Why not cater to those customers looking for a fine-dining experience, but through a more casual, cost-effective menu, asks Gareth Ogden
There has been much recent publicity around two emerging trends in the restaurant market which together raise an interesting proposition for operators.
First, an increasing number of classic, fine-dining restaurants appear to be moving away from the traditional à la carte menu to a ‘prix-fixe' alternative. Hibiscus in Mayfair in London, Septime in Paris and Eleven Madison Park in New York are just some examples of Michelin-starred restaurants that have adopted variations of a fixed-price approach.
At the same time, seasoned observers are beginning to witness a change in consumer tastes. Customers remain willing to spend good money on excellent food, but are also showing a preference for a more casual-dining experience, as opposed to the more formal, established, fine-dining style.
So, can the quality fixed-price menu approach work in the "casual" context and at less formal levels in the restaurant market on a wider scale?
The advantages are obvious. A set menu should allow the restaurant to focus on its most profitable dishes as well as speed up operations, reduce waste, improve customer service and deliver consistent quality. At a time when increasing rents and the impact of the National Living Wage are posing significant financial challenges to operators, the visibility of a fixed-price menu enables clear focus on targeting improved margins.
Five issues to consider before abandoning à la carte for a prix-fixe alternative
Target your offering
Identify your most popular, as well as your most profitable, dishes. An analysis of your POS data together with detailed costings should identify what should be included on your fixed-price menu. Don't forget to consider the preparation time and labour cost as well as the product purchase cost.
How fixed is fixed?
Are you offering a menu du jour? A discounted plat du jour? Is there a selection of main dishes from which to choose? If so, how many? All should be considered, but beware diluting the benefits of the fixed-price option by presenting too diverse a range of options. Consider limiting the number of items on the more complex and time-consuming main course list, while offering a wider range of starters and desserts to maintain the impression of customer choice.
A creative pricing strategy can maximise covers and ensure consistency of demand across traditionally busy and quieter periods alike. During peak times a premium offering might combine the standard set menu at one price alongside a "surprise" menu offered at a higher price, which could be regularly rotated. This may in turn increase demand for a simplified version of the standard set menu for Monday to Wednesday lunchtimes at lower cost for customers who are keen to experience the cuisine, but are unwilling to pay the premium.
Promote as premium
Set menus sitting alongside the Á la carte offering are often viewed as the cheaper, less attractive option for customers looking for a fine-food experience. However, if the set menu is to supplant the Á la carte, then it cannot be viewed as such and must be promoted as a premium offering. A taster menu has to be of the highest quality. Consider building in a 'complimentary' glass of Champagne to enhance the perception of excellence.
Don't alienate your regulars
The key to any transition is to engage with the local community and promote the added value and premium offering on the new menu. You have chosen to focus your efforts on a carefully selected range of your most popular, high-quality dishes. A discount for regular customers who pre-book to sample the revamped menu during a launch period can ensure their loyalty is retained.
Gareth Ogden is a partner at haysmacintyre
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