December 5, 2023

You’re the Boss: So Far, Our New Pricing Strategy Is Working

Mussels kimchi.Chris Koszyk Mussels kimchi.
Start-Up Chronicle

When Colicchio Sons switched to a prix fixe only one month after opening in January, I had to smile. Excellent timing. For me, if not them. We were entertaining the same change during our hiatus at Southfork Kitchen. (Restaurant definition of hiatus: stop serving, start debating.)

When Tom Colicchio said that only one out of 300 diners protested the change, it was encouraging: an owner institutes a new policy, guests adapt and accept readily, and everyone comes out ahead. Mr. Colicchio’s decision informed our decision; it was as if he cast the tie-breaking vote, like a virtual vice president in actual absentia.

We went to a $55 three-course prix fixe when we reopened in March. The few random complaints were rescinded by evening’s end when guests realized they were receiving good value. Or, if they were not desirous of a full meal, they ate very well at the large bar, à la carte. We will never know how many potential diners avoided us because of the prix fixe, or how many were displeased but too civilized or bashful to say something. All in all, check averages increased and traffic remained steady.

Everything about the prix fixe has been positive. It helps the restaurant run smoothly because every guest at every table is ordering the same course at the same time, sharing expectations and rhythms.

Block Island squid a la plancha.Chris Koszyk Block Island squid a la plancha.

And maybe food: we don’t charge for sharing; in fact, we commend it. Part of our mission, if I may step onto a low soapbox for a moment, is to coax people to taste food they are squeamish about or unaccustomed to; we’d like to dispel falsehoods about mackerel and shad roe, rabbit and duck foie gras. The relationship between canned sardines and the genuine article from the ocean is the difference between high school Sondheim and Broadway. Sardines are highly sustainable, tasty and healthful, and they can hit high notes.

It used to be that a table of four would have one guest ordering two appetizers, another ordering the chicken with no appetizer, and two others ordering the full monty. If you don’t order an appetizer, the chicken is a long time coming. It is cooked to order and cannot be rushed. Now, everyone gets bread and butter and honey, three amuse bouches, an appetizer, an entrée, a dessert, and petit fours. If you don’t have room for dessert, we make them to travel neatly — a cookie assortment, a cheese plate.

This does wonders for the kitchen. When one order comes in, the amuse bouches go out — a thank you from the chef as well as a preview. The appetizer will arrive at the table 10 or 12 minutes later. The runners or servers keep an eye on the table and let the kitchen know when the guests are halfway through their appetizers, and then the entrees are fired. Depending on how talkative or unhurried a table is, entrees should arrive between 20 and 30 minutes after the appetizers are done. No one is pushing anyone. Some tables are languid; others are fidgety and clock-watching. We take a measure of leisureliness.

The prix fixe has also aided food sourcing and buying; since guests are less concerned with price point — no longer tilting toward appetizers, pasta and poultry — they can be more adventurous or whimsical. We sell more of everything, and waste less. Sustainability involves using every inch of an animal, so the amuse bouches can incorporate the fish that is shaved from the filet or the extra oysters. When people were ordering an array of appetizers, mussels might disappear early one night and clam strips the next. Trout could fly or just lie there like a lox. We could never tell. Patterns were weird. Now, everything is moving at comparable and predictable speeds.

I know: this is all sounds like the prix fixe stacks the cards in our favor, with wanton disregard for the guests. That is not totally untrue. We do want to guide the passengers and steer the ship, gently and wisely, in as friendly a manner as possible. We have a reduced prix fixe pour les enfants. We avoid supplemental fees like $8 extra for lobster, $10 for caviar, stuff like that. We do not skimp on any portions. Rather than seeing a prix fixe as a trap or a strait jacket, guests can peer into their future: They know the final bill before they order — before they even arrive at the restaurant.

Everything was going so smoothly with us that I was gobsmacked to read that Colicchio Sons had unfixed their prices. “People were not happy with paying prix fixe,” said Tom Colicchio, owner of 24 restaurants and innumerable awards. “We listen to what customers are telling us. I’m not going to be stubborn. When we call to confirm a reservation, and make sure they know about the prix fixe, they often say no, they don’t want to do that.” They didn’t want dessert. They didn’t want to spend $78. They didn’t want to be pushed around. Not even by the charming generalissimo of Top Chef.

What happened to the 300-to-one vote in favor of the prix switch? What happened to Mr. Colicchio’s problems with dish-sharing and under-ordering? What prompted the second change? Mr. Colicchio assured that it was not a disappointing review as much as the slumping economy — but the economy had not slumped since his opening. “We’re not afraid to make changes,” he said.

That’s what he had said before the last change. First à la carte was a mistake. Now prix fixe was a mistake. Are there any other options? How often can a stable, reliable restaurant change its policy in a month? I called Mr. Colicchio several times hoping to discuss his thinking, but I never heard back.

In the meantime, our prix fixe is fixed. I sure hope I don’t have to eat my words. I wouldn’t know if I should charge myself per word or for the whole sentence.

Bruce Buschel owns Southfork Kitchen, a restaurant in Bridgehampton, N.Y.

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