Dining for Ducats

By Beacon Staff

The culinary world was abuzz last week, when the brilliant Chicago-area chef, Grant Achatz, decided to sell tickets to his newest restaurant.

This development was reported in the New York Times and here’s the deal: If you want to eat in Chef Achatz’s new restaurant, “Next,” you will have to go online and pay in advance.

Off-peak dining times are less expensive than prime dining times – somewhat akin to the way airline tickets and certain cities’ public transit systems are priced.

Let’s think about this: The menu changes four times a year. When you go online to make your reservation, you are also buying into the menu and paying for it in advance. Full-year subscriptions are available, too. If you’d like wine pairings with your meal, that’s extra.

A service charge is also built into the price of the ticket, so Chef Achatz will be able to distribute this part of the revenue to staff both in front of and back of the house.

Business management experts have already weighed in on the scheme and have given it generally positive marks on several levels. Let’s look at that service charge, for instance. Depending upon the policy of the restaurant, tips usually are distributed in a variety of ways. But ask any line cook or busboy and he or she will tell you they’re probably getting less than what they deserve because, in many cases, the distribution decision is made by the waiter or waitress.

In restaurant kitchens that I have run, the rule of thumb was that tips were pooled so that a reasonable percentage could be distributed to the cooks, the dishwasher, the busboy, the hostess. It’s not a perfect system, but it takes the decision-making by individual wait staff out of the equation. While a diner may only see the waiter or waitress, there are a number of other people responsible for the meal.

Since Chef Achatz has control over all of the money, he will be able to pay cooks more, and in the bargain probably attract greater talent to his restaurant operations. And the wait staff will make out just fine – I promise. The genius part of the plan, though, is that he’s getting money in advance – kind of like what department stores get when you buy a gift card and it goes unused for several months.

Online reservation-making is not exactly a new concept. It’s been around for several years now. There are restaurants in New York City, for example, that accept reservations online, but they also take your credit card number and charge you if you’re a no-show.

Chef Achatz, a culinary star for several years, came into particular focus after a bout with tongue cancer (which he beat, thankfully). Can you imagine a chef who loses the ability to taste? He made a full recovery, including regaining his sense of taste.

Paying in advance for a meal is nothing new, either. The term “American plan” came into being in the travel industry to denote that breakfast and dinner was included in the price of the tour. My father paid a full semester in advance for a dining plan my first year of college. (Moving off campus prior to my sophomore year was the best thing I ever did!)

Removing the business transaction from the dining room has a certain charm, I think. As I only know this chef by reputation, I am certain that he is confident that no matter where you sit in his dining room and no matter who your server is, your pre-paid dining experience will be memorable and delicious.

And isn’t that all that counts?

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