WD-50’S $308 Menu, Seven-Day Dinner Service

WD-50, Wylie Dufresne’s avant-garde eatery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, hasn’t raised the price of its tasting menu since the fall of 2008. The 11-course meal, which now includes tongue-in-cheek creations like “foie-lafel,” has remained at $140 for nearly 36 months. So that’s why we at The Price Hike and The Bad Deal are honoring WD-50 in our EVEN STEVEN series, which highlights restaurateurs that have maintained stable prices for a year or longer, an impressive feat amid rampant global food inflation. We think stable prices are a better deal than any Groupon or Gilt City discount. 

To learn more about the state of affairs at the Michelin-starred restaurant, we turned to WD-50 spokeswoman Rachael Carron, who’s worked with Dufresne since his days at 71 Clinton Fresh Foods. Carron, over e-mail, discussed price hikes to the a la carte menu, the prospects for becoming a tasting menu-only restaurant, and the outlook for serving dinner seven days a week. (recall that WD-50 dropped its lunch program and cut dinner to five days in 2009 during the heart of the financial crisis): 

How have you managed to keep the price at $140? Food costs are lower on the tasting menu, as the menu is set. It’s harder to plan ordering (what the customers will order and hence what we should order from purveyors) with the a la carte menu… .early this August we made a dollar increase on all a la carte dishes. We offer many gourmet ingredients on the tasting menu (currently they include foie, sweetbreads, quail, and lamb), none of which are cheap, but on a tasting menu portions are smaller and work cumulatively.

Have you been feeling pressure at the margins on food or labor costs. Payroll costs are high for this kind of labor intensive cuisine, so yes. Margins are extremely narrow.

You occasionally offer a extended tasting menu, non? We do offer a longer tasting if customers request it…Each additional course is $14 and it’s up to the diner how long they want to go. We had one diner do 21 courses (that’s about as many courses as we can provide) and I believe we charged him $308.

Any plans for price hikes? No immediate plans for price increases on the Tasting Menu. As it keeps food costs low, is easier from a logistical perspective for the kitchen, and gives us a chance to strut our stuff, we do all we can to encourage diners to select the tasting menu.

What percentage of your guests typically order the tasting menu? It fluctuates between 40 - 60%.  Last week was a record at 60%, maybe
because many of our diners are tourists at this time of year and they want
to sample a broad spectrum of the food. Also Europeans must perceive it as
a real bargain when spending sterling and Euros.

Have you ever considered converting to tasting menu only restaurant, to manage food costs and to better control a diner’s experience? Yes, we have and it’s still a possibility.  Not many restaurants serving this kind of food offer both a la carte and a tasting menu; it’s a lot of work.

How business has been doing amid our shaky economic recovery? We have been very fortunate this year and are consistently busy (it has not always been the case).  We are now in our eighth year of business; maybe the dining public got used to our approach and became less resistant, maybe we can [attribute it to] Chef Dufresne’s presence on TV.

Any plans for a revived lunch service? No, this neighborhood is less accessible in people’s minds than would afford a decent lunch service, though it did start to build a little before the last economic downslide.

You’ve been open every third Tuesday of the month — how’s business on those days and will that program continue or expand? Great, thankfully.  At some point this fall we are planning on going to seven days. (Source: The Bad Deal/The Price Hike)

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