What Does 86 Mean? Definition, History and More

What Does 86 Mean? Definition, History and More
Ashlen Wilder

By Ashlen Wilder

If you're standing in line waiting to order the special of the night, the seasonal Panzanella Salad, you don't want to hear “86 the special”. At some point when you were dining in a restaurant, you may have heard the BOH staff shout “86” and the name of a menu item to the waiters. Or, if you've worked in a restaurant as a chef, line cook, or as part of the FOH (front-of-house), you may have used this hospitality term yourself.

Whether you're a diner, restaurant employee, or owner, “86” is a term you should know. The term has somewhat murky origins but has always been tied to the restaurant, bar, and hospitality industry.

What Does 86 Mean in the Restaurant Industry?

In the restaurant industry, “eighty six” or “86”, means to remove an item from the menu because it is no longer available.

There are many reasons for this happening - there may not be enough ingredients to continue making a certain dish or drink, or the item may not be good anymore. For example, the bottle of Zinfandel on the wine list oxidized, or the herbs needed for the spring rolls wilted and are no longer usable. The most common reason for an item to be 86'd is simply when the ingredients for a menu item run out. It is also possible that certain components in the menu item require prep, and not enough was prepared earlier in the day to continue making that dish.

Whatever the reason for an item needing to be 86'ed, this restaurant term works really well as a quick way to communicate the need to take an item off the menu.

How is eighty-six used?

The term 86 may be used in different positions throughout the restaurant. For instance, BOH staff may use it to communicate in any interaction they have. The BOH staff includes line cooks and chefs, and they need to communicate updates on dishes and ingredients constantly. Food runners fluctuate between the front and back of the house, and are likely to be the messenger that communicates what is 86'd from BOH to FOH.

The FOH staff may use that term with other staff, especially when coordinating with the BOH, but will likely avoid this language with patrons. Additionally, the hosts and wait staff never want to say something like “The gnocchi has run out”, but rather rephrase it as “The gnocchi has been popular tonight and sold out”.

Where did the term come from?

The term 86 is used throughout many different industries, but is mostly associated with the restaurant, bar, and hospitality industry. While the etymology of the term 86 has a few different stories, there are multiple theories around where this term originated from. In nearly every context, it means to “refuse service”, “get rid of” or “nix” something.

According to Merriam-Webster, the origin of the term 86 began as a slang term that meant something was sold out at soda bars in the 1930's. This term was thought to have come from the rhyming slang term “nix”, which is to cancel something.

During the Prohibition Era, a speakeasy called Chumley's bar was located at 86 Bedford Street, Greenwich Village, New York City. Police showed up at the hidden bar to shut it down, and apparently told patrons to “86” (leave) the area by using the secret back door that led to 86th Bedford Street. Which was different from the main entrance that police would use on Barrow Street.

Other possible origins of where the term 86 comes from is also tied to bars and alcohol. Prior to the 1980s, whiskey was available as 100 of 86 proof. When patrons drank too much of the 100-proof whiskey, they would become belligerent, and the bartender would have to “86” them, meaning they would have to switch to 86-proof liquor or leave the bar if they were unruly.

The cost of 86'ing

Line cooks preparing menu items

More often than not though, 86'd items cause customer frustration. No one likes finally deciding on what to order, and then being told that item is not available. What's even worse is attempting to order your second choice, only to find out that it's also not available!

You always want your customers to have a positive experience at your restaurant or foodservice operation, and when they cannot get what they want, this dampens their experience. Many customers look forward to getting a particular dish from your restaurant or trying the new special.

If a customer is choosing to order online or through the phone, and what they want has been “86'd”, there is a chance that they will choose to go elsewhere to eat.

Simply put, when a customer cannot order what they want, this will result in lost sales. Restaurants that have a reputation for “always being out” of items will likely not develop a loyal base of customers.

An example of 86'ing items that gets out of control can be viewed in the following video...

Common items that get 86'd

If your restaurant is 86ing an item, it is most likely because the main ingredient of the dish is out. If a few minor ingredients are out (like a topping or sauce), then a restaurant may choose to continue to serve a modified version of the menu item rather than 86ing it.

