The fixed-price set menu is widely offered across Europe, but locally, it still has something of an image problem. Implemented wisely, however, and it can be a winner. By John Burfitt
The concept of the fixed-price set menu has come in for something of a makeover in recent years.
What has often been seen as a cut-price bargain strategy took on a new image when it began popping up under the chic-styled branding of ‘Prix Fixe’.
Any way you look at it, it means the same thing—the French term just translates as ‘fixed price’.
It’s a style of menu offering that has been popular for years in Europe, with many Parisian restaurants of all cuisines offering fixed price deals on their menus, both in tourist areas for visitors as well as in suburban centres for the locals.
Some Australian restaurateurs still insist that their two-courses-for-$39 deals kept their doors open during the worst days of the GFC, and it’s a regular gambit recommended by Gordon Ramsay to struggling businesses on his TV show, Kitchen Nightmares.
But still, it remains a tactic that some local customers see only as a novelty rather than a true value proposition, industry consultant Ken Burgin of Profitable Hospitality at Silverchef says.
“It can feel like it won’t be true value or maybe is a bit of a trick,” Burgin says. “We all hope it will lead to a higher average spend and reduce the complexity of the menu, but what it may do is just annoy customers who feel they have to at eat more food than they want to, or spend more than they planned.”
Burgin says serious considerations about customer demographics, along with their engagement and expectations, must be factored in before adding a fixed offering to the menu.
“It is a smart strategy for the kitchen management, but this needs to be a strategy for attracting and satisfying customers,” he says. “You need to ask: are you trying to force up the average spend by eliminating choice? That’s risky. Or, does it make for a simpler and more enjoyable experience because you appear to pile on the value? Then that’s a very good idea.”
A few more questions need to be considered before packaging up a fixed price deal, Jon Manning of Pricing Prophets says.
“The first is who is going to buy it, and that’s just as much a question about who the restaurant’s customers are and whether the product is attractive enough to be purchased. The second is will the fixed price menu cannibalise the existing business, and to what magnitude? And lastly, is there a problem I’m trying to solve? Fixed price menus might be a way to get bums on seats during quiet periods or an opportunity to experiment with new dishes.”
Three years ago, owner Libby Cupitt of Cupitt’s Kitchen at Cupitt’s Winery in Ulladulla on the NSW South Coast decided to replace menu pricing with two- and three-course offerings, with five choices within each course, for $60 and $80 respectively.
“People were only coming in for one main course, and that led to a back-up of dockets, and our great desserts were not being sampled. So, it was about selling more, of course, but also adding to the overall experience,” Cupitt explains.
“A successful fixed price strategy needs variety—a change of menu on a regular basis, with an interesting balance—to maintain interest.”—Michael Fischer, Michael Fischer & Associates
“Initially a lot of people were freaked out by it, but it really didn’t take long for that attitude to change. We had terrific results, with the customers spending far more time eating and drinking. Our positive feedback increased and so did our revenue.”
A year ago, Melbourne’s L’Hotel Gitan decided to open on Sundays, offering a set menu of four-courses-for-$50 and five-courses-for-$60.
Managed since 2014 by siblings Nathalie, Edouard and Antoine Reymond, the trio decided a more limited menu would prove easier to manage in the back of the house.
“By running a set menu, as well as limited á la carte, we could reduce the number of chefs required,” Nathalie says.
“Not only did that reduce payroll costs, but it also meant the introduction of a revolving roster so some staff could have Sundays off, which proved to be far better for them as well.”
The differences with a tighter menu—in terms of kitchen management—are that instead of juggling 40 dishes, only 20 items must be factored. The menu can also change weekly, as new products come in from suppliers.
“Even though it is a set menu, there is a flexibility to it that has worked for us,” Nathalie enthuses. “In a sense, it breaks up the week and it’s been good for morale too. The team really enjoy it and it’s been well received by customers. We’ve played around with it a bit, and that’s where the flexibility comes into it.”
Applying flexibility to a fixed menu proposal can make the difference between keeping customers on side and losing them, says consultant Michael Fischer of Michael Fischer & Associates.
“A successful fixed price strategy needs variety—a change of menu on a regular basis, with an interesting balance—to maintain interest,” Fischer says. “Be clear that this is a marketing exercise to encourage a customer to come to your restaurant in the first place.”
Fischer owned Barnabys restaurant in Parramatta over a decade ago and recalls the three-course fixed menu for $39 was always attractive with customers. The addition of side dishes and supplementary drinks was where a good profit was made.
“The secret to a fixed price menu is what’s on offer,” Fisher says. “Never forget a well-constructed and balanced fixed price menu is also a good way of attracting parties and functions. Give good price value in your menu and everyone should come out a winner.”
But as Jon Manning says, “Discounting is not for everyone—it comes down to know thy customer! An up-market restaurant may not want to offer a fixed price menu in the same way Louis Vuitton or Nespresso don’t discount their products.”
Michael Fischer adds, “You don’t want this to be a turn-off to existing customers, but rather a device which encourages and maybe increases return customers because of the good value. Ultimately, it has to positively reflect on the restaurant.”