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S.C. operator puts pricing into customers' hands


GREENVILLE S.C. Some restaurants are so slow on Thanksgiving eve that their owners close up shop until their customers get their turkey, dressing and gravy fixes.

Carl Sobocinski thinks that idea is a bit bird-brained, though he admits that drawing customers on that day to Table 301, a fine-dining restaurant he owns in Greenville, is tougher than a turkey's wishbone. But a few years ago, he started working on how to make something — anything — positive out of what normally is a sales stinker, and this year he hit on a winner: Inspired by a similar promotion at a London restaurant, Sobocinski wanted to let Table 301 customers name their own price for their meals on the slow night before Thanksgiving.

Sobocinski approached his partners — Table 301 is part of a group that includes a handful of other restaurants in Greenville — about the idea and spun it as a means to market Table 301. None warmed to it initially, but he pitched repeatedly until they finally gave in, with some reservations.

"On the management side, the fear was they'd get someone who'd want to take advantage of the offer, leave a five dollar bill or nothing at all," Sobocinski said. "The wait staff was fearful they'd not get good tips. … Others just thought I was crazy, but I had more faith in people to do the right thing."

Food would cost what customers chose to pay for it, but beverages would sell for regular prices. Not only does South Carolina forbid giving alcohol away, Sobocinski "didn't want to have somebody ordering a $320 bottle of Opus One," he said, adding: "I didn't trust people that much."

Sobocinski saw three potential advantages: One, customers who imagined Table 301 as beyond their budgets could try it at a bargain rate; two, good will gained by the effort would provide free word-of-mouth marketing; and three, generating even modest sales was better than none at all.

An e-mail blast sent to the restaurant group's customer database cost him nothing, and it ultimately netted a pre-event story about the deal in a local newspaper. No other money was spent marketing the event.

"We did not go with a skeleton crew; it was all hands on deck because we wanted the experience to be like it always is," Sobocinski said. "The managers and owners were all there, touching all the tables and talking to guests. We made a concerted effort to do everything we should be doing."

At the end of their meals, customers received handwritten tickets with price totals only for drinks. Of the 50 checks presented that night — 130 total covers were served — 14 paid 100 percent or more of the menu price, 12 paid 50 percent or less, and the remainder paid somewhere in between.

On a typical Wednesday night, sales average $5,500, but on this night, the pre-discount total was nearly $8,000. Sobocinski said he gave away about $1,600 in food for the evening, making the net sales number a near wash compared to normal. He said the amount "invested" was about the cost of an ad in the paper. "But I got to give our food away instead," he said. "That's much better if you're a customer."

The good will generated by the event was priceless, he added. Customers who came were clearly in a good mood and joked with the staff about being there for "the five dollar steak" deal. Sobocinski said only about 20 percent were regulars, while the rest were newcomers, who perhaps had wanted to come to Table 301 before but thought it was out of their league budget-wise.

"Most were looking at the menu and saying, 'Wow, this is not as expensive as I'd been told,' " said Sobocinski, adding that servers also made good tips for the event. "Everybody had a good time with it, and it created a lot of positive energy in the restaurant."

The "pay what you think it's worth" promotion was such a success that Sobocinski will run it again on Dec. 22 and 23, both of which are painfully slow nights leading up to the two-day closure for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

"With everyone tightening their belts and watching their spending, we're anticipating it will be a little slower, so why not fill the seats up again?" he said. "We'll [market it] with the e-mail blast again because we saw that people pass it around. That word of mouth gets around pretty quick."

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