little luxuries

How Upselling Is Saving Restaurants

If it seems like caviar, truffles, and uni are everywhere, that’s because they are.

Luxury ingredients and supplemental charges are becoming increasingly popular at New York City’s restaurants. Animation: Allie Sullberg
Luxury ingredients and supplemental charges are becoming increasingly popular at New York City’s restaurants. Animation: Allie Sullberg
Luxury ingredients and supplemental charges are becoming increasingly popular at New York City’s restaurants. Animation: Allie Sullberg

Brian Cueto has his iPhone in hand, ready to snap a photo of something delicious. He is sitting at a table at LittleMad, a Korean French restaurant in Manhattan’s NoMad neighborhood, when the Mad Toast arrives. “The first time I had it was like, Wow, it’s amazing,” says Cueto, a software engineer who frequently posts about restaurants on TikTok. “I get it every time I go.” The toast is a slice of buttered bread topped with egg salad, fat-marbled Wagyu beef tartare, and a gleaming layer of Osetra caviar. Then there’s more: A cap of frilly black truffle shavings, and, for an additional $25, the kitchen will “make it mädder” and scoop a pile of Hokkaido sea urchin on top.

“It’s like the pinnacle of ‘treat yourself,’” says Sol Han, the chef and partner of LittleMad, where guests can spoil themselves by adding supplements of uni, caviar, or truffle to pretty much any dish on the menu. “It’s not for everyone, but we have a high demand,” says Han. And as any economics student will tell you, where there is demand, supply is sure to follow.

If it seems like restaurants all over the city are adding luxury-ingredient supplements to their menus, that’s because they are. They run the gamut, from a $20 “bump” of caviar beside a martini to the classic $75-plus shaving of seasonal white truffles. Wagyu is the lavish-beef signifier of choice — be it for burgers, tartare, or straight-up steaks — and you’d be hard-pressed to find a bowl of spaghetti that can’t be topped, for a price, with a few precious lobes of orange urchin. At a certain tier of New York restaurants, once rare luxuries have become everyday ingredients, as much because of their pedigree as their ability to consistently improve restaurants’ bottom lines at a time when operators are working every available angle to remain profitable.

Luxury goods are, by definition, inessential and difficult to obtain. As a result, luxury means expensive. Once, uni hand-harvested from the icy seas near Hokkaido was reserved for diners who could shell out eye-watering amounts of money for a seat at an exclusive sushi counter. Real sturgeon caviar, truffles from Alba, and Wagyu beef bred in Japan were similarly limited and costly. “When I first started in this business in 2008, a lot of these ingredients were only really accessible if you were to go to a white-tablecloth, high-end restaurant,” says Ian Purkayastha, the founder of Regalis, an importer of rare ingredients. But things are different these days. Items that were once very difficult to get are now only slightly difficult to get, leading to better pricing and prevalence. Meanwhile, customers are increasingly happy to spend in order to have them. In other words, we have entered an era of peak “affordable” luxury. “With higher demand, the economics shift. Purveyors are looking for ways in which they can reduce their costs, so they can get it to us at a lower cost,” says Taka Sakaeda, a chef and co-owner of Nami Nori, where the popular hand rolls can be topped with supplemental caviar ($12) or truffles (the always intimidating “market price”).

“Caviar has never been more abundant on menus,” explains Ariel Arce, the owner of several West Village restaurants and the caviar company CaviAIR, “mainly because of the emergence of secondary markets that are offering farmed caviar at much more affordable price points than ever before.”

This is the rare situation where the supply chain is working well to meet customer demand. According to data from the NDP Group, consumer spending at restaurants grew 16 percent by the end of 2021. “We’re just working from home all the time,” says Cueto, the software engineer. “Things can get redundant. For me, it’s a way to experience new things.” And to make up for lost time, every occasion is special. “There’s that pent-up excitement about elevated experiences that we’ve been missing,” says Rich Shank, a menu-pricing specialist at Technomic, a restaurant-consulting company.

