Chinese operators saddle up for ‘Year of the Horse.’ – restaurant operators

Chinese operators saddle up for ‘Year of the Horse.’ – restaurant operators – column

Florence Fabricant

Chinese operators saddle up for `Year of the Horse’

A few weeks after Western operations make hay with New Year’s Eve, a one-night stand that can be profitable when carefully organized, it’s the Chinese restaurants’ turn. The lunar new year, a week-long celebration, usually begins sometime between the last week in January and the 10th of February. This year, the year of the horse, starts Jan. 27.

The Chinese new year is one more example of how operations can increase profitability or, at the very least, attract new customers by successfully marketing special dinners. Holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Easter and Mother’s Day are obvious annual events. But now many operations are creating their own.

In the past hotel dining rooms used events of this kind, billed as “festivals,” to generate business. Now other independent operaitons around the country are joining in. Seasonal food events, such as truffle or asparagus menus or menus that highlight a particular region of France or Italy or winemaker’s dinners, provide clever operators with similar opportunities to fill seats, again for the higher-priced fixed menu. Wine, but not cocktails, might be included, or there may be suggested wines at several prices.

Indian operations have begun to feature special buffets to celebrate Divali, the Hindu festival of lights in the fall. Passover seder menus, some strictly kosher, and others only kosher style, have also begun to appear on an annual basis in some operations.

From the standpoint of the independent white-table-cloth operator, the similarities between the Asian new year celebration and New Year’s Eve on the Western calendar outweigh the differences. Both offer complete gala menus at prices that may be as much as double those of regular dinners. Entertainment may be included.

Although the Western celebration can offer two or three seatings, the Chinese event permits a week to 10 days of menus that may generate greater profits. A festival week of winemaker’s dinners can create the same opportunities.

Some Chinese operations extend the celebration period to two weeks. Restaurants with an average dinner check (for food, before the tip) of $15 may charge $25 to $40 for the New Year’s menu. Typically, the cost of the dinner is 25 to 30 percent more than what a party of four might pay a la carte. Ordering the New Year’s menu is usually optional in Chinese operations, but these dinners are extremely popular.

At Michael Tong’s Sun Lee restaurants in New York the banquet dinners are $42.95 at one unit and $49.95 at the other. Tong says any extra profits are offset by the expense of advertising in local newspapers.

“Without the special advertising it would be a good money-maker,” Tong says, adding that in any case it generates goodwill and perhaps some new customers.

In some operations there is one night during the New Year period that features a special banquet dinner only. For that dinner the menu will be more elaborate than the regular Chinese New Year menu, and the price is often 50 percent higher. Many operations, including Peking Park in New York, are serving the banquet menu by reservation only on Saturday, Jan. 24.

At Monsoon in San Francisco, the special 10-course menu is being served on Jan. 28. The price is $65. The regular Chinese New Year menu consists of six courses, is $45 and does not include the lobster that is being served for the banquet.

One obvious advantage for the customer in a Chinese restaurant is that the fixed menu eliminates the need to wrestle with a list that often includes 60 different dishes. The fixed menu usually offers a balance of popular poultry, seafood and meat dishes in a succession of courses.

Some, such as the traditional shark’s fin soup, call for costly ingredients. That dish is the equivalent to the caviar that is often featured on Western New Year’s Eve menus. But because Americans might hesitate to eat Chinese delicacies like that, another choice is often provided. Others, like dumplings, another traditional feature, are enormously popular and highly profitable.

Although some customers might make special efforts to dine in Chinese operations during the New Year period, the regular customers can also be convinced to order from the more expensive menu. One of the keys to success lies in making the menu optional and then selling the blazes out of it. Like the winemaker’s dinners or other events generated in house, they call for captains, reservations clerks and wait staff joining in the effort.

COPYRIGHT 1990 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group