Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Let's Make a Dinner Deal

The first sighting was in February in the Canadian press.
Pay what you want in this Montreal restaurant
Crescent St. Tavern hard hit by drop in business tries something new

Tough times, I thought to myself, demand unusual and inventive responses.

Three weeks ago, I saw the following headline from the Dallas Morning News in food industry newsletter: Arlington cafe serves gourmet food and lets customers pay what they want .
I read the article, which described a lunch spot that eschews fixed prices, and then promptly forgot about it. Then I saw an AP piece titled Spanish restaurant lets diners pay at will, and another from Reuters: At Sydney bistro, you decide what you pay which also mentions a London restaurant doing the same thing. The following week, I got a press release about all this from The National Restaurant Association announcing that dining establishments in Australia, Spain, and Texas- an interesting and unlikely geo trio- are telling patrons to pay what they can afford or what they think the meal is worth.

Do I smell a trend brewing?

Pondering this question, I suddenly remembered a conversation I had with Marlin Kaplan, the last time I visited Luxe Kitchen , his place on Detroit. It seems that as the world goes, so goes Cleveland. Because he told me that on a whim one night he randomly picked two tables- a group of ten, and a party of four-and offered to cook them a variety of dishes, served family style, that did not appear on the menu. Both accepted his offer of a multi-course meal. He collected some information about their preferences- pasta, yes, fish no, and headed for the stove. Money was not discussed. When the dishes were cleared away and it was time for the check, he surprised everyone by asking them to come up with a per person amount they felt was appropriate for the food they had eaten. (Beverages, tax, and gratuity were not part of the offer). Needless to say his customers were shocked.

“I trust patron’s better natures, and their impulse to do the right thing,” said Kaplan in a follow-up phone call yesterday. “They paid a fair price and we all felt good.”

If you go to Luxe and ask for the same treatment, he might be in the mood to say yes. Or he may just pick you out of the crowd, sidle up beside your seat, and make you an offer only a fool would refuse.

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