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Teaching to share

"Precious" was the last thing John Brandt-Lee intended his menu to be when he launched Avalon Pasta Bistro in the Philadelphia suburb of Downington, Pennsylvania a little over a year ago, with the forward-thinking idea of introducing diners to smaller European portions. "When we opened, I offered a shareable, small-plates menu that allowed customers to put together an a-la-carte meal," he recalls. "We explained our mission on the menu: ‘Avalon Pasta Bistro is a Tapas-style restaurant designed to promote social interaction while giving everyone the opportunity to try many dishes. Our portion size is approximately 5 to 6 bites.’

"Our servers were well trained to deliver the message, but the customers coming in had an Olive Garden mentality. They would order just one $14 plate of pasta and complain that the portions were too small for the price—even though they loved the taste."

Complaints grew so loud that Brandt-Lee had to change his strategy. He got rid of the a-la-carte menu and created a four-plate prix fixe. For $35, guests could order three antipasti and a medium-sized pasta and feel they were getting a good deal. It was the way the chef-owner originally intended his restaurant to work—multiple plates with multiple flavors—but in a different format. "Positive online buzz began to spread to the demographic I wanted to reach—young professionals and couples going out for date night," he says.

Once the word spread, Brandt-Lee was able to revert the menu back to his original a-la-carte, small-plates format—but only from Wednesday to Friday. Antipasti are priced from $7 to $10, flat breads like the popular ricotta, pistachio and white truffle honey, at $15, and pastas, $14 to $17. The change back has also boosted the average check.

"I really didn’t change the selections—I just changed the way people could purchase a meal," says the chef-owner. Nevertheless, "on Saturday nights we still have the $35 prix fixe," he laments. "We had to adapt—the suburbs are so chain-oriented."

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