Skip navigation

Making money with forbidden fruit

I am not what anyone would call a heavy drinker. Maybe a couple of glasses a wine a week, and maybe one drink a week. I tell you this so you can understand where I am coming from with this blog.

Several weeks ago I was asked to lead a roundtable discussion on the importance of teaching life skills and job skills to culinary students. The discussion was at the Leadership Conference of CAFE (the Center for Advancement of Foodservice Education.) The conference was held in Salt Lake City.

As with all CAFÉ Leadership Conferences (I’ve been asked to be involved with the last four), there was a reception on Thursday night featuring the area’s culinary schools and chefs using products ranging from local and sustainable to exotic and tropical. This particular reception was held in the Utah capitol building. It's a beautiful building that rivals our nation’s capitol in size. It sits on a bluff overlooking the city. It has beautiful lawns. It is also alcohol free.

Now, go back and read that first paragraph again. What happened to me at the reception? I wanted (badly) a glass of wine or at least a local beer. I was craving alcohol simply because I couldn’t have any. Now, what was even funnier about this was that I decided on the way to the reception that I wasn’t going to have anything to drink because I already had overdone my usual that week. Imagine that! Driving up I didn’t want a drink, but when I couldn’t get one I wanted one!

Several hours later I returned to the hotel and several of us sat down in the bar. I ordered a glass of sparkling water. I no longer felt compelled to have that wine or beer. Amazing! Back in my room I was looking through the local tourist brochures and found a restaurant that was a quasi-speakeasy. You went to a location in the afternoon, paid for your reservation, they gave you and address and a key, and you let yourself into the back door at the appointed time. I wanted to check this out. A friend and I at the conference called—they were sold out for the two nights I would be there. Now what? I want to go back to Salt Lake City just to try this.

On the flight back to San Francisco, I started pondering how the principle of desire for the unobtainable could be used in our industry. I thought of The French Laundry where my wife has been trying to get reservations for years. I thought about Prohibition. I thought I might have an idea for chefs—make some money by having part of your product obtainable. The average culinary establishment couldn’t survive with the idea of being unobtainable like the Salt Lake City speakeasy or The French Laundry. But, maybe just but, you could make a little money by having part of what you do unobtainable. Some ideas:

Do a “Forbidden Night” theme on a night you are normally closed. Try the speakeasy theme on a Monday. What about a single malt (or rum, or wine, or beer, or chocolate) and food pairing but make sure that you advertise that tickets are extremely limited—and then limit the tickets. When people show a slight interest, have the host state that he/she is not sure of availability and will have to check. This isn’t lying per se. It is just a little puffing. (Next time, raise the price and keep the tickets limited. You can up the price until you stop selling out.)

Off-menu items: Off-menu items are only good sellers if the customers know about them. However, the customers are only interested if they feel that they are a special group who knows a secret. How about a server dropping hints that if the customer really wants something special, perhaps the server could talk with the chef into something not on the menu.

Limited specials: The server could announce there is a special for the evening to a table, but then say that the chef has only a limited quantity on hand and might be sold out. Of course, this only works, and is only ethical, if you do only have a limited quantity on hand. So, maybe you don’t prep too many specials when you do your mise en place.

Chef for the night: There are always people in your place bragging to your staff how good they can cook. Either you or a manager could approach them and play dumb: “Too bad you don’t have any cooking experience.” The customer disagrees and asks why. “Well, if you did, we could have you cook for your friends in family here on a Monday or Tuesday. Put together a dinner party and the chef will let you cook in the kitchen. Then I will come out and tell all of the guests that you cooked them dinner.” When the customer looks interested you continue, “How many, you ask, well at least a party of 10. But, only if you can cook.” Worried about the person in your kitchen? Forget it. Teach them how to flip a sauté pan or two, give them a glass of wine and have them watch you. You just sold out a large table on an off night.

In other words, take something that is forbidden, and turn human tendency to want forbidden items into profit. What forbidden idea you are going to tackle? I’d love to hear about it.

Hide comments


  • Allowed HTML tags: <em> <strong> <blockquote> <br> <p>

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.