Monday 11 December 2017

The early bird catches the customer in tough times

People now want value when they eat out and restaurants need to respond to that, writes Lucinda O'Sullivan

THERE was a time when the early bird menu in restaurants was considered the zone of tightwads or older folks but there is no doubt now that it is an ever increasing phenomenon, a force to be reckoned with on the dining scene.

In the old days the early bird menus were fairly plain with maybe a bit of pate and chicken thigh or some such but now there is cut-throat competition between restaurants to capture whatever custom is out there.

They may be using the less expensive cuts but they have really upped the ante when it comes to presenting the food properly and, in some cases, with considerable sophistication. This is a factor that still applies that bit more in Dublin although I have seen an increase in Cork in the early bird scene but it does amaze me somewhat when I ask restaurateurs who perhaps have a captive audience and they still say -- "oh no, we don't have an early bird or value menu".

Let me tell them now, it is not only the customer who is 'catching the worm', nowadays it is the restaurateur, if they are wise, who should capture the worm before it wriggles off the hook into other enticing arms. I wrote earlier this year about a good restaurant in a big country town on a midweek night where we sat with six other customers -- its main courses were €28 to €32, there was no early bird menu and its value menu was €35!

I have no doubt the owners were not best pleased when I wrote at the time that they should simplify their menu and bring down prices. I am told that they have since got advice from one of the tourism bodies who do this sort of thing and what was the advice: "simplify and bring down prices".

I could have saved them time but I am not sure that they have really got the message because looking at their €25 menu, it smacks of old-style early birds giving the cheapest possible dishes -- and people are not fools.

It didn't take seasoned restaurateur Tom O'Connell long to realise on the recent opening of his new O'Connell's in Donnybrook restaurant, located in the former Madigan's Pub on Morehampton Road, D4, that the early bird and value menu is what it is all about nowadays. In fact, it took him just three weeks.

"I had been out of the business for six months and in that time it has all changed dramatically," he said. His new restaurant, whilst offering a really good early bird at €21 with a dessert option at €4, also featured some really up market options but he found very quickly that it was the early bird and value menus that people really wanted.

"We even had one particular family of regular customers who followed us when we moved location twice before but now they too made it clear when booking this time around that they wanted to dine only from the early bird. The whole benchmark has moved about value, and fair enough, but it has changed considerably, so I think restaurateurs will have to answer to that," Tom said.

"People are at a point where they need value, their net take-home pay has changed and they are worried about spending so, as a restaurateur, I am responding but, behind that, also as a restaurateur I have to choose my ingredients carefully and I have to staff my business properly in order to pay all my bills. And as a result, we are going to lead back out now on early birds."

He said too that "perhaps some restaurateurs have been wrong in the way they approached it because if the customer is telling us that they want to spend €19 or €25 for an early bird menu then, yes, respond to that need, but the customer also has to understand that they won't be eating fillet steak included in that early bird but I think also that restaurateurs and chefs may have been guilty of not constructing the menus properly.

"Eating out in Ireland is not eating out unless it includes a steak, you cannot put together an early bird without a steak, but offer an appropriately sized steak -- maybe a minute steak -- or in an innovative way. Restaurants fill for early birds, people still want to go out and have their wine. We will, of course, have an a la carte menu also but with very affordable prices."

Nisheeth Tak of Rasam Indian Restaurant in Glasthule, Dublin, has been running an excellent early bird menu available all days 5.30pm--7pm except Saturday with starter, main course, side dish, rice, naan bread and coffee for €19.95 and that has been packing them in.

If you want to try a Michelin-starred restaurant, Kevin Thornton's eponymous restaurant on St Stephen's Green in Dublin has an excellent pre-theatre menu at €49, Tuesday to Saturday, with tables to be vacated by 8pm. Roly's Bistro in Ballsbridge, Dublin, likewise has an excellent two and three-course early bird menu at €23.95 and €26.95, Monday to Friday, with tables to be vacated by 8.15pm.

Seapoint Restaurant in Monkstown, Co Dublin, has an excellent two and three-course early bird at €24.50 and €29.50, Monday to Saturday, with tables to be vacated by 8.30pm whilst Ananda Restaurant in Dundrum, Dublin, has an early bird menu at €25 available Sunday to Wednesday for December with tables to be vacated by 8pm. It has a Christmas shopper's lunch menu at €20.

Mervyn Stewart's long standing Guinea Pig Restaurant in Dalkey, Dublin, introduced a celebration menu of its 50-plus years as a restaurant at €80 per couple with a bottle of wine and he says it has increased business.

He also has a two course early bird at €24.50 Sunday to Thursday 5.30pm-7.30pm and Friday and Saturday up to 6.30pm. The Jaipur Indian Restaurants in Dalkey, Malahide, George's Street and Ongar also have excellent value menus from €16.75 for two courses up to 6.30pm and other menus which run later.

Another Michelin-starred experience can be enjoyed at Chapter One where Ross Lewis said that the restaurant is seeing an awful lot more ladies enjoying the pre-theatre menu at €37.50. The clientele for the pre-theatre menu also depends on the popularity of what is playing at the nearby Gate Theatre.

Conrad Gallagher's Salon des Saveurs also has an excellent pre-theatre menu of two and three courses at €21 and €25 plus service from Tuesday to Saturday, 5pm--6.30pm.

The Les Gourmandises in Cork has a prix fixe menu, two and three courses for €27.50 and €29.50, available all evening Tuesday to Friday and at 6pm-7pm on Saturdays.

So those of you restaurateurs who haven't got the message, you really need to, no matter where you are located.

Sunday Independent

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