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.
Saison Chef Joshua Skenes responds to a Zagat interviewer's question about being “a restaurant that only the elite can really afford.” We like his response. Read the full interview. Saison, incidentally, used to charge $198 during the week, and $248 on weekends. Then late last year, they instituted a uniform $248 price point throughout the week. We’ll give y’all the REAL COST implications of that in a bit.
So writes New York Times food critic Pete Wells in his largely skeptical take on tasting menu-only restaurants, an odd, albeit interesting world where meals last over three hours, where bread courses are dictatorially delayed until mid-meal, and where dining rooms are filled by “big game hunters,” eager to spend a thousand dollars per couple for the privilege of feasting at a trophy establishment. Instagrams of the now-closed El Bulli must be the ultimate taxidermy, non?
Smart eaters will read the NYT piece in its entirety because it’s a fine lament on an expensive & idiosyncratic slice of modern gastronomy.
But what I focus on here at The Price Hike are prices, and it’s Mr. Wells’ statement about this “epidemic” of expensive tasting menus that piques my interest, as well as another one of his musings: “I can’t feel good about watching great restaurants that were already serving an elite audience taking themselves further out of reach.”
The NYT critic raises good questions. As much as I love American Omakase spots like Alinea, Blanca and Brooklyn Fare, committing the necessary financial resources toward a pricey tasting (or dealing with the subsequent gastro-intestinal distress) isn’t exactly my regular brand of bourbon.
SUTTONOMICS 101 (Updated): Here’s an interesting little culinary phenomenon. At Saison in San Francisco, it’s CHEAPER to order the 20-22 course wine-paired menu than it is to order the 16-course wine-paired menu. Well, on the weekends at least. The shorter menu is MORE EXPENSIVE by $26 for solo diners, or by $53 for a party of two. Allow us to explain.
Chapter I: The two-Michelin starred Saison charges different prices on different days of the week, a policy that helps regulate demand for more highly-trafficked days. On Tuesdays-Thursdays, the regular menu is listed at $198; wine pairings are $128. On Fridays and Saturdays, that menu goes up to $248, and the optional beverage pairing goes up to $148.
So after taxes, service charges and and a unique little reservation processing fee, a party of two on the weekend will pay up to 21% more than during the week. More precisely, they will pay $524 per person. But guests who opt for the longer, more exclusive Chef’s Counter menu will pay $498 per person, or $26 less. That brings us to…
Chapter II: The nice thing about the four-seat Chef’s Counter is that the $498 price is advertised as inclusive of tax, tip and beverage pairings. You know how much you’re paying, cut and dry. But $498 looks like a pretty steep price point, so if you don’t do the mental math the Counter Menu appears to be the more expensive option. But for wine-drinkers on the weekends, it isn’t.
To add another twist, Saison was actually asking $641 for the wine-paired counter menu earlier last week but then dropped it back to $498 in a fun little incident we reported on. The demand-based weekend pricing for the regular menu is new too, which explains why the restaurant presumably hasn’t caught this discrepancy.
SUTTONOMICS SUMMARY: If you’re dining at Saison on the weekends, the longer Counter Menu is the most affordable option for wine-pairing patrons, by up to $53 per couple. If you’re planning on ordering the shorter menu, better to eat on Tuesdays, Wednesdays or Thursdays, as that menu is up to $185 more, per couple, on Fridays and Saturdays. And finally, if you own Saison, you should make the Counter Menu the more expensive option on the weekends to preserve a sense of relative value between the two tasting options. Or more precisely, you should change your prices. Again.
On Tuesday, Saison in San Francisco raised the price of its most expensive wine-paired menu by $143. On Thursday, Saison in San Francisco lowered the price of its most expensive wine-paired menu by $143. Samuel Beckett would’ve been pleased.
We first reported the 29% price jump on Wednesday, which pushed dinner to $641 per person. A day later, a spokesperson for the two Michelin-starred spot told us Saison would keep the menu at $498, citing our coverage as an influencing factor.
This means the Counter Menu two is now only $996, down from a high of $1,281. Before the “Thursday Price Drop,” the 20-22 menu started at $400 after tax and service; the price only rose to $643 after the optional beverage pairing.
