Luxury ingredients and premium prices are becoming increasingly popular in New York City’s restaurants.
Animation: Allie Sullberg
Brian Cueto has his iPhone in his hand, ready to take a picture of something delicious. He is sitting at a table at LittleMad, a Korean French restaurant in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood, when Mad Toast arrives. “The first time I had it was like, Wow, that’s amazing, ”Says Cueto, a software engineer who often posts about restaurants on TikTok. “I get it every time I go.” The toast is a slice of buttered bread topped with egg salad, fat-marbled Wagyu beef tartare and a shiny layer of Osetra caviar. Then there’s more: A cap with free-sounding black truffle shavings, and for an additional $ 25, the kitchen will “make it delicate” and scoop a pile of Hokkaido sea urchins on top.
“It’s like the top of ‘treat yourself,'” says Sol Han, the chef and partner of LittleMad, where guests can treat themselves by adding uni, caviar or truffle toppings to just about any dish on the menu. “It’s not for everyone, but we have a high demand,” he says. And as any economics student will tell you where there is demand, supply will definitely keep up.
If restaurants across the city seem to be adding luxury ingredient to their menus, it’s because they are. They run the entire spectrum, from a $ 20 “bulge” caviar next to a martini to the classic $ 75 plus shave of seasonal white truffles. Wagyu is the sumptuous beef choice – whether for burgers, tartare or straight steaks – and you would be hard-pressed to find a bowl of spaghetti that can’t be topped, at a price, with a few precious patches of orange hedgehog. At a certain level of New York restaurants, once rare luxury items have become everyday ingredients, as much because of their lineage as their ability to consistently improve restaurant bottom lines at a time when operators are working at all available angles to remain profitable.
Luxury goods are by definition insignificant and difficult to obtain. As a result, luxury means expensive. Once uni hand-harvested from the icy sea near Hokkaido was reserved for diners who could defer striking amounts of money for a seat at an exclusive sushi bar. Real stork caviar, truffles from Alba and Wagyu beef bred in Japan were similarly limited and expensive. “When I first started in this business in 2008, many of these ingredients were only available if you were going to a high-end restaurant with white tablecloth,” says Ian Purkayastha, the founder of Regalis, an importer of rare ingredients. But things are different these days. Goods that were once very difficult to obtain are now only slightly difficult to obtain, leading to better prices and distribution. Meanwhile, customers are increasingly happy to spend to get them. In other words, we have entered an era of top “affordable” luxury. “With higher demand, the economy is changing. Suppliers are looking for ways to reduce their costs so they can get it for us at a lower price,” says Taka Sakaeda, a chef and co-owner of Nami Nori, where the popular hand rolls can be topped with complementary caviar ($ 12) or truffles (the always scary “market price”).
“Caviar has never been more plentiful on menus,” explains Ariel Arce, owner of several West Village restaurants and caviar company CaviAIR, “mainly due to the emergence of secondary markets offering farmed caviar at much more affordable price levels than ever before Before. “
This is the rare situation where the supply chain works well to meet customer demand. According to data from the NDP Group, consumer spending on restaurants grew by 16 percent by the end of 2021. “We just work from home all the time,” says Cueto, the software engineer. “Things can become superfluous. For me, it’s a way of experiencing new things.” And to make up for lost time, every occasion is special. “There’s the pent-up enthusiasm for elevated experiences that we’ve been lacking,” says Rich Shank, a menu pricing specialist at Technomic, a restaurant consulting firm.
Now would be a good time to mention food costs, because the prevalence of luxury ingredients and supplements has as much to do with the tastes of diners as with the bottom line. Many restaurants are still compensating for the economic difficulties of the past two years, not to mention ongoing supply chain problems and inflation. One way to keep up with runaway costs is to charge more. Instead of just raising prices across the board, operators can use more expensive ingredients to justify a change that could, for example, turn traditional beef tartare into an $ 89 must-order starter of “prime filet” with Osetra caviar, which is what you can book at Le Coucou if you fancy. “You give people value, not just take the value,” Shank explains.
