Student Dining Day

Broadway shows offer student rush tickets an hour before the curtain goes up. You show your student ID, pay $15 and sometimes you get seats all the way in the back but other times you get seats all the way in the front. The concept behind this, surely, is to draw younger audiences to the theater–to make theater accessible to those who could never afford a $100 ticket.

Sure, the hotter shows–the Julia Roberts vehicles, “Spamalot,” “Jersey Boys”–aren’t so generous to students. Try getting there an hour early for a $15 ticket and they’ll laugh in your face. Actually, you won’t even get near the box office: a line of cancellation hungry groupies are already lined up outside. These people are willing to pay full price for same-day rejected seats. Some hot shows, like “Ave. Q,” “Wicked” and “Rent” do a lottery a few hours before the show starts. People put their names into a hat and 20 tickets are sold for $20. You’d think your odds would be good but when you see the masses gathered for one of these lotteries, you’re suddenly trapped in a Shirley Jackson short story. [Funny enough, my friend Dana and I once won a lottery for “Rent.” This was after our freshman year of college, “Rent” was new and hot and we found ourselves in the very front row center, electric guitars wailing over us, big smiles on our faces knowing we only paid $20 for our seats while those around us paid five times as much.]

Why am I telling you all this?

Because I think the highest end restaurants–the Daniels, the Jean-Georges, the Per Ses–should offer a day for students to come experience this type of food. When I say “this type of food” I mean food cooked at the highest quality prepared with the finest ingredients and presented in beautiful surroundings. Like a play by Tennessee Williams or a musical by Stephen Sondheim, these restaurants aren’t soulless corporate monsters–they’re not draining wallets so they can go swimming in dollar bills–they’re about something, they represent something, they strive for excellence and earn their accolades accordingly. And like all other bastions of higher culture, they ought to reach out to a younger audience: not so much to make regular customers out of them, but to expose them to what’s possible when a highly trained professional chef morphs something simple into something beautiful. It’s the same transformation that happens when Picasso applies mounds of oily paint on to a blank white canvas, or when actors and directors enliven words printed flatly on a page. Museums offer student discounts, Broadway shows offer student discounts, why don’t restaurants?

I think the simple answer is: they don’t have to. Theater, as we all know, is a dying form. Museums are eager to attract a younger crowd. But restaurants will succeed regardless of how young and eager their patrons are. It’s a sad fact that if a restauranteur had a choice between a wealthy big-spender client who could give two shits about the food, who is only there to soak in the scene versus an eager young person with little money, cheap clothes and a genuine interest in food they’d go with the wealthy client every time. This is where the question of whether food is art comes to a head: if food is art, shouldn’t everyone have access to it? Shouldn’t we encourage our children to experience the finest that New York kitchens have to offer?

I propose–perhaps naively–that New York’s finest restaurants make a day for students with a valid student ID to experience their cuisine at a discount rate. A $20 meal, maybe a lunch, served with as much flair as they’d normally serve a regular customer. This would be different from New York Restaurant Week which caters to an older crowd, mostly tourists, who come for a discount meal during a notoriously slow week for restaurants. Whereas Restaurant Week is a way for restaurants to lure in otherwise reluctant diners, this Student Dining Day (as I would call it) would showcase fine cuisine to eager young people, preferably college aged, who have an interest in food. Chefs could make a special effort to edify these young diners by exposing them to all the riches fine dining has to offer. I bet the chefs would enjoy it just as much as the students–an audience of people who actually care about what they’re eating. What could be better?

Chances are, though, this is merely a pipe dream. I guess I’m a romantic idealist at heart. But imagine the young college student who, seeing this Student Dining Day, decides to give fine dining a shot and suddenly finds themselves transfixed and transformed by the experience. What if they become the next Daniel Boulud, the next Eric Ripert, the next Jean-Georges? Well they’ll have ME to thank. I’ll put that in my pipe dream and smoke it.

