Prix-Fixe Party Time
From the promise of quick, pre-theater dinners to the grandiosity of New Year’s Eve fetes, multi-course, fixed-price menus serve different purposes.
Nicholas Makris describes prix-fixe menus as “an experience, a big blow-out, a platform for adventuresome guests,” and that pretty much explains why they show up at many restaurants during the holiday season.
With dual careers, Makris—an assistant professor of food and beverage management at Johnson & Wales University and owner of Andreas restaurant in Providence, R.I.—views them from different perspectives. As an instructor, he rattles off all kinds of reasons operators and guests love them.
“One way to entice guests is to offer something different at the holidays, allow them to experience a little more than usual,” he recommends. “Guests appreciate the structure, the communal aspects of a set menu. It feels more like family and that’s important at holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas. And there’s usually an element of splurge—and who doesn’t love that?”
Restaurants feel the set-menu love, too. Much more so than with ala carte offerings, prix-fixe menus allow operators to keep a sharp eye on costs, project ordering and have a solid handle on preparation.
“They know exactly what people will order and on busy nights that can be a huge advantage for staff. They won’t get slammed. And staffing is easier since you know head counts and prep needs,” Makris notes.
Craig Barbour, chef/owner of Roots Catering and Café in Charlotte, N.C., acknowledges that the familiarity of set menus is a boon. “When you do them, it becomes clear what guests prefer," he says. "With a little history, you learn to hone in on what sells and can really work the crowd pleasers."
Makris tells students that the most successful prix-fixe menus, holiday or otherwise, should align with the concept. “It’s OK to go out there a bit with special ingredients, but don’t stray from what your kitchen is known for,” he advises. He also warns against too much rigidity. “You don’t want guests to put handcuffs on them. Build in some flexibility, especially for those who have allergies or dietary restrictions.”
He’s a fan of having at least two offerings, a three- and a five-course and an even bigger fan of building in extra "oomph." “Shake things up with a little flair. Holidays tend to bring out people who are celebrating, and the best menus will become part of their experience, a big part of what they remember.”
Prix fixe doesn’t have to be limited only to splashy holidays. Here are other scenarios to consider to help build business:
- Pre-theater/event menus offered during defined hours, say 5:30 to 7:30
- A mix of ala carte and prix-fixe offerings on the regular menu gives diners the option to explore the kitchen’s full capabilities
- Two- to three-course quick lunches can help assure diners that they can keep to their busy schedules
- Restaurant week, wine dinners, special events and the like bring built-in opportunities to promote the restaurant and entice regulars with unique menu offerings