Going for broke:Prix-fixe menus prod cost-conscious diners to spend more

Going for broke:Prix-fixe menus prod cost-conscious diners to spend more

At a time when customers are trying to get in and out of restaurants as cheaply as possible, convincing them to order more than one course might seem like an uphill battle.

But many restaurants, from casual-dining chain Applebee’s [3], with its Pick ‘n’ Pair lunch offering, to fine-dining independent restaurants like Aquavit [4] in New York City, say offering multicourse meals at a fixed, often lower-than-average, price can help drive business and perhaps win over new patrons.

Deals featuring an appetizer, main course and dessert are especially appealing to diners, says food psychologist Brian Wansink, author of “Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think.”

“We find that when people order a prix-fixe meal, they code in their minds that the dessert is a bonus,” he says, and that by accepting constraints on their choices for the first two courses, they feel they get the third one for free.

He also says narrowing people’s choices helps them to order.

“It’s something called constrained volition,” he says. “The paradox of choice can freeze you.”

By picking just a few options for the diners, they feel more confident that they will make good choices.

“You know that [a dish is] not going to be terrible, or the restaurant wouldn’t have singled it out.”

Cashing in on restaurant week

A growing number of communities have initiated “restaurant week,” during which participating eateries offer multicourse meals at cut-rate prices.

In New York City, one of the first communities to implement such a promotion, many restaurants—including the bar-cafe areas of fine-dining restaurants Aquavit and Jean Georges—have found those fixed-priced menus so popular among their guests that they offer them all year long. Additionally, this year the city extended its restaurant “week” to two weeks, giving customers a reason to venture out during the usually slow second half of January.

Atlantic City, N.J., had its first restaurant week this year, and it was successful enough that most participating restaurants signed on for a second week.

“It went great,” says Jeff Vasser, president of the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority, which sponsored the promotional event. “We were hoping to get maybe 25 restaurants involved, and we got 75.”

Participating restaurants offered $15 lunches and $33 dinners, with the hope that customers attracted to the restaurant for the first time might become regulars.

Restaurant week has different effects at different restaurants, operators report. In the past, some have said that, even though customers are lured through their doors by low prices, once they sit down they order whatever they feel like, whether it’s on the special menu or not. As a result, check averages stay about the same.

Others, however, see precipitous drops in their check averages, as they serve customers who come in for the special price and stick to that price, and whom the restaurant likely will never see again.

But even in the latter case, there can be benefits. Vasser says that even if check averages go down, “there’s revenue that you wouldn’t have had without restaurant week.” And, of course, some of those customers might come back.

Marly Miller, program manager for the University of Southern California and a former publicist for Restaurant Associates in New York—now Patina Group [5]—said that whether a restaurant capitalizes successfully on restaurant week depends ultimately on the attitude of management and staff.

“If a customer enjoys his or her experience, it can be considered a trial experience gone good, and you more likely than not end up with a customer who will return again,” she said in comments to the NRN blog Food Writer’s Diary.

However, she added, if restaurants give customers portions that are too small or if waiters are too aggressive with the upsell, “or worse, give attitude if the prix-fixe is all that is ordered,” then the diners will have a bad experience and they usually won’t return.

“If those people are treated like royalty and enjoy their meal, they will spread the word and return to experience meals during more expensive non-restaurant-week times. However, if restaurant guests feel unwelcome or cheated, the chance to have them back as guests or fans is lost,” she said.

In Atlantic City, Vasser points out that, since not all of the participating restaurants signed on for the second week—53 out of 75 did—some restaurants clearly didn’t see an advantage in the promotion. He says he’s still waiting for reports on how sales of drinks, both alcoholic and nonalcoholic, benefited from restaurant week.

Fast and cheap

Many restaurants these days also are launching deals on their own, without the help of their local convention and visitors bureaus, which typically organize and market restaurant week-style promotions.

Macelleria [6] in launched an $8 “pranzo veloce,” or express lunch, with options such as a BLT with a cup of tomato soup and house-made potato chips; an omelet with choice of two ingredients, house salad and roasted potatoes; or eggplant Parmigiana with a house salad.

Owner Violetta Bitici says she got the idea when her little sister was put on a strict $8 lunch budget at work. Few New Yorkers have the inclination to bring food from home, she says, yet good $8 lunches are hard to find.

“I felt such a need to fill that void,” Bitici says. To design the menu, “I made things that I like and that I seek out when I’m on a budget myself.”

She ran the items past friends who work in offices and they approved.

She hasn’t marketed the lunch much yet, but, she says, it’s doing very well.

Beyond bento

Bento boxes, fast lunches particularly popular in Japanese train stations, have taken hold in American restaurants. Served in compartmentalized boxes, like nicer versions of TV dinners, typical lunches include a salad or other vegetable, starch, center-of-the-plate protein and appropriate sides and condiments.

Wave at the W hotel in Chicago, recently rolled out a similar lunch, but this one is Indian-style and served in stackable round metal boxes called tiffins. Wave’s shiny, stainless steel boxes are a little more up-scale than the typical tin boxes.

The $13 tiffin lunch comes with chopped salad in one box, Wisconsin fontina and Parmesan croquettes in another, vegetable couscous salad in a third, and then a choice of grilled chicken tikka with coriander peanut chutney or buttered spiced lentils and warm chapatti bread.

A tiffin dinner, $19, also has the salad, cheese croquettes and couscous and main courses, but has the additional option of lamb tajine with preserved lemons and dates.

“I really wanted to put a sampler with different textures and tastes on the menu,” says chef Kristine Subido, who was given a tiffin for her birthday. “It’s kind of a fancy lunchbox. I actually have my husband using it to take his lunch to work,” she says. That’s where the idea came from.”

Typically, a stack of tiffin boxes is held together in a metal frame with a handle on top for ease in carrying.

“Everyone’s doing a bento box,” Subido says. “We wanted to make this our own, and put our own spin to it,” she says.

She points out that all of the items are easy and quick to prepare, meaning they are low stress for the kitchen and can be quickly served to guests. She adds that the dishes can be eaten as a full meal for one person or shared as an appetizer for a group.

“And you can’t beat the price,” she says. If the tiffin proves popular, she might buy tiffins with frames and a handle for customers to purchase once and then reuse.

“They’re pre-cycling,” she says.