Wine pairings are now no longer optional (as was the case in the past) under the new (and old) $498 price. So for light drinkers, dinner will be more expensive. Again. Though Chef Joshua Skenes hinted in an email yesterday that he might make the beverage pairing optional in the future. Again.
The Counter Menu prices are also reflective of a 5% processing fee charged by SeatMe.com, the exclusive online reservations provider for Saison; all diners pay for their meals entirely in advance, like at Next in Chicago or Brooklyn Fare in New York. Chef Skenes told us that he’s looking to eliminate that 5% fee.
Here are some highlights from our Thursday email interview/ongoing dialogue with Chef Skenes:
Why did you change the price back to $498? I always wanted to stay at $498. Our wires got crossed. But ultimately we want to make our customers happy and make the chefs counter a viable option.
You previously told us that food costs for the Saison have increased dramatically. Most high-end consumers understand that rising food prices are a fact of life. So now that Saison is keeping the Counter Menu at the lower $498 price point, will it be offering that menu profitably? It is not very profitable for us. Almost every dollar we make goes to expenses.
Alternatively, are there things that you wanted to do with the $641 menu that you won’t be able to do with the $498 menu? So long as we can cover our costs and break even we are happy. This is not about money for us. This is about the craft and lifelong pursuit of mastering a skill. We want to give our guests the greatest experience possible.
I’m curious about the SeatMe fee. I understand OpenTable.com can be quite expensive for some restaurants and I understand that SeatMe makes things more affordable by not charging per-diner or per-reservation fees. But conversely, consumers are used to “free reservations,” whether rightly or wrongly. After all, we willingly pay service charges every time we buy movie tickets through Fandango, and we pay very expensive service fees when we buy concert or sporting tickets from StubHub. Are reservation fees the way of the future? “We are working on finding a way to get rid of the fee. I dont like it myself but I presume credit card companies are charging Seatme so I guess they have to cover that cost. Restaurants such as Saison that focus on quality make dismal profits. These fees are simply unaffordable for such a place (Joshua Skenes).
(Update: Michele Mandell of SeatMe.com notified us in an e.mail that the processing fee is used to pay for credit card company fees; SeatMe.com does not making any money off the individual transactions. The details are slightly more technical, and we’ll clarify in a separate post early next week, just so we’re not inundating people with Saison coverage.)
The Price Hike reported today on Saison’s move to “prepaid ticket dining”, a development that involved a $143 price increase for the restuarant’s most expensive menu, which now costs $641 after mandatory service, optional wine pairings and taxes.
That’s up from $498 earlier in March. Yes, that means dinner for two suddenly went up by about $285. Also included in those numbers are an $18 per person reservation processing fee by SeatMe.com, the exclusive “Ticketmaster” for Saison reservations.
Chef Joshua Skenes was kind enough to chat with The Price Hike, via email, on Easter Sunday, about the changes to his 18-seat restaurant. Skenes laments the “acceptance of mediocrity” among U.S. diners and says Saison is serving “the best ingredients in America,” adding that his two-Michelin-starred spot is a “relative bargain.” Here’s our full interview:
What prompted the Counter Menu price move? Our food cost has been averaging 50% or more for the last few months because of the quality of ingredients we are serving. The price of the menu is dictated by the price of the ingredients.
How will the Counter Menu change as the price goes up, from both a food, wine and service perspective? More luxurious and even better ingredients.
How have guests been responding to a ticket-only system? This policy of course has enjoyed success at Next in Chicago and Brooklyn Fare in NYC? Very well. Its a pleasure to see our guests have a seamless experience.
Do you think the market will support the higher price point for the Counter Menu? I believe so. We are fortunate to have such an educated group of guests who have eaten around the world and understand true integrity.
How have guests been responding to the higher weekend prices? Again, this has been successful at Next, but I’m curious how your own clients are reacting So far so good. As I said we feel very lucky to be able to do what we truly believe in rather than be restricted by a minimal food cost and be forced to compromise as most restaurants do.
