for another venue. Or don't have cake. 

IB. Similarly, if the restaurant advises you that a cake can be procured for you by the restaurant from a list of approved providers, that is what you should agree to, or look for another venue. Or don't have cake.

IC. And again, if the restaurant provides you with a list of acceptable providers and dimensions and other criteria for you to order from, you must accept this or look for another venue. Or don't have cake.

II. If the restaurant advises you, in this planning conversation, that it will charge you a reasonable fee* for cutting, plating and serving a cake you've brought in, you must pay it. You may negotiate the fee in advance if you like. (For its part, the restaurant must advise customers who call in advance about the fee; if it doesn't, you could reasonably be annoyed for not having been alerted to it in advance. I'm a terrible negotiator but even I could make that go away. Or don't have cake.

III. Bringing in a cake without calling in advance is strictly prohibited.

* reasonable fees are reasonable


REUTERS/Enrique De La Osa



Posted by Richard Gorelick at 11:59 AM | | Comments (25)


I broke the rules... For the past two years I have bought the small ultimate vanilla cake from wegmans and taken it to Orchard Market and Cafe for a birthday dinner. The owner was suuuuper gracious about it and took it in stride, even lighting a candle for me and bringing it out to my friend.

Next year, I'll call in advance!

a reasonable rule-bend, I think, because 1) you are obviously a thoughtful person 2) it sounds as though you both knew and liked the owner.

my favorite places are the ones with bartenders/staff that will accept a slice of cake in lieu of plating fees.

Do individuals over the age of eight still have to have birthday cakes?

Sure... Bring your own cake. And your own bottle of wine. Ask for water, lemons and sugar and make your own free tableside lemonade (at least the neighborhood kids get $1 for the effort). And, as a customer once did, your own healthy choice meal that you want the restaurant to heat up and serve to you at no charge.

Restaurants are not public libraries or meeting spaces. We aren't supported by tax dollars or charitable contributions. We make money by selling only 2 things: food and beverages.

I'd like to do the same in another business (bring my own cake to a baker, my own fillings to a dentist, my own leather to Louis Vuitton.. "can you make me a bag with this, please? And charge me less?").

Besides offending the sensibilities of professional people who spend their lives in service of their chosen profession and of others, it's just not possible to run a business without generating enough income to throw off profits. Hence, a plating fee, corkage, etc.

I would like to hear from people to learn why they would think to bring a cake with them to a restaurant. I've never heard of this!

all the time!! I saw it when I was at Sushi Sono, where it actually made sense to me. it also makes sense, I think, if you're renting a private room (and the restaurant can't otherwise accommodate you).

I think if you have a cake coming from a place like Charm City Cakes the restaurant should understand. It's a very special cake that most in-house pastry chefs would not have the time or perhaps even talent to do.

There are exceptions to rules.

As a server in Little Italy, we OFTEN had people bring in cakes. And many of them were not for private parties that had reserved an entire room. I understand why people would want to bring their own cakes, but being a server is demoralizing enough without having to spend time assembling dessert plates, extra forks and such, ceremoniously presenting a cake with lit candles with a huge fake smile on your face and then cheerfully cutting up the cake and serving it to your patrons -- all while knowing perfectly well that you are getting tipped for none of this, and probably won't even get 20 percent on the food/drink they actually paid for (at my restaurant, we only added 18 percent to tables of six or more, not 20 percent, and God forbid anyone add any additional money to the tip -- those money-grubbing servers!). But I think it is the cleaning-up of the cake mess that is the most demoralizing. That said, bringing in your own cake is annoying, but probably the least annoying thing I can think of that restaurant patrons did. The making of your own lemonade is 100 percent worse. And honestly, if you are gracious and treat your server like a human being (not your personal slave) and tip well, it makes up for the cake.

Richard, I thought that you were surely going to throw in the term "cakage fee" there. Admirable restraint.

i just made an appointment with a specialist

Joe Buck sitting at the counter in the diner..just asking for a cup of hot water and some crackers, the catsup was already there to make the tomato soup!!
No cuppage charge I guess!!

I don't know, I've always been of the belief that if someone chooses my restaurant for their special occasion, I'm willing to allow some leniency in terms of stuff like this. Out of all the restaurants in the area, they decided to choose mine for their birthday/anniversary/graduation/whatever. I not only feel it's an honor, but I also take it as a vote of confidence that they think we're not going to eff up their important meal. Yes, we are in the business to make money, but we're also in the business of creating memorable meals. If part of that consists of letting them enjoy their cake of choice brought from outside, then I have no problem leaving a few dollars on the table.

