Do the rich really get richer? I think they do. And I think the current economic troubles will ultimately result in just that: richer rich people.
I have an illustrative example; and though it’s a tiny detail, it’s something I’ve neither seen nor heard of in my 2+ decades of food serving.
A guest was looking through the wine list at Michael’s, and he asked, ‘Do you have any specials?’ I hesitated, then he jumped in with this story: ‘I was at this other place, looking at the list and there was this older vintage Cab priced at $230. It was a good wine, so I asked the manager, “Would you take $150?” He took a second, and then just said, “Okay.”‘
At that point I recalled the recent addition of a Manager’s Specials page to our wine list. That page has mostly orphan bottles we’re trying to eliminate, but there are also some expensive wines offered at a discount. I told this guest that as a corporate restaurant, we couldn’t make deals like he was describing, but maybe he’d find something on this Specials page. Which he did – a nice Napa Cab for $120 that we used to sell for $150.
I wonder, has this haggling been going on elsewhere and I’ve just been sheltered, or is it just starting up? As I said, I’ve never seen it before. The dynamic I see is that the people who still have money are using it as a hammer. They are kicking a restaurant when it’s down.
Don’t get me wrong. This is obviously nothing more than simple capitalism, and the law of supply and demand. That’s America. Even during boom times there are desperate, failing businesses where wise consumers can get serious bargains. No, I don’t blame the rich.
I’m just observing that as the rest of us scrape and squirm to stay current or avoid slipping too far behind, the rich are further solidifying their strength. In my wine example, I have no doubt that this guest was perfectly accustomed to paying the regular list prices for these wines. However, he can smell the fear in the air – or the blood in the water, whatever you want to call it – and he senses he can get over.
I serve a lot of well-to-do guests at both my jobs. White-haired men with pink faces and expensive watches. They will sit down, order a Ketel One on the rocks, and make friendly conversation with their waiter. Lately, the topic is often the economy. I might offer that it’s been awhile since the downturn started, and we’ve been holding our own, but have seen an uptick lately, and maybe this thing has bottomed out . . .
He will shake his head gravely, slowly. He will sip his vodka. ‘I don’t think so. This is a long way from over. It’s going to get worse before it gets better. I just hope you can hang on.’
Then he will order a $50 steak and $175 bottle of wine, and eventually tip 20% on the whole check.
He says he’s worried, but he doesn’t act that way.
I’ve had that conversation twice, and several others that cover similar territory. It always kind of reminds me of the clichéd movie scene where the avuncular-yet-somehow-menacing loan shark puts his arm on the shoulder of the downtrodden anti-hero. The loan shark offers a sympathetic smile, and the words, ‘You know you’re making a mistake, right? But you’re a good guy, so I’m gonna cover you this one last time. I can’t help it, kid. I like you.’
I feel a little bit like that poor sap is me and my restaurant. We’re going down slow; we can’t do anything to stop it. There are but two conclusions to the saga: 1) We hang on long enough until we are rescued by a rallying economy, or 2) We watch our restaurant bled dry of profits (and viability) as we cut prices until everything is a loss leader, with no positive margins to keep us alive.