224: Number of eateries participating in Restaurant Week last summer.
204: Number expected to participate this summer.
THE IDEA OF BRINGING IN A DIFFERENT segment of clientele is attractive to a higher-end restaurant like Lumiere, and over the years we did well with Restaurant Week. But under the program, the price of the prix fixe meal goes up only a penny a year, and in the past decade, my costs — across the board — have risen significantly more than that. For example, there was a year when my health insurance went up 30 percent. For a small business, that’s very difficult to absorb.
At $33.12 a meal during Restaurant Week, it’s not feasible anymore for us to serve the food we normally do, or even to serve a reasonable facsimile. I couldn’t serve the rib-eye steak and scallops from our regular menu, but people had that expectation. They thought, “I’m going to get it at half the price.” I’d love to be able to do that, but this isn’t a charitable organization. And it’s not like we picked up a lot of regulars — certainly not enough to justify two weeks of losses. Instead, we’re offering our own $45 three-course prix fixe throughout the month.
The crux of the problem is this: Anybody can put the same idea on the menu and get the same basic ingredients. But it’s more than that. The mixed greens I buy cost $10 or $12 a pound, whereas I can pay $7 for a 3-pound box of organic spring mix like you see in the supermarket. It’s raised in California by a giant corporation, while the mix I get is local and picked a few times a week. They may contain some of the same varieties of greens, but there’s a world of difference. Similarly, the grass-fed beef I get is roughly three times the price of commodity beef, and yet I can’t offer a rib-eye steak at three times the price of most other restaurants. No one would come.
Everybody thinks high-end restaurants are so expensive, and they aren’t cheap, but given the quality of ingredients and the caliber of the staff I hire, we still offer significant value. That can be difficult to communicate.
A fundamental change in the restaurant industry took place after September 11, 2001. People got scared. Up until then you had irrational exuberance. Today, the haves have more and everybody else has a little less, and I think that affects restaurants as well. You also see businesses spending less on food and dining. The way the sector is going, restaurants will not continue to be so high-end. We’ll see fewer of those types and more casual everyday places. It’s a tough market. I have some highly skilled people who are not making what they really ought to be. If people knew, they would be shocked.
But there are new restaurants opening almost every day. More food dollars are being spent outside the home, and the economy here, for a lot of people, is still quite good. The fact that we’re all still in business does speak to the fact that there’s a segment of the population that appreciates what we do. There are a lot of chefs in Boston who are trying to do local, sustainable, community-raised — whatever that umbrella covers. They’re trying to do the right thing.
I don’t want it to sound as if I’m whining or bitter. The Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau does a great job of publicizing Restaurant Week. It’s brought a lot of people out during what is traditionally one of the slowest times of the year. I just wanted to put it out there as a statement that, for us, Restaurant Week’s numbers don’t add up. I’m trying to raise awareness about the true costs of running a restaurant. That’s the hidden part of the equation.
Mark Pothier is the Globe's deputy business editor. E-mail him at email@example.com. This interview has been edited and condensed.