I understand there's a principle involved, and we certainly wouldn't let someone bring in their own ribeye or pasta, but sometimes it's worth giving up a small battle like this and show some good will. As long as they let us know beforehand, I see no problem with it.


There is no difference whether you bring in a store bought cake for dessert or a store bought crudites platter as an appetizer. It does not make it any different because a cake is a traditional symbol of a party. The owners of a restaurant have a vision for what they serve in their establishment. They train their staff, they purchase the ingredients, and then they work hard to provide a setting for the public to enjoy. Show some respect and consideration for the owners and their kitchen staff. Do not think it is OK to bring in a cake/cupcakes/pie/brownies/whatever that someone else prepared because it's special celebration. Call ahead and ask them what they offer for special occasions. Restaurants are one of the top places people go to celebrate birthdays, anniversaries, retirements, etc. It has occurred to restaurant owners to be prepared and have something special arranged to mark those types of occasions. Pre-order a cake from them, pre-order one of their desserts from their menu (don't you think the pastry chef views what they do as an important and delicious part of the meal?). Some places work with a pastry shop, like Patisserie Poupon, to provide cakes for you if they don't have the capacity to do one themselves. The important thing is to at least give the restaurant the benefit of the doubt and try to arrange something with them first.

Yes, it is the restaurateurs job to take care of the guest and make their meal fantastic and memorable. If you absolutely have to have a cake to mark a birthday, then pay your bill after your entrees are finished and invite your party over to your home. Then whip out your cake and serve some coffee in the privacy of your own home, on your own plates, with your own forks. I've been at dinners at wonderful restaurants where the host has brought in a half sheet, blue icing, crisco laden cake. I was stuck eating that tasteless sugar bomb while I longingly looked at other tables enjoying beautifully executed desserts prepared by the pastry chef. How is that better?

If you still think it is OK to bring in food from the outside into a restaurant, then at least do them the courtesy of calling ahead and asking...don't assume it is OK. Don't show up at the place with your own dessert in your hands, especially if it is still in the Graul's bag with your order ticket taped on the top.

I'm still scratching my head what motivates people to do this. It sounds to me like people are just trying to save money on the bill.

Thank you for the suggestions about asking an establishment if they work with a baker(y) for special ordering items such as cakes, i would not have thought of asking about that.

I agree that you should always call before bringing in your own food items into a restaurant, no matter how casual the eatery. It is unacceptable to bring Starbucks into a local cafe, Subway into a local deli, or your home cooked steak into a nice restaurant. If you have special dietary needs, just call first! The kitchen may be able to accommodate you, or at least they are prepared and you don't have to deal with shocked and upset staff when you waltz in with your own cooler of food (true story, happened at a place I worked).

Also, bringing in your own food and then hunching over it at your table to hide it from the staff? Ah, they can see you. They can also see the people eating their own food at outside tables. And they know when you ask for hot water it's so you can use the tea bag you brought from home.

We've done it (after approving it with the restaurant ahead of time) because my best friend is an amazing cake maker! And we always share with the server/kitchen staff.

There is a difference between even the most delicious restaurant dessert and a cake made by someone who loves you when you are celebrating your birthday.

Obviously, if the restaurant had an issue with us bringing a cake in we would have made other arrangements but they've always been enthusiastic and accommodating. And we've totally made up for whatever we would have spent on dessert in our consumption of other food and drink. Everybody's happy!

(I really don't get the "only kids should have cake or birthday parties" thing. It's really sad to me. I want to celebrate the births of all my loved ones. Not just the littles.

I can assure you, you have not made up for what you would have spent on dessert with your other food and drink. You should have spent money on that "other food and drink" AND dessert. And it's rare that you'd ask a restaurant to bring in a cake and they'd tell you that it's not allowed. It's the same when you show up with a crew of toddlers who you plan to completely ignore all evening, allowing them to race one another around your table in a fine dining restaurant until one of them trips a server and gets their face melted by a pot of coffee. The restaurant has to grin and bear it and fetch you a dozen highchairs with a smile on its face. It's called hospitality. I just wish people would have a little more respect for the fact that their server (and very often, that server has a college degree and a second job, 9-5 they work -- they're not just street trash you can abuse ... even if they don't have a 9-5 job or a degree!!!) needs to make a living. It's the fundamental problem of the server/patron relationship. Just because the patron CAN take advantage (by bringing in their own dessert, treating the staff like babysitters, making their own lemonade or leaving religious pamphlets in lieu of a tip) doesn't mean they should. Again, bringing in your own cake is definitely the least of the sins I've seen -- and don't beat yourself up over it if it's a special cake that's a must-have for your loved one, the server will get over it -- but it won't improve your server's night. Just please tip with that in mind -- if your server smiled and cheerfully served up your free cake, it's not because they were thrilled about it, it's because they're good at their job and know how to help you have a good time. Like Lee said, being hospitable and helping you to have a good time is what a restaurant is all about.

