Says Sean MacPheron in an interview with The New York Times. He’s the guy behind Waverly Inn, which sells $55 truffled mac & cheese to celebrities. He’s also the guy who’s allowing Tao, a Buddha-themed restaurant that sells $88 Wagyu ribeye to tourists, to open underneath his Maritime Hotel.
So to be fair, the dude clearly knows a thing or two about fake.
Benu, a two Michelin-starred San Francisco restaurant that’s famous for its faux-shark’s fin soup, has raised the price of dinner by $15 to $195. So a meal for two, after tax and tip, will now cost $502, or $888 after wine pairings — quite an auspicious number! All-in-all it’s a modest 8% hike. Also, Benu now no longer offers an a la carte menu.
The $195 prix-fixe is more or less in line with what other two-Michelin-starred restaurants in The Bay Area are charging for long tastings. Coi is $175; Atelier Crenn asks $180; Manresa is $185; Saison is $248. And $195 is also what Atera charges in New York, as does Blanca. Will Guidara and Daniel Humm’s Eleven Madison Park used to ask $195, but recently HIKED its price to $225, which is what Benu would like to charge, as we’ll learn below.
Benu’s chef-owner Corey Lee was nice enough to chat with us about his new pricing, about his decision to go tasting menu-only, and the debate over tipping. Here’s our conversation, which took place over email on Thursday:
Why did you increase the price of dinner to $195? Are rising food and labor costs involved? I raised the menu to $195 because I’m not ready to raise it to $225, which is what it should be. That would give Benu more standard industry margins. Are labor and food costs involved? Of course, but they´re two of many costs that are increasing at a pace much higher than what the public is ready to pay for these kinds of restaurant experiences.
How has Benu’s menu evolved as you’ve increased the prices? Am I wrong in noticing that the online menu appears a course or two longer than in the past? The menu has evolved tremendously. In the terms of length, I personally don´t think it is a good or accurate measure of value, but yes, it has increased. I think the more significant ways we have evolved are the refinement of food and products, service, and dining room.
Previously you offered an a la carte menu on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays. How have guests responded to Benu becoming a tasting menu-only venue? It was our guests who lead us to change our program. When I first opened Benu, I had intended for it to be a more casual restaurant and I thought the a la carte menu would be what most guested opted for. But it was obvious from day one that people saw Benu as a destination, special occasion restaurant.
We were preparing a large a la carte menu everyday and most people ordered the tasting menu. So last year we started to only offer the a la carte on the weeknights, but as that trend continued, we decided to offer only the tasting. This helps us focus and consolidate our efforts and resources on what most of our guests are ordering, and I think that allows us to offer better quality and value.
Have you ever considered adopting the European-style service-included pricing of The French Laundry (where you worked as chef de cuisine)? Some argue such policies can help reduce the income disparity between front-of-the-house and back-of-the-house, while others are skeptical whether a restaurant can remain competitive by going service-included unilaterally, because of the risk of service staff defections. That´s the business model of the restaurant I worked in for nearly a decade. So yes, of course I’ve thought about adding a service charge. But many American diners aren’t ready for service compris and I´m sensitive to that. We´re not the French Laundry. We´re a small, still relatively new restaurant and we can´t model our pricing policies after institutions that have been around for 15+ years.
And yes, I think it does help balance the income disparity between boh and foh, but because of the other argument you mentioned, the disparity will still remain large and illogical. For me, the biggest thing that´s overlooked is that California does not have a tip credit*. I´m shocked at how restaurateurs don´t mention this every chance they get. You emailed me to ask me about a $15 increase to our menu, but if we had a tip credit like New York, I could probably lower our menu by $20. So comparing boh/foh income disparities between restaurants in New York and ones in San Francisco is impossible. I think it´s ridiculous that we don´t have a tip credit here, and is an example of disconnect and ignorance in government, and also how our industry is still widely uninformed, un-unified, and immobile (Corey Lee).
*Editor’s Note: Waiters in most states make the tipped minimum, which is lower than the federal minimum because those workers make up the rest of their pay through gratuities. In New York the tipped-minimum is $2.25 for food-service workers, while the regular minimum is $7.25 for full-wage workers. But in California, there is no tip-credit, which means waiters must typically earn the full state minimum of $8.00. And in San Francisco, where the full minimum is higher, all waiters must earn at least $10.55.
The only states or territories without the tip-credit are Alaska, California, Guam, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, Oregon and Washington.