Dietary supplements are a useful tool for taking high-consumption customers into account without automatically alienating others, allowing owners to shed the widest network in terms of potential customers, also known as a barbell pricing strategy. Chung Chow, who opened his modern Hawaiian restaurant Noreetuh in 2015, likens it to having a rare bottle of wine in the cellar: “You have to have it if the billionaire comes in.” On Noreetuh’s menu, Chow has 14 varieties of musubi that offer ingredients ranging from the traditional Spam for $ 5, up to a “luxury trio” that can include uni, caviar and truffles, which, when fully loaded, run $ 120 . For Chow, choice is an important part of the equation. Offering 15 grams of caviar for $ 25, as he does elsewhere on Noreetuh’s menu, allows customers to splurge, but only if they want to. “When we look at our menu, we have something for everyone,” he says. “For the people who are willing to spend, you have to give them the opportunity to do so.”
There is a perception that dietary supplements are extremely expensive and an easy way to cheat gullible customers, but in general, restaurant operators also pay a premium for rare ingredients whose costs constantly fluctuate. The last season with white truffle was a bust, and wholesale prices were almost double what they have been, according to Purkayastha from Regalis. Some Hokkaido uni are harvested in Russian waters, which means that supply becomes even more limited. Unless an operator operates an exquisite restaurant where the cost of a meal is expected to be high, the choice to overturn these costs can be difficult. “Not all dishes are profitable,” he says. “Sometimes you eat the food that costs, but it will all balance out if you do it right.”
If you do it right, it could mean you are selling a few more margin-friendly cocktails and resorting to some creative budget. Sakaeda and his partners at Nami Nori see luxury ingredients and supplements as a convenience that enhances the experience so they don’t label them as much as they probably could. “These are ways we can get people into the restaurant and get them excited about what we do,” he explains. The ingredients alone are not profitable, but their appeal keeps the restaurant competitive and their popularity maintains certain levels of volume. “At one point, our uni provider said that of all his accounts, we sold the most,” he adds. It’s a self-reinforcing approach – demand gives Sakaeda better bargaining power and guarantees a fresher product at a better price.
Additional sales are, of course, a skill in themselves, and for in-house employees who want to help willing customers spend more, managing expectations around luxury ingredients can be the difference between keeping guests happy or making them feel cheated. Most of the time, this conversation takes place at the table. A former server (who asked to remain anonymous) with experience at several high-end restaurants, including Wolfgang Pucks CUT steakhouse in Tribeca, says that when it comes to supplements, transparency is key. “Something I learned over time was subtly confirming with a table that they were aware of how much they were spending,” the server explains, using the example with a menu where prices are steak per serving. gram. “I do not think people are fully aware of what an ounce means,” and if you did not help them fully understand it before the check came, “you were more likely to hear, ‘Excuse me, I’m paying what before that?'”
When done right, supplements can be a mutually beneficial model: A customer has a good experience, a restaurant has more money to pay the bills, and the front of house is also beneficial: “It allows service staff to impress the guest , “Says the former server.” To bring the truffle to the table and make it rain, people love it. “And then there’s the more obvious upside:” Every time you raise the price of the bill, you will most likely earn more in tip.”
There is, of course, concern about the long-term sustainability of these ingredients, many of which face a flimsy future. “It’s a fine line to go,” says Regalis’s Purkayastha. “We could turn the wheels around and build up demand for products that might not exist.” But for now, any strategy that can raise the check average as well as the morale of the dining room will not lead anywhere. And for those customers who are willing to pay, the operators will gladly pamper their appetite. “At the end of the day, we do it for the guests’ experience,” he says of LittleMad. “So why not? Why the hell not?” And besides, he adds, “if you do not want to pay for it, it’s up to you.”