In the previous installment, I bitched about two anti-consumer practices – slotting and herding – that upscale restaurants have developed to squeeze the maximum cash out of consumers. In a down-market economy, these practices must cease if restaurants hope to attract and keep diners, because most consumers find them an extreme turn-off. Diner loyalty and the repeat patronage it represents is the key to future restaurant health. No longer will restaurants want to attract a glittering crowd who hop from new place to new place garnering mentions in glossy publications and on websites, and then never returning. Loyal diners must be wooed and won one diner at a time if upscale places want to stay in business. Following are some diner-friendly principles that restaurants should adopt.
Part 2: Freebies and Wine Deals
FREEBIES There’s nothing nicer than an amuse. Chefs in the fanciest places have used them forever, little morsels delivered for free at the onset of a meal. This practice should be extended to places below the highest tier of white-tablecloth restaurants. It doesn’t have to be much – a few French fries with a flavored dip, a bowl of consommé with a small shellfish in the bottom, a miniature serving of vegetable sorbet frozen in a funny ice cube tray from IKEA – it should be tasty and whimsical. Not only does it jump-start the appetite, it makes the diner feel special and pampered.
WINE DEALS For too long the city’s wine lists have been absurdly skewed toward the higher end. Even in modest bistros, I often find only a couple of bottles in the $30 to $40 range, while the upper end climbs to $200 or more. Typically, the majority of the bottles will top $50. It means that I, as a wine enthusiast, will look at the list and find only a single bottle that I can afford and am interested in. This causes diners to order one bottle for three or four people, and then nurse their drinks throughout the meal, imbibing in small sips.
The opposite is true in Europe. There, the wine markups are very low, 20 to 50 percent compared with 200 percent or more here. There, one drinks copiously and well, and it’s common for diners to drink one bottle per patron in the course of a meal. I contend that, if restaurants put many more choices at the lower end of the wine list, and marked the bottles up less, the diners would drink more and leave the restaurant feeling more contented, rather than feeling screwed. Immediately, the restaurants would see more profit by selling lots more wine. In the long run, patrons would return and become regulars because they had a much better wine-drinking experience.
Special wine deals should be offered, based on bargains the sommelier finds. For example, a couple of more-expensive bottles should be offered every evening at half price (the way Perry Street currently does at lunch). In addition, every restaurant should offer carafes of cheaper house wine – there’s nothing wrong with unaged jug wine, providing it’s carefully selected.