Restaurant Week

Currently Boston is having Restaurant Week (which lasts, confusingly, for two weeks, till the 28th). For those of you who haven’t been exposed to the phenomena, it means cheap meals at fancy restaurants. Somewhere like No. 9 Park in Boston, where the three course prix fixe usually costs $65, will have a three course menu for $33.10 (don’t ask me what the $0.10 is about). It’s seen as a good way for people that typically can’t afford to eat at a place like No. 9 Park (e.g. poor students like me) to try it out, and a lot of foodie-ish people (a tribe to which I proudly declare allegiance) tend to become excited when Restaurant Week comes around. Unfortunately, I actually tend not to like Restaurant Week much; I think the food (and experience) you get is of much lower quality than usual, and the value you get for your dollar is often actually less.

The reason for this is apparent if you see RW from the restaurant’s perspective: since you’re charging less you need to make two big changes to avoid losing money– increase your volume of customers (so service during RW tends to be rushed) and decrease the price of ingredients (which I’m fine with, but which changes the type of dishes that you can make from what you’re used to. Most restaurants just take the expensive ingredients out of their classics, but there’s a reason those ingredients were in their in the first place). You’re also serving customers that don’t normally come to your restaurant (and oftentimes tend not to come to nice restaurants really at all). This means that most RW patrons won’t ever return to your establishment, so your incentive to put out a great product goes down (your regular customers have probably fled, because, after all, they can afford your usual high prices and getting a reservation during RW is usually a pain in the ass). Moreover, it’s elitist but true to say that there’s a portion of RW customers (definitely not all, but a substantial amount) that aren’t super-discerning and won’t know the difference between mediocre and excellent food as long as it’s served with the halo of your establishment’s prestige.

Add this to the fact that most restaurants that are actually busy during the week don’t participate in Restaurant Week (since they don’t need to), and what you get is a much lower quality experience then usual (and, I’d argue less value for your money). It’s already difficult to serve great food and make a profit; even the best chefs and owners usually take a few months after opening to iron out the kinks and serve a great product. But then, at Restaurant Week, you’re asking them do something substantially more difficult — create a similar quality experience at a much lower cost. Moreover, their incentive to achieve this isn’t nearly as strong as when they’re serving typical customers who will actually come back to the restaurant in the future. I think the final thing that makes RW meals particularly likely to disappoint though, is that the task the restaurant needs to perform is just different than the one they do each and every night. Asking a restaurant to cut their prices in half without losing a huge amount of money is like asking a great point guard to play center for a couple of weeks; great athletes might be able to do it, but it’s already difficult enough to be great at something you’re actually specialized in, nevermind something you have to throw together for just a few weeks out of the year.


2 thoughts on “Restaurant Week

  1. This was a really interesting post Josh. I think that, for the most part, you are right. What I will say, however, is that it isn’t fair to assume that every restaurant approaches RW with the mindset that they will still be profitable during the period. That is, I think a number of restaurant accept that they will lose money during RW but will make up for it over the rest of the year through customers that they win over during the visit. In effect, the restaurant offers subsidized food for the same reason companies give away free samples. While this theory would not apply to the elite restaurants who simply don’t need additional customers, it could prove powerful for competitive expensive restaurants. While I do not have much money, I still go out to a handful of expensive meals a year. I’m far more likely to go back to a restaurant that I “test-drove” and liked. Additionally, even if I don’t go back to a restaurant that I liked, I can tell my friends and family members about it and they may go. In a city the size of new york or boston this could make a difference on a place’s bottom line. Of course, this may not work if you are right about the people not being able to discern taste because then they could get the effect AND save money on ingredients quality.

  2. Pingback: Restaurant Week’s odd prices. « stone soup

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