House Accounts: Financially Unsound or Genius Hospitality Move?

Maybe we’ve been watching too much Mad Men or maybe we’re just curious about the habits of the rich and richer, but we’ve been wondering if there any restaurants out there that still offer the elusive “house account.” For those of you without hundred dollar bills lining your suit jackets, it’s a service wherein very good customers of a restaurant are given the option of signing for their check after dining, rather than paying for it immediately. Now in these unpleasant, credit-crunching, recessionary times, who still traffics in such old-fashioned luxuries and why?

In the face of credit cards, it’s surprising that house accounts even still exist. After all, a restaurant still gets paid even if a credit card user doesn’t pay their credit card bill, but with a house account, the restaurant is the one fronting the money. A house account is different (no interest!), but it’s more about a relationship. After all, pretty much anyone can get a credit card, but not just anyone is eligible for house account status. So who still offers them?

We hear Perrier’s restaurant group still allows it for certain customers (though they declined to comment for the story) and Neil Stein was a big fan of the house account back in his heady days of the original Striped Bass. Evan Lambert, owner of Savona on the Main Line, was willing to go on the record about why he offers house accounts at Savona. It’s about the bonding!

How does a house account work at Savona? What are the nuts-and-bolts?
We have a list of who has house accounts; the captains and servers know who they are. They sign their name to the check and it gets closed to their name in our POS system. At the end of the night we tally them up and it goes on their account. We bill them once a month.

How many customers do you offer house account privileges to? What are the criteria to be considered? We have about 25 house accounts. There’s no criteria except that they’re repeat customers - we have to know them pretty well. It’s something we’ve always offered. People ask for it - we don’t solicit them, they ask for it.

Can you describe the general profile of who has a house account?
I would say that they’re typically a little bit older - 40 plus.

Why do you do it?
Well, it’s an old-time convenience and not as popular as it was - people want to use their credit card and get points. It’s slightly retro, but it has a psychological component - a feeling of conviviality. At Savona, we focus a lot on hospitality and getting to know the customer. We try to make the restaurant a part of their lives and the house account does make them feel that they own the relationship with the restaurant. They feel a stronger connection. It’s an excellent tool for a restaurant in a neighborhood whose goals are to create more of a bond with their guests.

Have you ever had anyone not pay up?
Sometimes people pay a little late, but I’ve never had anyone not pay. If it were New York and I had a restaurant, people come and people go, but here people want to pay. No one wants to be the person out there with a local store that says ‘you owe me.” The good old-fashioned handshake works pretty well around here.

House Accounts: Financially Unsound or Genius Hospitality Move?