Saison, Momofuku Ko, and Blanca Aren't Restaurants, They're Loss Leaders

Staff Writer
The Restaurant Insider takes on restaurants that aren't in it for the money

Can a restaurant that isn't interested in making money truly call itself a restaurant?

James Mallios is the managing partner of Amali restaurant, a Mediterranean restaurant in Manhattan.  He spent five years as a plaintiff-side lawyer for aggrieved employees in the securities business before turning to a career in restaurants. In this column, "The Restaurant Insider," he plans to demystify the restaurant experience. His opinions are his own and not associated with Amali and its sister restaurants. 

I was in the kitchen at Amali on Friday night engaging in light banter with one of our line cooks when I stopped to overhear a conversation between two of them about the Bay Area restaurant Saison and its’ recent inclusion in the Bon Appetit’s Top Ten Restaurants in the United States. "I read they built a 30,000 gallon fish tank.  They have cashmere throws for when people get cold. They bought a farm. The chairs are heated. My friend trailed there; they have a room where before their nightly shift meeting, they light candles, read a verse from Escoffier, and chant “two may enter, one may leave.”  Actually, the Harvard Debate Team used to do something like that. Minus the Escoffier. Don’t ask how I know; you can’t make that stuff up.

I skirted out of the kitchen before anyone asked me when I planned to replace the pasta machine. After stories of such largesse, I thought one of them would point to me and mimic Donald Sutherland’s final scream in Invasion of the Body Snatchers.  

Chants or not, there is critical reverence for Saison. And there should be. Chef Skenes has the courage to deliver an arguably unparalleled dining experience. I start having panic attacks when our food cost goes into the mid 30 percent range; he doesn’t blink at 40-50 percent (for those of you who are unfamiliar with restaurant economics, a food cost above 40 percent means that short of indentured servitude, your restaurant loses money. Which means it will close.) 

He has the further courage to pull the curtain from the wizard and concede that his restaurant cannot make money, that the goal is to break even. Even that is a stretch.    

With a $2.8 million renovation for a 32 seat restaurant, with the average per person spend of $500, the restaurant has one seating a night. Let’s say with wine sales and the salon, the average diner spends $800. Throw in an extra $300.

$26,000 a day, 260 days a year = $6.56 million. Round up to $7 million. Assume we take the nationwide average restaurant profit margin of 4 percent (an impossibility with a 40-50 percent food cost or, for example, replacing a $100 fork if it finds its way into someone’s pocket). Saison could not even pay off its opening debt (assuming no subsequent debt) for at least ten years even under the most favorable math.  

So what? If some Silicon Valley venture capitalist wants a tax write off for a private dining room why should I or anyone else care? What I care about is standards.

Bon Appetit’s decision (in which they are not alone as Saison has numerous deserved accolades) contributes to a systemic flaw in food writing today, namely that there is a problem when restaurants who are a business are judged by the same set of criteria as food service establishments that are labeled as restaurants.

Call Saison a tasting room, a semi-private hedge fund club or a not-for profit thermopolium.  

What it is assuredly not is a restaurant.  

A restaurant, in its base form, is “a business establishment which prepares and serves food and drink to customers in return for money," according to Wikipedia.  A business is “an organization involved in the trade of goods, services, or both to consumers...most of [which] are privately owned and administered to provide service to customers for profit.” Put another way, if it is not designed to turn a profit by its own admission, Saison is not a business and therefore by definition not a restaurant.  Restaurants that are businesses act under the constraint of profitability. Which defines and distinguishes them from dinner parties, pop-ups and supper clubs.  

There are many other critically lauded tasting rooms which arguably are not restaurants. Take Momofuku Ko or Roberta’s Blanca, for example. I would be shocked if they make a profit.  But at least they are arguably loss leaders. Ko and Blanca are the equivalent of the Prada store in SoHo. They probably make no money on their own but they are not designed to do so. They are designed to achieve critical acclaim and drive more people to eat more ramen at Momofuku Noodle Bar and dine more frequently at Roberta’s. And noodles and pizza are very profitable. As my dad likes to say, there is a lot of money in bread and water.  

Are Saison, Ko or Blanca a restaurant, however? That question is more complicated. Without Noodle Bar, Ssam Bar and now countless Milk Bars there is no Ko (or is it the reverse?). Without pizza I can assure you there is no Blanca.

If a "restaurant" like Saison, who, by its own admission, is destined to lose money/ultimately fail becomes the bar by which others are judged, Bon Appetit and every other publication should bifurcate their ratings and rankings.  

Lest anyone cry sour grapes,  I admire chefs Skenes, Chang and Carlo. Any restaurateur who claims otherwise is Pinnocchio. I find inspiration in the small touches and the thought that go into the Saison dining experience. Come the fall, I will buy shawls for people who complain about the temperature of the dining room.  Credit Saison. If Chef Skenes was in the dining room at Amali, I would break into a cold sweat and every imperfection would glow bright red in my mind’s eye. It is the pursuit of excellent that he and his staff embodies that stimulates thought and should drive restaurants everywhere to reconsider what they can do to achieve a greater level of excellence. As much as I love Amali and am proud of the things we do well, we have a long way to go before we should properly be considered for any Top Ten List similar to the one published by Bon Appetit. And I am taking nothing away from us when I say that. 

Call it genius, inspired, and courageous, just don’t call Saison a restaurant. And don’t judge those that are by the same standards. It is fairly easy to set standards for tasting rooms that are different than those for restaurants.  Maybe call it “Top Ten Tasting Rooms” and “Top Ten Restaurants”. There. Pretty simple.

Years ago people questioned whether the Times rankings system had fundamentally changed when Ssam Bar and Corton received three stars a week apart from one another. One: china, tablecloths, and crystal and the expense that goes with it. The other: chopsticks, stools, and paper napkins. Why bother investing in stemwear if Libbey would do?  

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Food critics should begin to consider implementing a bifurcated ranking system, otherwise top ten lists will not represent restaurants as whole, but a small subset of food service establishments that are restaurants only by self-proclamation. Great places to eat, don't get me wrong. Just not restaurants.