Restaurant weeks are a big deal among the millennial crowd. The day the list comes out, every other Facebook post mentions or links to it. And throughout the Restaurant Week period, groups of friends post dozens of photos of themselves dining at different restaurants. It’s clearly seen as an event—and millennials take advantage.
But here’s the current gripe buzzing around Chicago’s millennial crowd: How dare some restaurants try to rip us off? Do they think we are unaware of what it typically costs to eat out? Why are they going to charge $44 for a three-course meal that normally costs about $35. Nice try, bud. (FYI, “Nice try, bud” is an exact quote from a friend referring to the ploy one Chicago restaurant tried to pull.)
While I hate to give into millennial stereotypes, as a group, we do eat out a lot. For many—especially the city-dwelling crowd—it’s a big part of our social lives. Again, just look at Facebook. That’s why operators keep hearing researchers say that, for millennials, dining out isn’t just about food, it’s about “the experience.” It’s true. We are looking for something to meet both our hunger and social needs. But because we eat out a lot, many of us are educated consumers—so price gouging just won’t work with us.
I have to admit, I was somewhat disappointed in Chicago’s Restaurant Week list this year. While there were a handful of restaurants with great deals, a lot of the must-try hotspots I’d been looking forward to either weren’t participating or didn’t have their signature dishes on the prix-fixe menus.
That’s where the question of value starts to come in. If you’re a restaurant known for duck and there’s no duck anywhere on the Restaurant Week menu, what’s the point? Just because you’re a fancy restaurant that’s normally pricy, if you’re just offering short ribs and a pasta, are we really getting a good deal? Or are you trying to get us to pay more for your cheaper dishes, under the guise that diners are getting a steal for a multicourse dinner?
So I decided to conduct some observational research during Chicago’s two-week Restaurant Week. I asked around to see what restaurants people were excited about as well as which ones people thought were a good deal. I wanted to see what kind of diners the differently perceived menus might bring in, as well as check out how packed it might be. I hit two different restaurants on Tuesday nights—typically slower evenings. Here’s what I found:
($33 per guest; $40 with the addition of a cocktail, beer or wine)
Guacamole: choose two types from four
Ceviche: choose one type from three
Tacos: choose four types from nine
Sides: choose 1 from seven
Desserts: choose one from three individually
Total meal: two guacs, ceviche, four tacos, side and dessert
($44 per guest)
Appetizer: soup, salad, octopus or sausage
Entrée: vegetarian pasta, short rib, salmon or chicken breast
Dessert: cake or fruit-forward option
Total meal: appetizer, entrée and dessert
Clearly, Restaurant A was seen as a great deal by many. There were a lot of options, and diners got to try myriad dishes on the menu. The price was lower (operators get the choice of a $33 or $44 listing), so value perception was there. That price point paid off. The place was packed and tables were turning quickly. And, importantly, almost every table had cocktails.
Restaurant B, on the other hand, was maybe half-full. Also to note, the average age at Restaurant B was significantly higher than at Restaurant A. The menu clearly didn’t strike that must-try chord with millennials. And I can guess why.
Diners typically look through the Restaurant Week list pretty thoroughly. Most restaurants priced at $44 offer four courses. So Restaurant B’s menu felt skimpy. Plus, there’s nothing super special about the menu itself. Salmon, short ribs, chicken and pasta—that’s the most generic menu, even if spiced well, so there’s nothing that stands out.
There has to be a balance between an interesting menu (that includes some stand-out dishes an operation is known for) and a good price. Good doesn’t have to mean cheap; the menu just has to feel “worth it.” Otherwise, what’s the point of participating in Restaurant Week—both from the operator and consumer point of view?