Anything you’d like to add? Currently we are serving the best ingredients in America. I welcome the debate and I welcome people to see inside the kitchen. Saison is an open book. It is a relative bargain based on the solely the ingredients alone, much less labor and rent. I think one of the major problems high end restaurants that are driven by quality face is that America by a large percentage is so used to eating sub-par ingredients. Therefore the acceptance of mediocrity seems to be commonplace, which I also think is changing. But the result is a demand for cheap food or the perceived value is based on a number which has no relevance to real quality due to lack of exposure to such quality. Japan, France, etc are all good examples of quality vs. value/price. The restaurants there are very expensive by Amercian standards (Joshua Skenes)
The Restaurant at Meadowood still has California’s most expensive menu, at over $900 per person with wine pairings. But Saison in San Francisco is suddenly a strong second-place finisher, with 5% reservation fees to boot.
Dinner for two at Saison’s Chef’s Counter, after tax, mandatory service and optional beverage pairings, will now cost $1,281. That’s a $285 or 29% jump from the March price of $996 for couples. Solo diners pay $641 with pairings, a $143 increase from $498.
Those are pretty big hikes. And here’s what’s more interesting: Those prices reflect a reservation processing fee charged by SeatMe.com.
Allow us to explain: Chef Joshua Skenes’ two-Michelin starred spot has switched to a “pre-paid ticket” system, similar to Next in Chicago or Brooklyn Fare in New York. This change was reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and others in late February.
In the past few days, The Price Hike has obtained a little more clarity on pricing. The weeknight dinner menu remains at $198 for 16-courses, with a wine pairing at $128. Weekend guests (like at Next in Chicago) will pay $50 more for the same menu, and $20 more for the wine pairing. Call it a “rush hour” fee of sorts.
Those who wish to dine at the four-person chef’s counter will pay $298 for 20-22 courses, any day of the week, with optional pairings at $188.
The full price of dinner, service and tax, is paid for, in advance, through SeatMe.com. The website charges a 5% processing fee, according to a spokesperson for Saison. That means a part of two purchasing the $298 Counter Menu will pay $800 upfront, including $36 in fees (about the cost of dinner at Mission Chinese).
So much for the old theory that taking the receptionist out of the equation helps keep the cost of dinner down.
A technical point here: Wine pairings are purchased at the restaurant, not online, which means they aren’t subject to SeatMe.com’s 5% fee. Of course, the pairings are levied with an 18% service charge and local sales tax.
Saison should be commended for allowing guests to purchase wines at the restaurant, not just because it cuts down on the processing fee, but because it gives the consumer the option of deciding how much booze to drink on the night of the reservation, as opposed to a month in advance. We at The Price Hike believe that’s a GOOD THING.
But reservation fees will be more controversial. What say you, people of earth? Are Saison’s higher prices, along with SeatMe.com’s reservation fees, a BUY HOLD OR SELL?
Prices at many of America’s most expensive restaurants went up by $20 or more in 2011. Says who? Says our first annual Fancy Pants Menu Price Index. You’re welcome.
Of the 46 prix-fixe menus tracked by The Price Hike over the past 12.5 months, the median price increase was 10.55%. The highest increase came from the three Michelin-starred Brooklyn Fare, where diners might pay a 107% premium over last January’s price of $135 per person. The 30-course menu is now $225, with a $70 charge for bringing your own wine. Previously there was no corkage fee.
Excluding wine, the year’s biggest price increase came from Atelier Crenn in San Francisco, which hiked its tasting menu to $160, a 68% increase from last year’s starting price of $95.
Eleven restaurants, including Torrisi, boasted price hikes of 20% or more. Fifteen venues kept their increases below 10%, including Per Se, Daniel, Craft, Stone Barns, Le Bernardin, Alinea and L2O. Prices stayed EVEN STEVEN at a number of venues, including Adour, Momofuku Ko, WD-50, Jean Georges, Eleven Madison Park, Shaboo, Masa and the Top Chef Tasting at Bartolotta. Restaurants instituting price drops included Colicchio & Sons and Jonathan Benno’s Lincoln.
Please keep in mind that many restaurants added courses and luxury items as they hiked their menus; Brooklyn Fare and Atelier Crenn are chief among that list. So many of these hikes weren’t necessarily “more money for the same amount of food” propositions. Refer to our individual postings for more details on each hike. NOTE: This post was updated on 18 January 2012 to reflect the inclusion of Atelier Crenn.