Next— as last night's release of Next Vegan tickets proved— is its own thing when it comes to demand and the way it's fulfilled by the ticketing system created by Nick Kokonas and team for that restaurant. But would the ticketing model work for other restaurants which didn't have the advantage of being the most-hyped restaurant of their times? Was there the potential for it to become an entirely new alternative model to the standard reservations model (and the online systems like Open Table selling it)? For one acclaimed chef/restaurateur, Iliana Regan of Elizabeth, using the Next ticketing infrastructure been the key to a surprising move— she's been steadily lowering her prices since opening, by as much as a third, without lowering what she considers the value (or the quality of ingredients). We spoke with Regan about her intimate Lincoln Square restaurant as it enters spring (an important change in itself for a restaurant built on farmer's markets and foraging), to find out what she's learned since the restaurant opened. But the big news here is how ticketing has made her restaurant more accessible, not less, to a wider audience.
So what made you want to lower your prices, or think that you could?
I pay a lot of attention to what people say about us, I read all the reviews and everything that's on Yelp or LTHForum or Chowhound. I want to know what the public thinks about the restaurant. And the discussion was mostly about price. I think it's a good value meal, and I want people to think that they're getting what they paid for. I don't feel like we were scamming the public— I feel it was market appropriate for what they were getting. But value is determined by the recipient. And I know some people think they can't dine here [because of the prices]. Or they come in, they've only heard the name, they don't really know anything about the restaurant, and they don't know that the deer menu is woodland focused, and they're like, what the fuck? I want those people to feel they got a good value and leave and spread the word.
I think people always saw One Sister [her underground dinners] as a good value, and I wanted Elizabeth to be a good value. The price was not helping, even if it wasn't hurting— we were full on the weekends and pretty full on weekdays. It got a little slower in winter. We can make money with ten people on a winter night, but I'd rather have a full house and make the same profit, because the experience is better for everybody if the room is full. It's more fun for them, it's more fun for me. So when we hit winter and things got a little slower, I lowered the prices about $5 to $20, to start.
I also thought about how I like to eat. And you know, we were up at a price level with Alinea and Grace. But my favorite places to go are the kinds of places where you're around a lot of people and it's a little more casual, a little loud— like Schwa or EL Ideas. And I just felt that we should kind of match their price point and not be as high as Grace— because we're so not them. I kind of priced us close to EL Ideas in particular, because I see that as the closest to what we do.
And I spent a lot of time looking at the books. We have a small staff, we're in a small space, and thanks to the ticketing, we serve exactly what's coming in. We don't have any waste— we don't even have any leftovers to use for staff meal. I have to go buy extra meat for tacos to make staff meal. The fixed expenses don't fluctuate. So it's really all from the ticketing system that I can lower the prices to this level and be sure that we'll make a living, my chefs will make a living.
Do you feel like you're more efficient, now, too?
Absolutely. That was one thing I didn't really know until I did it, how hard it would be to train a staff to do what I do. It took two seasons, really, to get them where they are. It's not that we had problems— we've had very little turnover in the kitchen, the same four guys have been in there for a while. But I feel like we're now at the level that I wanted us to be at when I opened, and we're only going to continue. So yeah, I want to make it more affordable so people can experience that.
We've also changed how the Diamond menu, the most luxurious menu, works a little. There were too many dishes coming out of the kitchen. So now it has some things from the Owl menu, which is the farm to table one, and some from the Deer menu, which is the foraging one. It has some unique things— the entree is only on the Diamond menu— but it's also kind of our best dishes. So you'd see some repetition if you had the Diamond menu and one of the others, but not if you had the Owl menu and the Deer menu. I think it was a mistake to have so many separate courses at the beginning— not a bad mistake, though. I have a lot of shit in my head, and it's not a bad thing to have that creativity. But it's good to be more focused now.
I'm working a lot on composition [of the menus]. I want to keep them within a certain time limit— after a certain time the mind shuts off, the palate shuts off. Especially in a communal dining experience, you don't want it to go on forever.
So what exactly is the change in the pricing?
It's hard to say because it's different every night and it's been changing over time. But basically, the Owl menu, which is about 10 courses, started at $65 to $105 and it's down a little, $60 to $100. It was always the most user-friendly, entry-level meal with the lowest price. The Deer menu, which is about 15 courses, started at $125 to $155, and it's down a lot, it's now $80 to $120. And the Diamond menu, which is the most luxurious one and about 20 courses, started at $155 to $205 and it's now $100 to $140, which puts us around Schwa and El Ideas, like I said.
Enough about money. It's spring. That's got to be exciting for a restaurant built on growing things like yours.
It is. We're starting to see so many amazing foraged things— ramps and morels, obviously, but I've got wild asparagus, wild cherry blossoms, stinging nettles, wild carrots. And I'm getting in a lot of things— peas from Chef's Garden in Ohio, fingerling potatoes, green garlic from Vera Videnovich, Japanese knotweed which is similar to rhubarb.
We've got a garden on our roof now which is full of our wonderful things— we're growing nasturtiums, radishes, arugula, and incorporating them into our dishes. So now we don't have to pay Chef's Garden for them, we grow them ourselves.
I feel like we're at our truest expression of ourselves right now, and we're just going to build on that. Maybe that's because of all the great spring things we're seeing right now.