Name your price for lunch

 

On hearing that a UK restaurant was allowing customers decide their own bills, one Irish chef decided to follow suit. BRIAN O'CONNELLvisits to see if punters can be trusted to set a fair price

THERE’S A SCENE in The Simpsonswhere Homer, after seeing a television advert, goes to the Frying Dutchman restaurant to avail of their all-you-can-eat offer. Long after the other diners have left, Homer is still shovelling food into his gob, with the owner looking on helplessly and saying, “’Tis no man, ’tis a remorseless eating machine.”

Eventually, Homer is manhandled off the premises while still eating and so decides to sue the restaurant, a case his lawyer calls the most blatant example of fraudulent advertising since The NeverEnding Story. A deal is struck whereby Homer is allowed eat in the restaurant window, with customers queuing up to observe him in his new role as Bottomless Pete: Nature’s Cruellest Mistake. “Come for the freak, stay for the food,” encourages the owner to the waiting hordes, as business thrives on the back of the publicity.

I thought of this episode as I made my way to the Vanilla Pod restaurant in Killarney this week. My visit was prompted by a radio programme which highlighted the experience of a UK restaurateur who dispensed with bills, allowing customers pay what they thought the meal was worth. The question was posed: would the same approach work in Ireland?

Young chef Gavin Gleeson, who opened his first restaurant in Killarney last October, rang the show and said he would give it a go. He was of the view that the Irish public would, for the most part, be honest and fair in paying any restaurant owner brave enough to let them decide their own bill. Two weeks ago, he took the prices off all food on his menu, and launched a “pay what it’s worth” campaign, whereby diners calculate on merit what their final bill should amount to.

I ARRIVED AT the Vanilla Pod at just before one o’clock on Wednesday. At that stage there were four tables occupied – a mix of business types and morning coffee ladies. Each table had leaflets advertising the “pay what it’s worth” offer, telling customers they would not be issued with a bill unless they specifically request one.

The interior was distinctly modern – chocolate brown leather chairs, deep green satin curtains, and an open kitchen where staff whizzed around. The menu included venison and button onion pie with braised red cabbage, oriental-style broth, Chinese leaves and noodles, and sauté scallops with barbecued chicken wings, pineapple and chilli salsa.

Next to me, three ladies were on their first visit, scanning the menu with giddy abandon. They had decided to visit after reading about the offer in a local paper. “We also heard good stuff about the food,” one of them said.

They rarely ate out for lunch, so when it came to estimating the bill the ladies found the calculations difficult. “We could be really mean if we wanted to,” remarked one, rather mischievously. In the end, the decision making was too much for the group and they asked for a bill to be issued.

Throughout the lunch hour Gleeson was on hand to make sure diners were at ease with their new sense of empowerment. He trained at Dromoland Castle before gaining experience with the likes of Richard Corrigan and Kevin Thornton. He opened the restaurant last October, leaving behind what he calls a “huge salary” at the Aghadoe Heights Hotel in Killarney, where he was executive chef. Having missed out on the tourist season, he had to scale back on evening meals at the beginning of this year, because of a fall-off in trade.

“The business had been building slowly,” he says, “but the decision to launch the offer was a gamble and all very rushed.” After he rang the radio show agreeing to give the experiment a go he spent two nights not sleeping thinking about what he had done.

HE NEEDN’T HAVE WORRIED. By five past one on Wednesday the dining room was almost full. The majority of diners were locals, with few tourists around to avail of the offer.

The atmosphere was lively, with diners on opposite tables comparing notes with each other about what they should pay and what they thought of the deal.

Regular Anna Papa-Murphy, originally from California, was trying to remember how much her Caesar salad was priced at before the promotion began. “Maybe around €12.95. I’m going to have coffee too and I think I’ll pay €16 – but I don’t know if you should quote me on that in case my husband finds out!”

She reckoned the offer would never take off in the US. “You’d just get everyone who didn’t want to pay anything and wouldn’t give walking out a second thought. The Irish are for the most part very generous, and especially in a place used by locals,” she said.

In one corner, Teresena Gallagher and her two children, Niamh and Michael, were also trying to figure out how much to pay for their food. Michael and Niamh had sandwiches, which they figured should cost between €6 and €7 each. Teresena’s bill was more problematic as she had scallops, which owner Gavin had earlier pointed out was the most expensive dish on the menu. “The food was gorgeous, but now I have to decide how gorgeous in money terms it was,” said Teresena. “I am going to say between €10 and €12 for my scallops. If I was feeling the February blues particularly bad, I might have given him €10 for it! He certainly won’t be going to Lanzarote on the back of us! So all in all we’re going to offer €23.”

The Gallaghers’ bill would have come to €22 if they had gone on the menu prices.

I opted for chilli con carne, followed by bread and butter pudding and washed down with two cheeky little Ballygowans (priced at €1.50) and several frothy cappuccinos (priced at €2.70). I estimated my main course was worth €10, the dessert €5 and another €10 for the drinks, a total of €25.

But then I was told the restaurant doesn’t accept laser cards, and the only cash I had on me was €22, which is what I paid. Had I asked for a bill, it would actually have come to €24.

So far the promotion has been a success, with the publicity having a noticeable impact on trade. Gleeson says there is only one case where he was paid way under what a meal would have cost, when he was offered €37 for a three-course meal for two, which should have cost €54.

He says he is unsure how long the offer will last, but for the first two weeks of February, turnover is up about 20 per cent. “We’ve really only had that one bad experience,” says Gleeson, “when we started lots of people were saying we were going to be robbed blind by people and be out of pocket. I remember thinking, that’s not the Ireland I know and grew up in. Thankfully I’ve been proved right.”