The House bill passed, cutting $40 billion from the food stamp program. President Obama has threatened to veto the measure. (Source: NYT).
Hooni Kim, chef at Manhattan’s Michelin-starred Danji and critically-acclaimed Hanjan, tweeted in August that guests should stop comparing his food to the (presumably) cheaper fare at Koreatown restaurants on 32nd Street. Kim’s tweets piqued our interest because his prices are modest; almost every dish at both of his restaurants is under $20. So last week, we asked Kim if he could do an email Q&A to find out what the fuss was about.
Here’s our conversation:
How often do guests complain about your prices? Most of my negative (3 or less stars) Yelp reviews are about the prices and portions. The complaints directed at me from customers is why at similar prices the portions in Koreatown are twice as large. Why we charge for rice. Why we don’t serve banchan for free as they do in k-town. Basically why we charge more to serve the same Korean food as k-town. My answer is usually the same that we serve better ingredients which cost more so we need to charge more.
Mario Batali’s most expensive restaurant will soon start charging its customers more and paying its staff more.
Del Posto, the chef’s Michelin-starred Italian spot in Manhattan’s West Chelsea district, will raise its minimum wage to $10 for non-tipped employees in October, general manager Jeff Katz tells The Price Hike. Because of the higher labor costs, and because of rising food costs, Del Posto will increase the price of its five-course dinner menu to $126, an $11 hike, and its tasting menu to $179, a $14 hike. Lunch will remain at $39.
"If you have a dishwasher who’s making eight bucks, that guy’s going to a see a $2 increase," Katz said, adding that the raise will be "sizable for a lot of the people it’s going to affect."
The new minimum will mainly benefit dishwashers, porters, prep cooks, butchers and those who handle linens, said Katz. “We hope it can help us reward some of the staff that had been with us for a long time and just get closer to the living wage, which, depending on who you ask, $10 is that number.” The new minimum does not apply to tipped workers at Del Posto, who already “do quite well,” according to Katz.
Individual restaurants don’t typically release pay data for competitive reasons, but Katz’s remarks generally fall into line with wage estimates calculated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics.
Torrisi, a Michelin-starred Manhattan restaurant that originally charged $45 for a progressive meal of Italian-American fare in a bare-bones environment, has moved even further in the direction of fine-dining, raising the price of lunch and dinner to $100.
The longer 8-10 course menu is a $20 hike from this summer’s price of $80, or a $30 hike from the former lunch price of $70. The extended 20-course tasting, which once reached $160, is no longer available. So the REAL COST of a meal for two at Torrisi, after tax and tip, is now $258, or $412 after wine pairings, which start at $60.
Jeff Zalaznick, a partner with Rich Torrisi and Mario Carbone at The Major Food Group, explained the changes in an email to The Price Hike:
Here’s the first of what will be an ongoing series of Price Hike interviews about how chefs at some of the world’s most expensive restaurants are reducing their reliance on (large portions of) animal proteins and instead finding luxury in vegetables and grains.
This phenomenon, which I’d argue is a magnificent one, (we’re all tired of eating giant slabs of pork belly), was the subject of my feature story in this autumn’s edition of Bloomberg Pursuits. It’s a story that’s been brewing inside me since my last meal at Dan Barber’s Blue Hill at Stone Barns in 2011. That dinner, priced at $208pp before wine, tax, or tip, was the first time I had a long, expensive tasting menu that was bereft of significant portions of meat. Briefly: I liked it, a lot. Even though I was a hint confused at first.
"Did I really pay that much for vegetables?," I remember thinking.
This is why Barber was one of the first chefs I turned to when researching my Pursuits piece. You’ll find him quoted throughout the story, but since he had so much to say (and since I only had 1,600 words), I thought I’d use The Price Hike to publish the first half of my July telephone interview with the nationally-renowned chef. Barber speaks about the perils of the so-called farm-to-table model, about the impact of vegetable-heavy menus on the “bank account” of the soil, and about why he serves a ton of beef in the fall.
I began my conversation with Barber by asking him to respond to this quote from David Kinch, the chef at the vegetable-heavy Manresa:
"I get asked all the time, ‘you grow your own vegetables, you must be saving money.’ We are spending three times more money than if we were shopping at farmers markets and picking up the phone and calling a produce company…What I also found out is that it’s not cheaper cooking vegetables. There is a tremendous amount of work from cleaning, cutting and prepping, just as much as with meat or fish." (Source: Find. Eat. Drink.)