The Fix Is In
A few years ago, the BBC began to show a TV program “Remarkable Places To Eat”. Famous chefs and restaurateurs would visit different parts of the world and introduce the viewer to some of their much-loved and often less well-known restaurants and cafés. One of my favourite episodes was from Paris, with Fred Sirieix and Michel Roux Jr. One of the places they visited was La Tour d’Argent, situated on the banks of the river Seine. La Tour d’Argent can trace its history back to the 16th century and as one can image has many traditions as well as a colourful past.
One of these traditions, regarding their menus, stood out to me. When their waiters bring menus to the table, they bring two different types. The main menu with the prices on it is given to the host of the table, usually whoever has booked it, with everyone else on the table being given a similar menu – minus the prices. The idea being that as guests of your host you shouldn’t have to worry about what anything costs but should just order whatever you fancy. Scary!
Of course, for most of us whether we like it or not, the price of what we order in a pub, bar or restaurant has a part to play in our decision-making process. One of the ways operators deal with this is by offering fixed or set priced menus. But what are the benefits to operators and indeed customers of this and what other things should be taken into consideration?
What’s in it for me
There are a number of different reasons for operators to offer their guests a fixed price menu, but one of the key benefits for me is it is a great way to help manage costs. By their very nature set menus have a limited number of items on them and this should reduce the range of ingredients that you need to buy in and store on a regular basis. This in turn should help reduce waste, one of the hidden costs when it comes to profitability.
It can also make your front and back of house teams’ life easier. The fewer options on the menu, the easier it is for servers to take and manage orders, and of course it will also be easier for your chefs to prepare, cook and plate the dishes.
Rather than a regular feature, some operators like to use fixed price menus as a marketing tool. They will use them to create a buzz around their venue, with them often themed around special occasions such as Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Christmas etc. This can also be a good way of attracting new and different customers to your outlet.
Using a fixed price menu can also be a great way of promoting a profitable menu item. When there are lots of different options on a regular menu some items can almost get lost. By including them on a fixed price menu you will almost always increase the number of times they are ordered.
What’s in it for them
And it’s not just operators who can benefit from the option of a set menu there are also many benefits for your customers as well. In the same way that less options makes it easier for your staff, the same is also true for your customers. People are often asked to make difficult decisions throughout the course of any given day, so the last thing they often want is to have to do the same when ordering a meal. In recent years even the likes of McDonalds have looked to remove items from what was becoming an increasingly difficult menu for customers to navigate.
Another advantage for customers is that with set menus typically offering 2 or 3 course options they get to try more dishes than they normally would. When ordering from a regular menu many customers only order one dish.
Having said that, operators aren’t restricted to just offering 2 or 3 courses. In fact, more upmarket restaurants often use the same principals for their tasting menu’s, which can range for 6 to 13 courses! For example, at the time of writing this, Kitchen Table in London offer a 12-course tasting menu for £150pp, not including wine.
The rule of three
One potential danger with a fixed price menu is it can feel forced. The standard way around this is to offer two options, a 2-course option and then a 3-course option. The 2-courses should always be main plus a choice of either a starter or dessert, with the 3-course including all three. That way your guests can feel they have a degree of choice and don’t have to order courses they don’t want to.
When it comes to how many options you should provide for each course it’s generally recognised that this should be 3, although I can make a case for 4 when it comes to the main course. As a rule of thumb, for the starters and main there should be a meat, fish and vegetarian (possibly vegan these days) option. Preferably at least one of these should feature seasonal items. And for dessert you would ideally want at least one hot and one cold option, as well as something which is non-dairy.
When it comes to items such as cheese & biscuits and teas & coffees, these are usually charged as extras, which may provide an opening to upsell. In a similar way there may also be an opportunity to offer a deal on drinks, usually alcohol, to accompany the meal. In more fine dining settings this may be a matching drinks ‘flight’ or at a more basic level a good deal on a bottle of house wine.
Name of the game
Finally, it’s also worth giving some thought to how you position your fixed price offer. As we have already discussed at the higher end of the market the term ‘Tasting Menu’ is often used, which definitely has a premium feel. Depending on your intended audience simply using ‘Set Price’ or ‘Set Menu’ might be sufficient. Alternatively, you can adopt a more continental approach and use the likes of ‘Table d’Hote’ or ‘Menu Du Jour’. The key is to make the offer as appealing as you can to the customers it is aimed at. You want to encourage them to choose it not put them off.