One of the most common items to get 86'd from a restaurant menu is a limited-time special. This is because these items almost always use ingredients that are not in the standard inventory for restaurants. Therefore, there might be a learning curve for those who are in charge of ordering inventory. At first, they may not know how much to order the new ingredient because it can be tricky to determine how popular the new special will be. If a menu item is also a hot food trend, it could easily sell out, too.

If a restaurant uses exclusively local or seasonal ingredients, it can be challenging to always make sure the same ingredients are in stock. Especially if your restaurant is purchasing local and seasonal ingredients from a farmer's market, chances are these ingredients are very fresh, possibly highly perishable, and being purchased in smaller amounts.

Certain ingredients are most susceptible to going bad quickly, and this can cause a menu item to be 86'd. A few examples include leafy greens, sprouts, and fresh fruits and vegetables. In addition to being on top of inventory, food storage is also crucial. If you're throwing out food often, not only are you wasting ingredients and money, your restaurant is increasing the chances of having to 86 items.

Items that require prep before the restaurant opens or service starts are also more likely to be 86'd. In a cafe or coffee shop, items like breakfast burritos and croissant sandwiches are prepped before opening. When these items sell out and are 86'd, they will likely not be back until the next morning. These types of establishments also often source items like pastries, donuts, and empanadas from local vendors; when these items sell out, there may not be a delivery until the next morning or a few days later.

How to stop 86ing menu items in your business

Chef 86 ing a menu item in restaurant

If the BOH staff is constantly shouting “86!” to the FOH, luckily, there are a few things you can do to combat this.

Keeping enough inventory on hand

The most obvious solution is to make sure that you have enough inventory on hand to keep dishes on the menu. When opening a new establishment or offering a new dish, it may be difficult to calculate this. You may start by keeping extra inventory on hand to ensure menu items don't sell out. This is more of a short-term solution, since you may be wasting food and money with this option, but any extra inventory can be incorporated into a special dish or discounted happy hour item to make sure it is being used.

For long-term solutions, It is helpful for one person to be in charge of ordering inventory so they own this process, and know exactly what is needed and when. Your ordering system should be straightforward and streamlined, with all the necessary suppliers you need lined up.

Use an inventory management system + other tech

If proper inventory management is not your restaurant's strong suit, then it might be time to upgrade to a better inventory management system. If your restaurant is doing inventory manually, an error is much more likely, leaving your restaurant more susceptible to 86ing items. Therefore, restaurant tech like POS systems, kitchen management platforms, and tech specifically made for inventory can allow your restaurant to 86 items on the fly and track inventory more accurately.

Forecast sales with accuracy

Forecasting in a restaurant means using data to predict how much the business can expect in sales in a given time period. Accurately forecasting sales can be incredibly useful for knowing how much to order. For example, the 7shifts forecasting feature helps to acutely predict sales and corresponding labor, to avoid underestimating item sales. Forecasting can help prevent a restaurant from 86ing items by assisting with inventory orders.

Reengineer the menu

Before your restaurant even begins serving food, you can design a strong menu that is less susceptible to selling out quickly. A smaller menu with fewer items will be easier to manage inventory. If you have a more robust menu, using similar ingredients for different menu items will allow your ordering process to be more straightforward.

Rather than just one seasonal dish or nightly special, consider offering two or three. In the case one happens to sell out, there is still another special menu item to select. Over time, you'll know what your best-sellers are—which will be more likely to sell out. Highlighting the less popular dishes on your menu will assist in assuring best sellers aren't 86'd from the menu every night.

Using the term Eighty-Six

No one likes when an item is 86ed; it can cause frustration with the back-of-house, front-of-house, restaurant managers, or customers. When an item is no longer available and removed from a menu, this can cause a restaurant to experience upset customers and lost sales. With consistent ordering, a streamlined system for inventory, a well-designed menu, and forecasting, your restaurant should rarely hear the term 86 being shouted from the kitchen!

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Ashlen Wilder
Ashlen Wilder

Ashlen is a freelance food writer and founder of Future Foodie. An online publication geared towards the future of food, dining and more. She has contributed to top publications such as The Spoon.