19 comments

  1. Well, this is an interesting suggestion! But make no mistake, restaurants that take up this suggestion will not be doing it out of concern for poor students or for art’s sake.

    In a way, restaurants do this already, at least in my neck of the woods, through what is called the Entertainment Card. The public can buy the card through a participating charity for $60 per year and the $60 goes to the charity.

    The restaurants which sign up for this offer meals at about 25% off the final bill (there are variations) under certian conditions (like not available on Valentines Day etc) Some very good restaurants sign up, not just the dross.

    What do the restaurants get out of it? They price discriminate, that’s what they do – just like the theatres. They do this not for the warm inner glow that comes from (indirectly) supporting a charity – although there may be a teensy weensy bit of this – but rather because they will attract punters who would not normally go to the restaurant because of the cost, or because they don’t eat out much or whatever. Typically, the marginal cost of the food, wine and service provided to the seats thus taken is less than even the discounted revenue that is earned from the extra punters. Thus the restaurants earns profits that they would not otherwise earn by drawing in punters who are more price sensitive than their regular clientele. This works as long as there are available seats that would not otherwise have been taken by regular (less price sensitive punters) – which is true most nights in many restaurants, even the best ones.

    The technical term for this that economists use is that the restaurants exploit the different elasticities of demand exhibited by different types of consumers.

    Firms (theatres, airlines, etc) that offer discounts to the young or the old are NOT being generous, they are being classic profit maximisers in the good old capitalist way.

    Sure, along the way, they may also build future demand, or even feel that warm inner glow of charity, but that is not the prime purpose. It is to drain wallets to swim in those filthy dollar bills!!!!!

  2. You may recall that in the economic dip after September 11th many restaurants in American cities weren’t doing well. There was a lot of hullaboo about this in foodie communities: oh my goodness, people are staying home, making comfort food! Food magazines were going nuts with features on high-end chicken soup and macaroni and cheese for a while there?

    In response, for a limited time, here in Atlanta many restaurants offered a reasonably priced prix fixe menu on cetain weeknights. I believe it was in the $20-$30 range. This wasn’t to spread the love of fine eating among the less affluent, of course; it was to get butts back in the seats. (And it still was a bit steep for my student / poor newlywed wallet.)

  3. “Merely a pipe dream”? Not mere at all, unfortunately I can’t help as I’m not in the restaurant business.

  4. i really think this would be a great way to build up a future customer base. the fine restaurants that i’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy by the good graces of someone else’s wallet are the ones that i will return to when i am no longer a poor graduate student one day. i have extra happy special memories of eating at places like Jean Georges, Per Se, and WD-50, and they now feel less inaccessible, like i could “belong” there..

  5. Eh, this is basically what they’re doing with Restaurant Week. Not sure I buy your argument that Restaurant Week is aimed at a different crowd. And, frankly, if I’m spending $200 plus per head on a meal, I don’t want to be seated next to a bunch of students.

    Or women with big hair from Dallas, but that’s another story.

  6. Adam, I don’t know if you all have an event like this in New York, but in Chicago we have a week-long event called “Dine Out Chicago,” in August, when participating restaurants offer a prix fixe $20 lunch and $35 dinner. And it’s apparently a charity benefit, too.

    It’s pretty amazing, since some of the best restaurants in town participate — Brasserie Jo, Va Pensiero, Oceanique, et cetera, although the steakhouses and Rick Bayless’ restaurant are MIA. Oh, man, it’s a blast.

    Maybe what you’re proposing is something like this?

  7. Don’t they still have Restaurant Week in New York? Isn’t that the same thing as what you’re proposing? It’s certainly what we editorial assistants used to do back when we were making our sub-living wages.

  8. As a college student, I applaud you for making this post. I know of many foodies at my university (and others) who would love to be able to go out and have an elegant dinner without having to starve for a month living on pot noodle. Maybe such price drops are not done completely out of the kindness of the restaurant owners’ hearts, but even so, it means that students will be able to finally experience fine-dining. If that does happen, you can bet your underpants that we’ll thank you!

