The recession’s drain on sales in many high-end restaurants has set off a prix-fixe menu frenzy.
Knowing that an empty seat pounds the P&L harder than one netting $30 for three courses, fine-dining chefs have created clever but less expensive food options and found lower-cost marketing strategies to shore up those menus’ margins.
Several operators said their e-mail marketing campaigns are more effective than ever as an inexpensive option to get the word out. Others admitted the newfound necessity of updating their existing Web menus with fresh prix-fixe offers. While the most effective marketing tool of all, word-of-mouth, plays as prominent a role as always, it also is being used in more personal and purposeful ways.
Before the pricey Eleven Madison Park in Manhattan considered a lunchtime prix-fixe menu, a message announcing it was crafted as a thank-you reward to guests for their past support, said general manager Will Guidara.
Guidara didn’t want the new menu to be misconstrued as a signal that the restaurant was struggling. For maximum exposure, he also made sure to roll out the two-course menu deal during the busy Christmas season.
“You don’t want to be in the group of [restaurants] reacting to the problem once things have changed like they have,” Guidara said. “We wanted to announce it in December, so they knew it existed and would come back when business slows down in January. Fortunately, that’s happened.”
At Garibaldi’s Restaurant  in Oakland, Calif., owner John Hurley put out a recession-friendly prix-fixe menu nearly a year ago, months before the economy’s full-on collapse, when declining ticket averages warned that customers needed a price break. His three-course, $29.95 offer now represents 50 percent of all food sold, and he has yet to spend a dime marketing it.
“The prix-fixe menu prepared customers for the climate we’re in now, and it allowed us to get into our groove with it,” Hurley said. “The word-of-mouth we’re getting is great.… Our average check is lower, but transactions are up 10 [percent] to 15 percent.”
At Da Vinci Ristorante  in Boston, the backbone of the operation’s prix-fixe menu promotion is a small printed sheet that is presented with each check and details the Monday and Tuesday night bargain. When local media caught wind of the three-course, $29 deal, the promotion took off.
“We’ve been very fortunate to get a lot of publicity on it,” said Wioletta Zywina, who handles public relations for the restaurant. “We’ve done some with our e-mail list and a little advertisement, but not much. Mostly it’s our customers bringing their friends because they’re getting such a good deal.”
Like Guidara, Zywina said positioning the lower offer as a favor to customers, not a “we need help from you” desperation move, was crucial to elicit good feelings about the deal. Both noted that having a full restaurant creates a positive buzz amid the economic gloom.
“I think people initially think, ‘Oh, it can’t be that exciting for $29,’ but they come and see that it is, and they start talking,” Zywina said.
Steven Horowitz, co-owner of Margaux’s Restaurant  in Raleigh, N.C., admitted he was afraid to launch a prix-fixe program last summer, thinking it would harm the image of the upscale eatery. Sagging sales eventually made him afraid not to do something, and he went ahead with a nightly $27.95 deal.
“Yeah, I was hesitant to change,” Horowitz said, “but we’re not the types to stand around and do nothing, so we got aggressive.”
Drawing on his 6,000-name e-mail customer database, dubbed the Pampered Palate Club, Horowitz sent out weekly messages containing that week’s prix-fixe special.
“That’s about all the advertising we need to do with it, and word-of-mouth in a small town like this takes over.”
“Because some [reduce] advertising in tougher times, I think it becomes a more powerful tool, because people are looking for it and see only yours,” McClure said.
The result, he added, is a crowd of new customers coming to Starker’s, diners who otherwise might not have visited the restaurant.
“Because we are pretty pricey, this opens up our door to new clients…and makes it more accessible,” he said.
Even with the investment in print ads to promote the less-expensive menu, McClure said the prix-fixe menu holds its own on the P&L.
“The quality of food we’re doing for this is excellent, and that leaves some astounded that I do it for $33,” he said. “But let’s be serious: I’m a businessman first, and a chef second. So if you think I’m losing money on this, the answer is no.”