You can walk right in on a Tuesday night. You won’t have to wait if you want to eat at 5:30 any day of the week. But when Saturday night rolls around, there are more takers than tables.
It seems obvious that a table during prime dining hours is more valuable than the others. A popular restaurant could sell those tables to the highest bidder and economists would tell us that it is the fairest, most rational system. Instead the tables are doled out at the regular rates, awarded to diners for a well-timed phone call to the reservationist or a lucky session with an online booking tool, or the tried-and-true method of slipping a fifty to the maître d’.
Restaurants are starting to realize that they’re leaving money on the table, and some, like a group of always-booked-up New York restaurants, are banding together to change the system.
Flexible pricing is already with us.
Airlines charge more on busy travel days, hotels jack up their prices at holiday time, and just try to find a babysitter who won’t charge extra on New Years Eve. It’s simple supply and demand and we’re always happy when it works in our favor. But mention variable pricing and food in the same breath and it rings of profiteering.
The Coca Cola Company tried variable pricing last year and it resulted in one of the company’s most notable missteps. In a move that ranks up there with the New Coke fiasco, the company outfitted some of its vending machines with a temperature sensor and computer chip that allowed the machines to raise the beverage price on hot days. The strategy, expressly designed to exploit the thirst of its neediest, faithful customers, came off as especially mean-spirited, even unscrupulous. After a little roughing-up from the press (“Soda Jerks,” Miami Herald; “Coke’s Chilling Concept,” The Irish Times), the program was withdrawn.
A Saturday night reservation for a trendy restaurant is hardly about hunger and thirst. If the restaurant chooses to charge whatever the market will bear it can hardly be called price gouging—it’s not like they’re selling water in a heatwave or flashlight batteries in a power outage. We understand the logic behind lower prices at slow times.
Isn’t a Saturday night surcharge just the flipside to the early bird special?
New York, the first U.S. city to try the surcharge, has 24,000 restaurants including 66 with one or more Michelin stars. Despite the competition, enough of the city’s top tables believe that they can command a weekend and holiday premium. If the plan succeeds in New York, you can bet that restaurants in Los Angeles, Chicago, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Dallas, and probably a few other cities will follow.
For the elite, the spendthrift, and the special occasion celebrant, weekends will get a little easier. For the rest of us, we’ll learn that the food tastes just as good on a Monday or a Tuesday.