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My First F-Up: Charging Customers for Chips and Salsa

With a bit of customer education, Eater Young Gun Christine Rivera convinced San Diego that chips and salsa are worth paying for

An illustration of a shining bowl of tortilla chips.
Rebecca Flint Marx is the editor of Eater at Home. Her areas of expertise include home cooking and popular culture.

My First F-Up is a series in which we ask Eater Young Guns and industry talent to recall their first — or most notable — on-the-job failure.

Before she became the chef de cuisine at Galaxy Taco, a modern Mexican restaurant in San Diego, Eater Young Gun Christine Rivera (’16) had been a line cook, and before that, a dishwasher. Galaxy, which opened in 2015, was the first restaurant that Rivera had been in charge of, which meant that it was also where she experienced a lot of firsts. One of those challenges was creating a menu, which set the stage for a memorable, if ultimately enlightening, lesson.

“In San Diego, 95 percent of Mexican restaurants don’t charge for chips and salsa. And we did. We make everything in-house — the chips and the salsa — whereas every other restaurant buys their chips. So we charged two bucks, and thought, ‘It’s just two bucks, people aren’t going to say anything.’

“Boy, were we wrong. In the first few months, people would sit down and we’d ask, ‘Oh, would you like our chips and salsa?’ and they’d get it and see the bill and be like, ‘What the heck?’ For almost the first year [after we opened], every single Yelp review, and every single complaint on a card, was, ‘Why are you charging for chips and salsa?’ And from that, you get other reviews like, ‘Why are we paying five bucks for a taco?’ So all of the hype we got when we opened went down because of the chips and salsa comments.

“I think that the big mistake was me not knowing how to fix that, or know how to put a menu together. It hurt us for a while, until we could educate our guests and tell them why [we charged]. We felt passionate about making our masa and salsa daily; it was all fresh, and there were no canned products. So we never stopped charging. And sooner or later, people stopped complaining. But to this day, I think that some of those people who we did piss off probably never came back. So it’s been a huge hurdle since day one.

“Now it’s very, very rare [that people complain]; they’ve already done their research and know what we’re about. What I did learn is that if you’re really passionate about [something] and think it’s the right thing to do, then don’t back down and just got for it. And eventually you’ll find out if it’s the right move. For us, it definitely was; we just celebrated our four-year anniversary.”

Rebecca Flint Marx is a James Beard Award-winning food writer based in Brooklyn.