The Price is Wrong
FOOD FOR THOUGHT - July 4, 2007 - Mark R. Vogel - [email protected] - Mark’s Archive
My wife and I recently celebrated our one year anniversary. We stayed at this exclusive resort complex boasting a 4-star restaurant that was rated one of the best in New Jersey. Literal white glove service, a renowned chef, and an award winning wine list to boot. Unfortunately there were multiple glitches, mostly in the service but also on the plate. The rack of lamb was served with two medium rare and tender pieces and one medium-well and tough. Non-alcoholic beverages were ignored or not delivered as requested and the dessert order was blundered as well. Inconsistencies of this magnitude are unconscionable at a restaurant of this stature. We could have gone to any chain restaurant on the highway and received the same service for a fraction of the cost.
There were also minor, but numerous problems with the hotel itself from malfunctioning equipment to uncoordinated, befuddled staff. The hotel breakfast was absolutely dreadful: hard boiled eggs overcooked until they were green, scrambled eggs overcooked to the point that they sported a dark yellow crust, and corn muffins that could have been used for racquetballs. And yet we paid a pretty penny for this (based on the price) inferior food and service.
Of the many factors that differentiate average restaurants from the preeminent, the priority of quality is undisputed. Quality embodies not only the quality of the food but the service as well. At the very best restaurants you have a right to expect the freshest ingredients, flawlessly prepared, accompanied by service that not only doesn’t miss a beat, but serenades you as well.
You would think there would be a correlation between quality and price and usually there is. Better food costs more money. Superior service necessitates a larger, more professional, and higher paid staff. Beautifully decorated, comfortable and spacious facilities don’t come cheap. Not to mention all the little amenities that upscale establishments provide. Clearly as quality rises, price will follow.
However, this correlation is more likely to break down if we allow price to take the lead. In other words, as price goes up, does quality follow? Ah, now Toto we’re not in Kansas anymore. I’m sure everyone reading this can think of an eatery that is overpriced (relative to its quality level), or that raised its prices without a corresponding increase in quality.
Or for that matter, when’s the last time you saw a restaurant go down in quality that then lowered its prices? Yeah right. When porky sprouts wings.
When the price-quality ratio fails, there are a number of reasons why it’s always in the favor of price. These reasons vary with the initial status of the restaurant. At a typical American eatery such as a family restaurant or one of a chain, the motivation to excel is limited. This is because there’s an ever-increasing population of people willing to compromise on food quality for convenience. When you have droves of customers with simple palates, accustomed to inferior fare, seeking to avoid cooking and doing dishes, there’s less concern for the price-quality ratio. The customers don’t care if the insipid chicken is relatively overpriced, (given its quality), as long as it has a modicum of appeal and is still within a certain price range. It’s worth it to them to forgo whipping up dinner for an entire family after a long day at work. Not that I blame these people. My point is simply this: as long as the establishment has enough of these individuals to grind out a profit, there is limited, sometimes no impetus to improve quality.
With upscale restaurants, or restaurants attempting to be upscale, other factors derail the price-quality ratio. Fancy restaurants can not rely on throngs of convenience-oriented patrons willing to look the other way in exchange for not having to do dishes. They’re niche is gourmets seeking an exceptional dining experience. Top notch restaurants are in a different class, endeavoring to attract a different type of diner. And there are two ways for restaurants to become part of that class: increase your quality, (with a concomitant increase in price), or just increase your price.
In the movie “Titanic” Kathy Bates played Molly Brown, the famous philanthropist nicknamed “The Unsinkable Molly Brown” for her tenacity, grace under fire, and selfless concern for others. Molly was what the upper class of the ship considered “new money.” Her family wasn’t always rich and socially elite. Rather, her husband had recently stumbled upon his fortune prospecting gold in America. The aristocracy harbored some disdain for her sudden transformation but nevertheless she was allowed “into the club” because she had money. Her proletarian roots caused them to still consider her less then, but her money awarded her instant social status.
I think some restaurants are like Molly Brown. The most expedient manner by which to enter the upper echelon of fine dining is to price yourself into that league. And much like a ritzy socialite who must dress the part, the pricey new restaurant will adorn itself with lavish furnishings, implement a dress code, and sport other posh ostentations. But, and this is the crucial but, will the quality of the food and service live up to the price? This is where the analogy with Molly Brown erodes. Molly proved she was a woman of character, indisputably more noble than the shallow, selfish, arrogant blue-bloods she bumped elbows with. Unfortunately for some “new money” restaurants, they don’t give you your money’s worth. Sometimes this is temporary as the new establishment works out quirks during its growing pains. Other times the lack of underlying quality is more pervasive. Most of these latter eateries, unlike Molly, will not survive their sinking ship. Even those who can afford the price will eventually stop paying it, if the price is wrong.
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