Why You Should Limit Your Menu for Valentine’s

With plenty of cooks and supply chains that are the envy of most any independent eatery, chain restaurants can face the roughly 70 million Americans who will look to dine out for Valentine’s Day in stride. But how do mom-and-pop places keep up with the demand?

There’s reason to expect the number of people looking to let someone else prepare their cupid noms to be higher than normal this year, since the big day is on a weekend. That business is likely to be spread across both Saturday and Sunday, based on evidence of consumer spending for Valentine’s Day 2014, which fell on a Monday and brought spending over the whole weekend and into Monday. Previous years have continued to bring increases in Valentine’s dining expenditures, despite souring moods toward the holiday.

No matter how the crowd is spread out, plenty of operators will no doubt be looking for ways to deal with an onslaught. Enter the Valentine’s superhero of many a restaurant: The prix fixe (pronounced like prefix, thanks French) menu. It’s a staple for plenty of restaurants, particularly those in cities like New York and Los Angeles. In the former, they’re so common that New York Magazine dedicates an annual guide to them. In the latter, they’ve earned the attention of bon app´etit “Nit Picker” columnist Jason Kessler, who complains they’ve become too common, and the playful derision of the writers at Thrillist.

While some may have grown jestingly tired of them in those areas, they still appear to be a novelty to the majority of Americans, as evidenced by the fact most results for a search of the term are questions about what it means. In case you’ve been resisting the urge to conduct such a search yourself, a prix fixe menu is a set slate of items, typically offered in three or four courses with a couple options each, offered at a set price (a fixe prix, if you will).

So, why are prix fixe menus so popular on Valentine’s Day? Given that it’s the second-busiest day of the year for American restaurants, they offer a few advantages that can help you control costs, make preparing for the rush easier, and may even please customers, despite what some nitpicker says.

Benefits of a Prix Fixe to Valentine’s

  1. Because the menu is limited, so is your grocery list. Whether you’re buying from a local market or taking delivery from a food house, it’s a lot easier to know what to stock if you’re only offering a small part of your menu. Additionally, this should protect you from having a lot of random leftovers that didn’t make it into a full-menu’s-worth of dishes.
  2. They can cut down on the time each table takes, potentially increasing turns. That’s because the choices are limited, so ordering should be faster, and the bills will be fairly uniform, making the bill easier to figure. Plus, food psychologist Brian Wansink, who directs Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab, says diners feel better ordering from a limited menu because it alleviates pressure to pick the right thing from a long list. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to entice customers into an upsell with special items like champagne or a unique amuse-bouche, though.
  3. Fewer items on the menu means the kitchen isn’t running on tilt the entire night rushing to crank out a host of special requests. With a predictable order set, the staff is, at the very least, able to easily segment responsibilities and keep up with checks. In some circumstances, your cooks may even be able to stay ahead of the check minder or kitchen display system the entire evening, transforming a potentially stressful night into a breeze.
  4. The prix fixe menu lends a feel of exclusivity to its offerings by virtue of their being so limited. Additionally, many restaurants offer some of their more premium options on such a set slate. All that combines to leave many customers feeling like they’ve gotten a good deal, which has led to a boom in profits for some restaurants that have embraced the prix fixe.

Tips for Making a Prix Fixe Menu

There are few things that every operator crafting a set menu should keep in mind, including that it should be limited to dishes for which the ingredients are readily available and that pricing should be good for the business and the buyer. For the most part, though, these menus are and should be as custom as every restaurant is. Still, here are some tips that might set you on the right path if you’re creating your first.

  1. If you’re drawing from your standard menu, you’ll likely want to include items from the subsets of your most popular items and those that provide the highest margins. That should ensure guests find something they like while protecting your bottom line. And, you may make loyal converts to your high-margin dishes.
  2. As with most any other menu, local and fresh ingredients are a popular foundation for many prix fixe bills of fare, though those can be a little more difficult to come by during the cold season around Valentine’s. However, there are some fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens that can be found fresh in winter, including pomegranates, beets, parsnips, leeks, and kale.
  3. Consider a theme, like French foods or, given the theme of the holiday, traditional aphrodisiacs like oysters and chocolate, though not likely those two together. Perhaps you could fully embrace the holiday and offer foods in reds and pinks, or in the heart shape recognized by any school child. Alternately, you could court those cultivating that growing cynicism toward the holiday by offering Anti-Valentine’s Day promotions as some restaurants have done in recent years. Those have included bitter cocktails, breath-tinging garlic soup, and prix fixe menus for one with entrees like the classic comfort food the grilled cheese.
Derek Hodges
Derek Hodges

Derek Hodges is a proud North Carolinian who moved to Tennessee in 2006 to preach the gospel of Cheerwine and mix some Tar Heel blue in with all the orange. He has made wonderful friends who tolerate occasional remarks like those above. He and his wife Amanda enjoy spending weekends at Dollywood and trying to convince their dog Shiloh to get over his fear of swimming.

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