Well put AK. And as long as my customer shares with the "server/kitchen staff," everyone's happy. Right? Whatever helps you sleep at night.

Richard, when your health inspector tells you to stop doing something, you can take two routes:

1) Say "Whatever you say" and stop letting in cakes, or whatever;
2) Get into an argument with him or her because she is wrong.

I strongly recommend the former to pretty much all restaurateurs.

interesting. what you're saying, it sounds like, is that a city health inspector told you that you should not allow ANY outside cakes at all into your establishment, regardless of their provenance. if so, I completely agree with your reaction.

I have never seen people bring a cake into a restaurant, but I have seen people bring food with them and salad dressing. This is just rude. Several years ago my grandmother turned 85. We made reservations at a local restaurant and asked the owner about a cake. One of the bartenders offered to bake a cake for us and we accepted the offer. We had a pleasant experience and tipped well. Of course we now frequently eat at this restaurant.


It sounds to me like you might consider finding another profession. Believe it or not, restauranteurs/servers/bartenders do not have a monopoly on dealing with rude and annoying people in their place of business.

I (and possibly you) am a considerate and polite person, and I treat others well at just about all times, unless their behaviour warrants a different response. I know many other people that treat others the same. I also have met many, many other people who do not. These are the facts (and frustrations) with dealing with "the public" as a whole.

Gosh, I'm so glad I'm not that fond of cake!
Who knew?

I've not seen this done often. I have been to birthday dinners at restaurants and then been invited back to someone's home for birthday cake. the only time I can thing of something similar is when my Uncle turned 60 and we reserved a room at a restaurant for his party. The restaurant allowed us to bring a cake but my Aunt paid a flat fee for the whole entire event so I'm sure the restaurant was fairly compensated. I can't imagine taking a cake to a restaurant without calling ahead to see if it was allowed; that's just in poor taste.

Fortunately, I had another profession all along, and waited tables for years in between jobs and as a second job. I don't have to do that anymore, but if I was out of work in the future, i would definitely rather wait tables than be on unemployment. I completely understand that certain members of the public are awful and certain members of the public are respectful, considerate people. But I definitely found that the vast majority of people do not see servers or other restaurant workers as people, they don't feel empathy for them or see themselves in the same position. I wouldn't come to a lawyer's job with my own cake and ask him to cut it up, serve it to me and my friends and then chisel the flourescent frosting off the table once we'd left. No one, even people who love being servers (and I actually did enjoy waiting tables, despite the rudeness I experienced) enjoys being forced to do something at work that is time-consuming, makes a giant mess that they have to clean up, and for which they are not paid. While you are singing happy birthday and savoring your cake (for which you didn't pay me) I am not turning the table, which means I'm losing money. I did all this with a smile, but it didn't mean I liked it. If everyone who was annoyed by their customers "found another profession," there would be no servers.

Brought a beautiful little Sugarbakers cake to Baldwin Station for my friend's wedding a few years ago. The manager said no outside cakes but 3 of the 20 guests were lawyers and persuaded him to let us cut it. No call ahead- we learned our lesson!

Richard, is the Tuesday rant going to replace the Tuesday Top Ten? (It's fine with me--I just want to brace myself!)


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About this blog

You are reading the archives. For updated blog posts about the Maryland food scene, see Richard Gorelick's new Baltimore Diner blog.
Richard Gorelick was appointed The Baltimore Sun's restaurant critic in September 2010. Before joining the paper staff fulltime, he contributed freelance criticism and features articles about food to area and regional publications. Along the way, he dispatched for short-distance trucking companies, shilled for cultural non-profits, and assisted in cognitive neurology research – never the subject, always the control.

He takes restaurants seriously but not himself, and his favorite restaurant is the one you love, too.

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