The restaurant business is booming, with industry experts anticipating the biggest year yet. Even better: growing demographic of customers with fat wallets.
The number of high-income households has been on the rise for the last two years, a trend that is expected to continue, according to the National Restaurant Association. Households earning $100,000 or more account for 36 percent of food eaten away from home, while those with incomes between $70,000 and $99,999 make up 18 percent of industry spending, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
These “high roller” clients present an opportunity and a challenge for restaurateurs. While they share attributes with the standard diner, they require a different approach—one that begins before they walk through the door.
“They want to be recognized,” says Chef-owner Jean Joho of the long-standing Everest in Chicago and Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, both fine dining restaurants.
“They expect that you know who they are and what they like, that they were there before and when,” he says. “If you don’t know, you’ll lose them.”
Extracting value from the dining experience, feeling important and having an emotional connection with the food and restaurant are essential to winning over the high-income demographic.
Technology can help restaurants excel at service by keeping tabs on customers, from a spouse’s birthday and a favorite whiskey to the desired temperature of salmon.
“There are so many easy opportunities to provide that recognition, and it’s not expensive (or) takes a lot of time,” says Chef-owner Michael Kornick of longtime Chicago restaurant MK. “That’s how you value restaurants—they make you feel special.”
The best service tool in the industry is still good old-fashioned memory: A notable host or server recognizes a regular customer and has a sense of what they want.
“When a guest gets recognized, they become loyal,” says Executive Chef Fabrizio Schenardi of the Four Seasons Resort in Orlando, Florida. “They have the tendency to book private or business events, casual dinners, and send you new customers.”
In fact, restaurateurs say knowing guest preferences is the new luxury of polished service.
High rollers, however, want a deeper rapport with a restaurant. Knowing the owner, chatting with the chef about an ingredient that just arrived from a local farm and engaging with a server who can recall personal preferences, such as favorite ingredients and food allergies, keep them coming back.
“They get recognized from the open kitchen and they come just to talk to the staff,” Schenardi says. “I encourage the cooks that if they see someone familiar say, ‘Hello.’ Recognition beyond the greeting is important.”
For out-of-towners, the higher level of hospitality—that feeling of being taken care of—comes from a restaurant’s relationship with hotel concierges. They can send diners anywhere, but travelers who feel pampered will return to the recommended restaurant. Kornick knows this well and has honed his network over the years to build regulars at MK.
“The good concierges know our layout,” he says. “They know if they have a young couple, they should ask for table 62 because it’s the deuce that overlooks the dining room. If someone is looking for a deep Bordeaux list, the concierge will know and send them to us.”
The New Foodies
High-income diners, restaurateurs say, are typically well versed in food. They’re aware of trends and are often the first ones to check out a new restaurant. Luxury items like truffles and other high-priced goods are front of mind when they’re in season.
“We do everything in-house, and they love that,” Schenardi says. “The meat is all prime. When they ask about fish, they want to know where it’s coming from.”
But for all the pomp and circumstance around the theater of dining, high rollers want recognizable food.
“Where they go isn’t very elaborate,” Joho says. “It’s mostly food that’s similar in different places. It’s not about sophistication in dining; it’s about the status symbols.”
Here’s the Deal
Everybody loves a deal—even the wealthy. It’s just that the wealthy view a deal on a different scale. A $500 bottle of wine on the menu for $250 may be out of reach for most diners, but for a high roller, it’s a bargain.
“It doesn’t matter how much money people have,” says Howard Gordon, president of Los Angeles-based Gordon Restaurant Group. “They’re looking for deals.”
And no one wants to feel gouged.
“I’ll buy turbot and cook it myself before paying $90 for it,” Gordon says. “People know what things cost, and unless they’re on an expense account, it pisses them off.”
An experience that’s not readily available to everyone can be a draw for a high-end diner. At Stake Chophouse & Bar, a luxury steakhouse in Coronado, California, diners are presented with a choice of Japanese-, French- and German-made knives before a meal.
“When we serve a 50-ounce Tomahawk steak whole, we offer to cut it for them,” says Executive Chef Tim Kolanko of the $120 prime cut. “Half of the time the guest wants to cut it themselves so they can use the awesome knife they just chose. It becomes a conversation point among guests.”
Exclusivity can also play out on wine lists at restaurants that attract all demographics. And those can be found at high-end and most moderate-priced, chef-driven restaurants.
David Chang’s Momofuku Má Pêche in New York, for example, has hidden gems on its list featuring a special section of 56 wines priced at $56 each. Momofuku Beverage Director Jordan Salcito knows the stories behind the labels, which is what high rollers want to know.
A wine that isn’t available at retail or ones that are impossible to find create a value that justifies a higher cost, Gordon says.
“You have to know the producer and not the label,” says Gordon, a former executive of the Cheesecake Factory. “I want to make sure that I’m getting a great experience for the amount of money I’m paying.”
Equality Still Reigns
A restaurant can’t change its menu, service or decor to fit the needs of every guest. That’s why it’s important to treat all diners like they might be able to order a $10,000 bottle of wine or give a $1,000 tip.
Plus, when that guest clad in ripped jeans orders up your entire wine cellar, you’ll be glad you didn’t stand on ceremony.
Don't Turn Off High Rollers
Avoid these sure-fire ways to get high rollers to slam their wallets shut.
Overpriced menus. The cost of certain ingredients has to justify the price. Be sure that it’s not the standard, and tell the backstory of the value.
Tasting menus. So 2006, and
Dress codes. There’s a reason jackets are no longer required at fine dining spots and tablecloths are of lore. Don’t look down on jeans-clad guests. Today’s designer jeans can cost as much as a jacket.
Jacked up wine prices. Anyone who can pay $500 for a bottle of wine will likely know its true worth even with the restaurant markup.