Occupy Next? The Economics of Privileged Dining

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Next's Paris 1906 duck— 19th century indulgence, 21st century deal?
Next's Paris 1906 duck— 19th century indulgence, 21st century deal? Photo: Nick Kindelsperger

No, no one seems likely to be camping outside Next any time soon, except maybe to hope for tickets. But the discussion recently at LTHForum over the main release of tickets for the new Next Childhood menu suggests that Next’s hyperrational, transparent and relatively affordable pricing and ticketing system is still provoking a wide range of responses including, but not limited to, frustration, resentment, suspicion and class envy.

The original idea behind Next’s ticketing system seemed democratic: by requiring payment up front, Next reduced waste, passing savings along and removing some of the snobbery and gaming of highly desirable reservation. If you got a ticket, you got a ticket. The reality, though, was that each release of Next tickets was a mad scramble that left servers overheating and unsuccessful clickers fuming. The latest release was planned for evening to calm things down a little, but it too drew criticism at LTHForum:

Late night ticket announce exclusively via Facebook is certainly one way to cut down on overloading the system. But at least now we know that the concept of making good food accessible to the masses is total BS. …People who are working, people who don’t spend most of their waking hours on Facebook, they’re being largely cut out of this scheme. The fact that this menu marks the height of first world whimsy only adds insult to injury.

Also, I think this is a pretty self-slecting clientele here. The people with the money/time/wherewithal to go, sure, they (like I) all have internet access, luxury of stalking the website, etc.. But they/we represent a small minority in this country, albeit a minority more than big enough to fill Next several times over.

Some argued for Next being reasonably priced, and ticket releases at midnight being no less fair than any other system:

What exactly would you like the restaurant to do? There are only so many seats and every season only lasts for so long. Are they supposed to run each season until the place is empty, that way they know everyone who wants to eat there has already done so?

At least here, if you’re really dedicated to stalking, you have a chance of snagging a table at $35 a seat.

But poster Vitesse98 remained convinced that it was a sham:

We’re almost getting into the abstract realm of philosophy here, but I think the above is part of the illusion. I’d wager that the only people with the luxury of stalking for those cheap seats are those that can afford the expensive seats.

We understand why people take Next selling out its tickets in a few minutes as a personal affront, because we’re not immune to the feeling— we feel deeply entitled to the opportunity to try everything foodie-wise, and resent being told that there are some things we just can’t have. But then we remember that we say things like that to our kids all the time, and if they can take it, so can we.

Before anyone packs up their sleeping bag and drum to go protest, though, let’s look at the question of just how much a bastion of privilege Next, or even the two-or-three-times-as-expensive Alinea, really is.

If Alinea is the ultimate sensory experience available today, the ultimate indulgence of the flesh, then its equivalent a hundred years ago, an age of indisputable economic inequality and hardship, was no restaurant but rather, the most lavish brothel of the Gilded Age, Chicago’s Everleigh Club. Pulling some rough calculations off the internet, an evening of decadence at the Everleigh Club cost $10 at the door, a bottle of champagne was $12, and your companionship for the evening cost you $50. Assuming you weren’t a total cheapskate, it would have been hard to get out for less than $80. In an age when the median income was $438, that would have been something like two months’ work for the average wage-earner, just to enjoy that single night of pleasure— an impossible sum.

Today, Next will probably run you about $180 a person, depending on time and pairing. And with median household incomes around $47,000, that’s… about a day’s pay. Even Alinea is only about 2-3 days’ pay (until you get into the really expensive wines).

So while any of these meals may be extravagant, and few would choose to blow $200 here instead of on a cell phone, or spring break airfare, or something, the majority of Chicagoans these days could, if they chose to make the trade-off with something else. For us, as frustrating as the ticketing system at Next has sometime been, the fact remains that the extraordinary demand is due to the fact that an extraordinary experience is within reach of so many ordinary people.

Occupy Next? The Economics of Privileged Dining