May 24, 2024

You’re the Boss: The Strategy Behind Prix Fixe

Chris Koszyk
Start-Up Chronicle

Prix fixe is one of the most misunderstood (and mispronounced) concepts in the restaurant world, right up there with sustainable seafood and organic salmon, which may or may not exist (but that’s another post).

Many folks in the Hamptons associate prix fixe with a bargain, an early bird special, a weekday deal in the middle of winter, or Restaurant Week. To them, a fixed price means the restaurant has lost its mind and is giving stuff away. Sometimes, it just means smaller portions and limited choices. If you are on a diet and a budget and a tight schedule, it’s all good. If you want the full experience of a restaurant, a leisurely, perhaps luxurious, evening, it can be less than ideal.

Truth is, some of the most elegant, expensive restaurants have prix fixes. Daniel, for example, has a three-course prix fixe for $105. Le Bernadin has one for $112. There are reasons, and money is only one of them. But before anyone leaps to the conclusion that I am tossing my own Southfork Kitchen into the pot with these establishments, please resist. I name them only to point out that prix fixe does not necessarily conjure Mother’s Day or Easter Sunday and certainly does not mean a restaurant is desperate for your patronage.

Southfork Kitchen is prix fixe now (pronounced pree-fix, not pree-fee, as rhyming, rapping Americans are wont to say). It is $55 for three courses — for the time being (even a fixed price can change). The three courses aren’t really three courses, more like five. After the brioche and whole grain bread, we serve three amuse bouches. Last weekend, they were arctic char tartar, oysters with trout roe, and seedless cucumbers with Meyer lemon oil and cilantro micro greens. And then we served a selection of petit fours at the end of the meal. One guest remarked that it was like a mini-tasting menu.

Why prix fixe? Let’s talk money. In October and November, we were happy to see anyone walk through the doors, as we were green and untested. The traffic we generated for opening in winter was rewarding, sometimes nearing 100 people on weekend nights. We couldn’t help but notice a tendency for guests to enjoy the bread and amuse bouche and then order only the mussels kim chi or maybe the fried trout or chicken. Soup and salad was a favorite combo. The portions were generous. We took a perverse pride in satisfying guests with fewer than three courses. It was not smart business.

During the break, in the deep frost of January, when we sat down with the accountant and pored over the numbers, our hunch was corroborated: we was stupid. The average check was a downer.

Check average is key. From the beginning, every business plan was built on that all-important number. Traffic was unpredictable, weather the same, the economy was in flux, but the check was something you thought you had control over. You set the prices. If you feed 500 guests a week at $50 per person, your total is $25,000. If the average check were $75, the same number of people, with the same servers, same dishwashers, same insurance, same public relations budget, same rent, same costs almost down the line, that total becomes $37,500 a week. Everyone in the front of the house ends up with a better cut — servers and busboys and back runners and bartenders. And your restaurant becomes a more desirable place to work, so you get the pick of the litter. Everyone is happier. Including the guests?

Those guests who enjoyed a couple of appetizers and a glass of beer can still do so, at the bar. The bar menu features mussels, clam strips, salads, a cheese plate and other goodies. But if the guests sit at a table for 90 minutes, tended to by a full staff, their $25 checks will sink the ship. The brunch place down the road gets more per person per meal. Sustainability starts at home — self-sustenance.

We were not unaware of these realities last fall, but one cannot rush to judgment; 90 days is a fair period of time to discern a pattern. We knew the check average was closer to $50 than $75, and we knew that over the long haul that would drive us into the ground, but we were refused to react impulsively. November was different and December again, what with Christmas and New Year’s, kids off from school, families warming up their second homes and not wanting to cook. Being new was a factor. For both good and ill. Locals always want to try out the newest place; on the other hand, we were not on many radar screens or an established part of Hamptonite dining habits. Then our first review, just weeks after opening, glowing in all other aspects, called us expensive. We were branded. Unfairly. That reviewer said we needed to institute a prix fixe. Well, we have one now, but it’s not what she had in mind.

I felt queasy, unsure about this prix fixe. Fifty-five is a large number on a menu where 18s and 30s used to be. And it’s pushy too — you have to order three courses, bub. Even with eight appetizers and eight entrees, and desserts to go, it gives the impression we’re bossing people around. Worst of all, the notion flew directly in the face of Hamptons fashion and language and expectation: prix fixe augured an obvious bargain, so $55 was going to look even larger than it really is, and who would take the time to figure out it was the same as a $12 app, $31 entrée and $12 dessert — forget the quality or the extras. Who would compare it to the prices at Bobby Van’s, for example, an institution right around the corner from us in Bridgehampton where oysters ($18) and salmon ($35) run $53?

Then I read in the Times that one month after opening, Colicchio Sons replaced its à la carte menu with a prix fixe dinner at $78 — three courses plus canapes and petits fours.

“It was a business decision,” said Tom Colicchio, the clear-eyed, shaved-head Top Chef judge. “It was the same thing I did at Gramercy about a month after it opened. Here a lot of people are coming in, splitting main courses, not everyone at the table orders an appetizer, and it’s hard to figure out the revenues from each seat, hard to plan.” Of 300 reservations, he also told The Times, only one had balked at the prix fixe.

I sighed in relief. I felt redeemed. If Tom Colicchio could open “wrong,” what shame should I harbor? And if Tom Colicchio could go prix fixe, it must be right. And if Tom Colicchio could announce that he wanted a higher revenue per person, then why can’t I?

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

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