Welcome back to Restaurant Confessionals, where we talk to the unheard voices of the restaurant industry from both the front-of-house (FOH) and back-of-house (BOH) about what really goes on behind the scenes at your favorite establishments. In this installment, we hear from a restaurant owner who has had enough with restaurant weeks.
As a chef and owner of a medium-sized restaurant, I have a love-hate relationship with restaurant weeks.
I'm talking about the one or two weeks out of the year where many restaurants in a city offer a special multi-course menu at a discounted price. On one hand, it is great to have your seats filled but on the other hand, it can feel like you are being extorted by the Mara Salvatrucha.
During this time of the year, it is not unusual for three people to sit at a table and order one fucking tasting menu to share among themselves. They share the appetizer, they share the main course, they share dessert, and they share a glass of wine—a fucking single glass of wine. No, they do not order an extra side dish; and no, they don't order a single extra beer or cocktail; and no; they definitely do not leave any extra tip. This translates into making roughly $10 a person. For a restaurant in the middle of a metropolis hub, it makes absolutely no sense.
The higher-ups that organize these restaurant weeks don't think about the minimum wage going up. They don't think about the price of food going up. Let's break down the simple mathematics involved when running a restaurant and you tell me if it is worth it. A restaurant spends an average of 30 percent on food costs alone. When you participate in a restaurant week, you usually have to discount 20 percent from your usual prices. Then, you add your overhead, which is 33 percent for an average-sized place. After this, you have rent, which, fuck it, let's go with 8 percent. You are now at 91 percent.
How, as a small business, is one supposed to benefit from this model?
This equation does not include the occasional food spill, worker's compensation insurance, or the fee—sometimes as high as $900 in some cities—that the organizers charge to participate, by the way. I guess you can just serve a bunch of vegetables and short ribs and barely get by, but do you really want to represent your restaurant that way? I certainly don't. I choose to offer my restaurant's heavy-hitting dishes because that is who I am, despite the fact that it may rely on pricey ingredients such as wild seafood or game meats. I do this with the hope that the customers will come back. I live on this hope factor, but at the end of the day, hope isn't going to put food in my kid's stomach.
What it all comes down to is people just wanting a deal.
Restaurant week is the equivalent of running a two-for-one special, so once cheapskate customers get a taste of that bargain, it is hard for them to return to the restaurant for a full-priced meal. After participating for a few years, I've never seen a customer that dined in during this time return for a normal meal. Restaurant week customers don't care that you slaved away cooking for eight hours to bring them an eating experience. It attracts the same kind of people you would see on Extreme Couponing. I have a restaurant that has 200 seats, so I am blessed in the way that I can swing this once a year. But how is a small mom-and-pop restaurant that only has 60 seats supposed to get by after tanking sales like that if they choose to participate?
I just want customers who will come in and actually want a dining experience, not people who want to come in to save a dollar. After all, that is why restaurants were made. They were made to dine, enjoy your time, appreciate the chef and service—not to rip you off.
And no, being featured on a website or being promised exposure is not worth any of this, no matter how desperate you may be to have your seats filled. If you do decide to participate, make sure to acknowledge that you are participating at your own risk. I know every single dollar that comes in and out of my restaurant, so should you. Don't let yourself be bullied.
Just do the math. Numbers don't lie.