Now would be a good time to mention food costs, because the proliferation of luxury ingredients and supplements has as much to do with diners’ tastes as it does with the bottom line. Many restaurants are still compensating for the financial hardship of the past two years, not to mention ongoing supply-chain issues and inflation. One way to keep up with runaway costs is to charge more. Instead of simply increasing prices across the board, operators might use more expensive ingredients to justify a change that can, for example, transform traditional beef tartare into an $89 must-order appetizer of “prime filet” with Osetra caviar, which is what you can order at Le Coucou if you’d like. “You’re giving people value, not just taking the value,” explains Shank.

Supplements are a useful tool for catering to high-spending customers without automatically alienating others, allowing owners to cast the widest net in terms of potential customers, otherwise known as a barbell pricing strategy. Chung Chow, who opened his modern Hawaiian restaurant Noreetuh in 2015, compares it to having a rare bottle of wine in the cellar: “You have to have it in case that billionaire comes in.” On Noreetuh’s menu, Chow has 14 varieties of musubi, offering ingredients that range from the traditional Spam for $5, up to a “luxury trio” that can include uni, caviar, and truffles that, when fully loaded, runs $120. For Chow, choice is an important part of the equation. Offering 15 grams of caviar for $25, as he does elsewhere on Noreetuh’s menu, gives customers the opportunity to splurge, but only if they want to. “Looking at our menu, we have something for everyone,” he says. “For the people who are willing to spend, you have to give them the opportunity to do so.”

There is a perception that supplements are extortionately expensive and an easy way to rip off gullible customers, but generally speaking, restaurant operators also pay a premium for rare ingredients, the costs for which constantly fluctuate. The last white truffle season was a bust, and wholesale prices were almost double what they have been, according to Purkayastha of Regalis. Some Hokkaido uni is harvested in Russian waters, which means supply will become even more limited. Unless an operator is running a fine-dining restaurant, where the cost of a meal is expected to be high, the choice to pass on these costs can be difficult. “Not all the dishes are profitable,” says Han. “Sometimes you eat the food cost, but it will all balance out if you’re doing it correctly.”

Doing it correctly might mean selling a few more margin-friendly cocktails and resorting to some creative budgeting. Sakaeda and his partners at Nami Nori see luxury ingredients and supplements as an amenity that enhances the experience, so they don’t mark them up as much as they probably could. “These are ways that we can get people into the restaurant and get them excited about what we’re doing,” he explains. The ingredients alone are not profitable, but their appeal keeps the restaurant competitive and their popularity maintains certain levels of volume. “At one point, our uni purveyor was saying, out of all his accounts, we were selling the most,” he adds. It’s a self-reinforcing approach — the demand gives Sakaeda better negotiating power and guarantees a fresher product at a better price.

Of course, upselling is a skill unto itself, and for front-of-house staffers who would love to help willing customers spend more, managing expectations around luxury ingredients can be the difference between keeping guests happy or leaving them feeling cheated. Most of the time, this conversation happens at the table. One former server (who asked to remain anonymous), with experience at several high-end restaurants including Wolfgang Puck’s CUT steakhouse in Tribeca, says that, where supplements are concerned, transparency is key. “Something I learned over time was to subtly confirm with a table that they were aware of how much they were spending,” the server explains, using the example of a menu that prices steak by the ounce. “I don’t think people quite realize what an ounce means,” and if you didn’t help them grasp that fully before the check arrived, “you were more likely to hear, ‘Excuse me, I’m paying what for this?’”

When done right, supplements can be a mutually beneficial model: A customer has a good experience, a restaurant has more cash to pay the bills, and the front of house stands to benefit as well: “It allows the service staff to wow the guest,” says the former server. “Bringing the truffle to the table and making it rain, people love that.” And then there’s the more obvious upside: “Anytime you raise the cost of the bill, you’re most likely going to make more in tips.”

There is of course concern over the long-term sustainability of these ingredients, many of which face tenuous futures. “It’s a fine line to walk,” says Regalis’s Purkayastha. “We could be spinning our wheels building up demand for products that may not be around.” But for now, any strategy that can raise check averages as well as morale in the dining room won’t be going anywhere. And for the customers who are willing to pay, operators will be happy to indulge their appetites. “At the end of the day, we do it for the guests’ experience,” says Han from LittleMad. “So why not? Why the hell not?” And besides, he adds, “if you don’t want to pay for it, that’s up to you.”

How Upselling Is Saving Restaurants