Columnist Dr Shaba Nabi chronicles the downfall of a cutting-edge restaurant, whose trajectory might ring a bell with readers
I was interested to hear about the fate of a restaurant that opened in my area a few years ago. Not for its Michelin stars or cool ambience, but because of its novel membership model.
For a membership fee of £100 per year (or £150 per year with a glass of wine or beer included), customers could dine as often as they liked, from Monday to Friday, for no extra cost. The only limitation was the availability of a table, but dining was soon expanded to include the use of the bar area to allow extra customers in.
For the first year, customers respected the limited table settings and ate out as a treat, two or three times a year. As time passed, though, attitudes changed, partly fuelled by media coverage about the place. There was a shift in behaviour and customers started booking tables more regularly, feeling justified as they had already paid for their meal and drinks. Many would leave food uneaten as there was no incentive for them to order more frugally.
With more customers booking tables each week but no increase in income, the owners struggled to maintain their profit margin. The chefs and waiters were expected to work harder and longer for the same income, resulting in a high turnover of staff. But the main reason for the staff leaving was the number of complaints that started to come in as it got more and more difficult for customers to book. As well as offensive comments on social media sites, some customers became aggressive when they were unable to secure a table, demanding their rights as paid-up members of the restaurant.
Despite the diminishing workforce and increased demand for meals being served, the restaurant did everything in its power to stay afloat. The owners sent the waiting staff on weekend cookery classes to try to keep costs down, but this only led to more complaints as customers wanted to eat off the original menu. They also tried to introduce more supplements for the alcohol packages but this was rejected by the customers, who insisted they had already paid their membership fee. Eventually, the owners resorted to serving more meals as takeaways as there were simply not enough place settings to accommodate customers who wanted a booking every week.
Standards inevitably started slipping so it was hard to justify an increase of membership fee, even when the owners faced a 30% increase in rent and utilities. By now, a few of them were nearing retirement and, despite everything they had put into the restaurant, could see no reason to continue working so hard for little return. They lost the joy of welcoming customers at the front of house and started drinking heavily behind the scenes. This had a profound effect on the staff and no one was willing to step up and take the place of a retiring owner. Eventually, with only one owner left, and a dwindling workforce, there was no choice but to close the restaurant and let the remaining staff go.
I hear that one of the more innovative chefs is embarking on a business venture of his own. He will use the same membership structure of an upfront annual payment but limit most customers to four meals per year. Anything more than this will have to be paid for as a supplement, but he is confident that the high quality of food will ensure people are willing to pay.
I think I may give his new restaurant a try as I have always preferred quality over quantity, regardless of whether it’s food or something else.
Dr Shaba Nabi is a GP trainer in Bristol. Read more of her blogs here