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Lessons From Restaurant Week

May 3, 2010

There is one big question that I haven’t adequately been able to answer about restaurants in Albany.  Although I think restaurant week may have helped to shine some light on the answer.

The question is, “Why are Albany restaurants more expensive and not as good as their bigger city cousins?”  And I’m not even just talking about Manhattan and San Francisco.  I’m including places like Providence and Austin.

Honestly, I think there are a lot of factors that produce the unfortunate price-to-value ratio that is dining out in Albany.  Now I make no claims of understanding the details of a restaurant’s balance sheet.  I am well aware that it is a difficult business to in which to make a profit.

But I am also aware that when I went to Marché midweek for dinner a few months ago it was empty.  Yet during Restaurant Week, when they were offering three courses from a fixed-price menu for $20.10 the place was completely packed.

People will come out for this.  People want a better intersection of price and value.

Is this promotion a money-losing venture for the restaurants?  I don’t know.  I certainly hope not.  My hope is that by offering a limited menu, not only can they keep food costs down, but they can manage their labor better as well.

And then it struck me.

It’s a complaint that I’ve had about Albany restaurants for some time, although I haven’t given it much attention on the FLB.  Restaurant menus are huge.  They are long and exhaustive, and for the most part completely unfocused.

My original concern had nothing to do with food costs.  But with large menus comes wasted product, and wasted product results in increased food costs.  This then either translates into higher prices or lower profits for the restaurant.  Thank you Gordon Ramsay and Kitchen Nightmares for reminding me of this simple math.

It is all starting to come together.

I am also beginning to suspect that higher menu prices are part of a widely used and unfortunate marketing strategy.  That strategy relies on the price of a dish to communicate quality to a dining public that is widely unfamiliar with good food.  I’m going to say this loudly:

GOOD FOOD DOES NOT HAVE TO BE SO EXPENSIVE.

And the inverse also holds true.  Just because it is expensive, doesn’t make it good.  So here is an important corollary: paying high prices for food doesn’t mean that you appreciate good food (and service) more.

Given the service issues my friends and I experienced over Restaurant Week, these beliefs are not widely held by the front of the house.  There are some people I have spoken with who will no longer participate in Restaurant Week because they continually feel like they are being treated like second-class citizens by the servers.

And that is woefully unfortunate, because Katrinella’s Bistro has shown that if you create a nice restaurant with good food at a reasonable price, people will beat a path to your door.

The same held true for Marché during Restaurant Week.

My hope is that someone takes a good hard look at the numbers from last week.  Maybe they will spend some time and calculate the price of a three-course fixed menu where the restaurant can still make money while producing dishes at a high level of quality.  Of course, they would have to scrap their current menu entirely to do this.

But it wouldn’t be a tremendous loss.

And perhaps with a smaller, more dynamic menu, they would be able to fulfill their promise of being a market-based restaurant, offering only dishes that are reflective of the current season.

Now I just wonder what is holding them back?

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarah M. permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:59 am

    I think the latter point (about price as marketing) is really salient. Mr. Sarah M. hates eating restaurant Mexican in the area because I never shut up about how it’s so expensive, when everyone knows that most Mexican food is cheap. He thought I was being unreasonable until he visited Austin for the first time. Last night during dinner he noted that we were paying $17 each for a dinner that cost us $9 in Austin, and that the $9 Texan plate had better ingredients and was generally more delicious. Granted, we were in Saratoga, where all prices are hiked up to satisfy the conspicuous consumption habits of New Jersians, but can’t they provide a local’s off-season menu?

  2. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    May 3, 2010 8:59 am

    And why are restaurants in Saratoga even more expensive than those in Albany?

  3. May 3, 2010 4:14 pm

    “And the inverse also holds true. Just because it is expensive, doesn’t make it good. So here is an important corollary: paying high prices for food doesn’t mean that you appreciate good food (and service) more.”

    And yet, people still make 677 Prime a destination.

    Many Albany restaurants have been around for a long time. Presumably, they’re turning a neat profit, then. So they must have figured something out, and there must be people more satified than you are with the value. And don’t forget that people empty their wallets in a restaurant for reasons beyond just filling their stomachs.

    I don’t think the example of restaurant week packing a place is really a good one. There are going to be three general types of people hitting a place during restuarant week: regulars, who we can ignore based on your hypothesis; people who have tried the place but decided it was too pricy; and people who are taking advantage of restuarant week to try a place for the first time. The mistake is, you’re assuming most or all of the people in an otherwise dead spot are the second type. I think there’s a not insignificant number of the third. You don’t know that people giving a place a first shot won’t return and find the regular menu worth their dollar.

    I don’t disagree that there’s such a thing as too long or idiosyncratic a menu. But I think that’s a pretty specific claim and if you’re pinning your percieved problem on it, you’d better be specific as to which menus aren’t ideal. Come on Dan, cowboy up; which restuarants are struggling (either empirically or in your opinion) because of their menus?

    I also agree that we could use more places like Katrinella’s in the area, especially within walkable downtown Albany and Troy.

  4. AddiesDad permalink
    May 3, 2010 9:31 pm

    I believe there are two reasons why food is expensive in Albany (and as a corollary Saratoga Springs): 1) Lobbyists have ruined it for the rest of us, and 2) Iand I don’t mean this viciously) a relative lack of culinary sophistication and loyalty.

    1) Many of Albany’s better downtown restaurants exist because lobbyists and their tremendous expense accounts frequent these restaurants, and don’t really care (sweeping generalization, I know) about the price. They want “the best”, and to them that means ridiculous prices for food, wine, and cocktails. Maybe because that’s how they perceive their jobs, as in “you get what you pay for”?

    2) I think the lack of culinary sophistication (and expectation) comes from the lack of a truly indigenous cuisine. Providence and Austin both have rich, local/regional culinary traditions where the core ingredients are available in abundance, and relatively cheaply. The also have a local ethnic character that has remained in those areas and helped nurture an appreciation for well made food at reasonable prices. Albany and the Capital District’s fairly high levels of transient peoples (college students, seasonal tourists, the ebb and flow of government related people) have not fostered a great deal of culinary loyalty and expectation. Perhaps even the tri-city (or more if you include Amsterdam, Saratoga, and Glens Falls) nature has been a detriment here.

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