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Limited run, big buzz

It’s psychology so well established that we all understand it: We want what we can’t have, be it a luxury yacht, Michael Jordan-like skills or a sugary treat.

The latter has zoomed up on the desirability charts since Dominique Ansel Bakery launched its signature Cronuts in its New York City store last May. The creations (which are half croissant, half doughnut) are so popular that customers are limited to two apiece, and if you come too late in the day—after, say 10 a.m.—they’ll all be gone. Demand has customers lining up at 4:30 a.m. to ensure they’ll get a fix when the bakery opens its doors at 8.

Skip uptown a few blocks to Gramercy Tavern, and put in your order for an off-menu lunch burger quickly; only 20 are available, and when they’re gone, they’re gone. The burgers, known as the Spring-Rock Farms Wagyu bacon burger or Adirondack Grazers Cooperative burger, are only offered verbally in the restaurant’s more casual Tavern Room.

In Atlanta, the two dozen burgers at gastropub Holeman & Finch Public House, are dished up each night at 10 p.m. And in Austin, drink.well, an American restaurant, serves its housemade Twinkies every night—but get there early—there are only 24 of these up for grabs, too.

What’s going on—why the scarcity? Is this simply a buzz-generating marketing tactic or is there a practical reason for the rationing of high-demand dishes? Turns out it’s a little of both.

Gramercy Tavern only sells 20 of its burgers each day “because that’s what we’ve allotted for burger production,” says Executive Sous Chef Howard Kalachnikoff. Every week the restaurant buys a half steer that it butchers in house into items including grillable and braisable meats and Kielbasa sausage. “We use every part of the animal, so we have everything allocated. This allows us to have no waste.”

Holeman & Finch limits burgers to 24—though they’re unlimited at Sunday brunch—because the restaurant has a very small kitchen. “There were two shelves on our baker’s rack that held 24 of these” says co-owner Greg Best. “So that’s what we did.”

And drink.well keeps its Twinkies production small because it wants to use seasonal and local ingredients in the desserts and keep the costs under control.

This restraint, which has practical origins, has a huge side benefit: buzz. “When there’s demand for a product, the price will go up so it’s brilliant,” says Gregg Rapp, a restaurant consultant in Palm Springs, Calif. “It’s making the people who get it feel special and part of a club. It’s also getting the restaurant out of the commodity business—serving something different to what customers can get across the street.”

That’s the fortunate side effect of offering limited quantities of Twinkies at drink.well. “It builds intrique or excitement,” says co-owner Michael Saunders.

“The limited nature entices people,” says Holeman & Finch’s Best. “It’s incredibly difficult to procure one of our burgers, and it has the media hype of being a destination burger.” What has really amazed him, though, he says, is the continued success of the dish five years in. “Many people think it was a marketing strategy, but we fell into it head first.”

Indeed, drumming up Cronut-size buzz is like trying to catch lightening in a bottle. Ultimately, it’s about creating a great item that’s buzz-worthy. “The product has to be differentiated and exceptional,” says Arlene Spiegel, restaurant consultant with Arlene Spiegel and Associates in New York City. “If it’s not good, it doesn’t matter if they run out.”

That doesn’t mean operators can’t stoke the fire. To dramatize the nightly burgers at Holeman & Finch, at 10 p.m. a bartender pulls down a bullhorn, turns off the music and calls “Burger Time” with a big to-do. “It’s about the wait, the burger call, seeing them cooked through our glass window,” Best says.

When Hostess (makers of the iconic Twinkies) announced last fall that it was filing for bankruptcy and therefore no longer making the snack cake, drink.well piggybacked on that news with tweets and Facebook posts reminding customers that there was still somewhere they could get Twinkies.

Making limited offerings part of an overall branding strategy makes good business sense. “It allows a brand to position itself as being innovative and fresh,” says Spiegel. “What they’re saying is, ‘Hey, pay attention to us. We’re doing something innovative; we’re relevant to your dining decision.’ You need to have a strategy. [In this case,] selling out is part of the overall strategy, even if it happens by accident.”

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