  9. bravo! i say extend it to picky-eatin’ elementary school students, in order that their mothers may accompany them and reap the benefits of their barely touched plates!

    I just had a flashback to – well, I’m not sure what motivated me but when I was a college freshman, I took a bus to Ft. Lauderdale and found out that I was too young to get into the bars, but watched w/ fascination, the beefy, drunken frat boys who would stumble out of places like Button’s and The Candy Shoppe bedecked in tiny souvenir schnapps mugs which they wore dangling from pink shoelaces around their sunburned necks.

    What if Nobu and Jean-Georges offered Souvenir Schnapps mugs on pink shoestrings? Could be big.

  10. I think it’s a wonderful idea. Unfortunately, I live in an area somewhat devoid of restaurants the likes of which you are referring to, but I, and many others I know, would love the opportunity to try such food without the tremendous cost that it entails.

    Of course, like you said, it’s probably a pipe dream. But I like the idea anyways :)

  11. Mister AG, may I just salute you from across the pond on the finest blog ever. I am currently working my way through your delicious (and hilarious) back catalogue at work and find myself racing home every evening totally ravenous and feeling inspired to throw some exciting meals together! Much love and blogging respect from England! X

  12. Ha! What a fantastic idea!

    I know that Charlie Trotter does some kind of fine dining meal every now and then for public high school students in Chicago (I don’t know the details) but it’s a start.

  13. Actually, some (if not all) of the Jean George restaurants – JG (Nougatine), Perry St, etc offer a 3-course prix fixe lunch for $24.07 all year round Monday-Friday, whether you’re a student or not.

  14. Here in Philly they have “Restaurant Week” once in the fall, once in the spring. Normally high priced restaurants provide a tasting menu for $30, roughly about 1/3 of what a normal meal at their establishment would cost. I think some of the proceeds go to charities around the area too.

    Being a perpetual student, I love this concept. In a normal week I can’t afford Lolita on my graduate stipend, but I can once a year go with some friends and share some small plates.

  15. Here in Toronto there’s also a restaurant week thing called ‘summerlicious’ and ‘winterlicious’. Only a few of these places are higher end places that are really worth going for , but for a student like me living on a budget it serves as a good opportunity to learn more about fine dining. On the other hand, a lot of small plates/tapas-style places serving high quality, probably fine dining quality food have also opened up around town which gives people like me access to the kind of food which normally would be too far out of reach.

  16. Beyond his numerous culinary accolades, Chef Trotter is very involved in philanthropic activities, which include a vast number of national and international charities. Most close to his heart is the Charlie Trotter Culinary Education Foundation . Since its inception in 1999, Chef Trotter hosts weekly dinners for High School students, as well as underwriting annual fund raising dinners for the foundation. To date the foundation has raised over $475,000 to award to individuals seeking careers in the culinary arts.

    Chef Trotter recently received an award at the White House from both President Bush and Colin Powell for his work with the Foundation and was named one of only five ‘heroes’ to be honored by Colin Powell’s charity, America’s Promise . In 2004, Chef Trotter was awarded the Humanitarian of the Year award by the International Association of Culinary Professionals for his overall service to the community.

  17. Where I’m from (Calgary) we have a three-day event called Taste of Calgary where you can buy “sampling tickets” for 75 cents each, and different restaurants charge you a certain number of tickets for a sample-sized portion of something on the menu. I don’t know if there are *that* many upscale restaurants that are there but it definitely gets people trying foods (and drinks in the “Beverage Garden”!) they don’t usually have a chance to!

  18. I think that you have a great idea there. So many amazing dishes have incredible flavor but a hefty price tag. It would be advantageous to offer a meal that was affordable and tasty. I would love to try some higher-end restaurants. The only thing that’s stopping me is the price. It would be advantageous for both parties to offer a more reasonably priced meal.

    I can only hope that someone with some kind of authority reads this and decides to pursue your idea.

%d bloggers like this: