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Recession-proof menus: Small price, big presentation

Phil Roberts scores in a down market with new dishes.

If operators have learned anything during the most recent economic slide, it’s that discounting food isn’t necessarily the answer to falling customer counts. In fact, forcing patrons to do something like using a coupon can have a negative effect on their self-esteem.

“Let’s face it, the people who have money still have money,” says Phil Roberts, co-founder of Parasole Restaurant Holdings in Edina, Minnesota, who has made a science out of understanding the aspirations of his customer base. After all, this is the man who created Buca di Beppo (which he and partner Peter Mikhajlov have since sold), a riotously tacky Italo-American concept that allowed its fans to feel not only comfortable in their surroundings but also aesthetically superior. His latest growth vehicle, Salut Bar Americain, is a lighthearted send-up of a Parisian bistro (“your neighborhood French joint”).

“We’ve got a built-in advantage with the restaurants in this economy because we’re not part of the Applebee’s and Ruby Tuesday fray, and we can tap into our existing value proposition,” adds Roberts. “We’re not going to do two-fers or cut the size of a steak down from 20 oz. to 14.”

Enter the Sunday Supper program, now in place at Salut as well as the Italian trattoria Figlio and the new Pittsburgh Blue Steakhouse. Each Sunday night special is positioned as a dinner for two-or-more, priced at $8.95 per person and featuring an item that’s not on the regular menu.

At Salut, you get a duo of four-ounce portions of two different kinds of fish and a salad. At Figlio, it’s an outsize portion of lasagna served in a cast iron skillet. And at Pittsburgh Blue, you can have pot roast for two, served in a beautiful cast iron gratin dish. “We spent about $90 on those gratin dishes,” he says. “It’s not the kind of thing
where people are going to be afraid the people at the next table know they’re economizing.”

With a food cost of 50 percent, Roberts isn’t making money on the main courses, but the items have brought in additional patrons, and the average check is $21, compared with about $28 the rest of the week. About 25 percent of guests on a Sunday night order the special, but it’s incremental business—at Salut, for instance, overall customer counts are up 4 percent.

The deal works not only because it brings in the kind of patron who is otherwise scaling back on going out, but because it makes people feel good about themselves, says Roberts. “It’s all about peoples’ egos, and making them feel like they’re getting something special, not that they can’t afford anything else on the menu.”

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