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Out (of pocket) for a byte to eat

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well”, wrote Virginia Woolf. A friend of Zeitgeist’s is coming to town on Friday for what will surely be a sybaritic weekend. For the first time, Zeitgeist found themselves on Toptable booking dinner at a very nice restaurant nestled in London’s Mayfair district. The reservation came with an offer of 50% off the usual a la carte menu price. What had Zeitgeist done to deserve this? Nothing. So what is in it for the restaurant? See previous answer, perhaps. As any Toptable devotee knows, offers like this are plentiful, and reflect the state of the restaurant industry as a whole, particularly in the premium sector.

Zeitgeist was walking in Notting Hill about eighteen months ago with, as it happens, this same friend. We happened to pass Nicole Farhi’s restaurant, which sits next to a Daylesford Organic. Both were teeming with people literally overflowing into the streets enjoying their expensive brunches. “Credit crunch, what credit crunch?” my observant friend quipped at the time. It was hard to disagree. The numerous plates of food and cups of coffee being consumed by these Chloé- and Zegna-wearing denizens were totally out of sync with the times. Perhaps what these people had been doing though is downtrading. Instead of going out somewhere special for a dinner, they had instead chosen to go somewhere more informal for brunch. Or perhaps instead of going away on holiday for a weekend break, they had decided to stay at home and enjoy the fruits of London. This is an anecdotal example but the argument is supported by the reams of analysis conducted by those boffins at places like Forrester and Datamonitor; JWT’s AnxietyIndex wrote in May “Ostentation is out, practicality is in.” Witness brands like Starbucks and Louis Vuitton.

It’s this lack of ostentation and sense of frugality (which, for the most part, still pervades) that perhaps explains why, writes The Economist, “Visits to posh restaurants in America declined by 15% between May 2008 and May this year… Fast-food restaurants, on the other hand, saw traffic decline only 2%.”. It would be nice to know how a “posh” restaurant is defined, but otherwise it makes for an interesting statement. The decline at both ends of the dining spectrum lends credence to the notion that there is a “cocooning” going on where people are quite happy to order in or to cook their own meals, surrounded by their HDTVs and microwaves. Clearly though it is the high end that is fairing particularly poorly.

The article notes that Restaurant Week – held during the dog days of summer in Manhattan, when the city fills with tourists and any sensible residents have escaped northward – lasts for six weeks this year, and notes that the 21 Club “usually sees its business increase by around 25-40%” during the Week. So, similar to Taste of London, the event must attract those who would not usually consider dining at such a place (for such a price). Are these the customers the restaurant wants though? No mention is made in the article as to retention rates. As pointed out in the Wall Street Journal, (which contains details of several interesting promotions),

“‘Having dollar menus and value menus has become unsustainable, from an operating profit standpoint, so restaurants need to be able to establish consumer continuity with loyalty programs. Instead of getting customers in three or four times per year for special events, they need to get them in two to three times per month,’ says Burt P. Flickinger III, managing director of Strategic Resource Group, a consumer consulting firm.”

The industry has had to adapt though as the Internet plays an increasingly dominant role in people’s lives, not only exposing the consumer and restaurant to every bad review detailing every morsel of undercooked food and every supercilious waiter, but also forcing the establishments to adapt to people’s psychology when shopping online, which mostly falls under the category of ‘bargain hunter’. A similar thing has happened with high-end fashion. Members-only sites offering significant discounts on luxury brands have sprung up everywhere. The Economist reports that two of these, Gilt and Rue La La, have begun offering restaurant discounts as well:

“Gilt, for example, recently sold a four-course meal at the Tribeca Grill, a restaurant owned by Robert De Niro, an actor, for $160 (36% off). Shopping sites like these attract image-conscious restaurants, because only the site’s members can see that the restaurant has started to offer leaner prices.”

The other lure for the restaurant in this case is knowing that those whom the offer will be seen by are likely to be a suitable target audience for your establishment; at the very least a more specific one than might be found on somewhere like Toptable. These restaurants are innovating (mostly because they have to). The prospect of drawing crowds is an attractive one. Sites like Groupon offer significant discounts on meals, but which only become active once enough people have signed up to the offer. Foursquare similarly relies on encouraging a group of people doing virtual battle in order to obtain a mayorship that grants them free coffee at Starbucks or free champagne and a great seat at Galvin’s Windows. In the long term, having offers that keep the customer loyal (and accustomed to a consistently-priced menu) will hopefully, for the sake of the restaurants, trump the savage discounting some have become imbroiled in. For Zeitgeist, value-add to the proposition is far more attractive than saving on a regular meal. Let’s hope others think the same.

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  1. August 23, 2010 at 9:21 am

    There’s one good reason for offering good deals on the food, restaurants like that don’t make their money from the food.

    They make their profit from the wine, and the water, and all the other “peripheral” parts of the meal that are not the food, like the coffee at the end. It’s why a good sommelier can be worth their weight in gold.

    We did a similar sort of thing a couple of weeks back, a £35 per person lunch at a very posh place in Bath, followed by use of their spa. Final price after wine and coffee was more like £50.

    If you are careful you can eat at some very good restaurants for not very much.

    • davidllewelynjones
      August 23, 2010 at 9:25 am

      So true, just like cinemas make their money from the popcorn etc rather than the movie tickets!
      Thanks for the insight.

      • August 23, 2010 at 9:41 am

        Exactly :)

        It’s one of the reasons I really like my very local Indian restaurant, it’s a BYO place, so they have to make sure the food is really good, and you don’t get stiffed on a bottle of wine or beer.

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