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Restaurant Biz: Optional Up-Charges for Higher Quality Alternatives

I have a friend who helps run a suburban shopping-strip Italian restaurant/pizzeria. It's a family place, nothing fancy, and they also serve really great beer. The guy's into great food and beer, but the place uses this awful canned red sauce, because economics won't allow them to make it from scratch. The main owner is perfectly happy with this sauce - he's not about quality, it's more about status quo. But I know it quietly eats away at my friend to have to serve this sauce.

I'm going to propose an idea to him, but while it seems completely viable to me, my spidey sense tells me I'm missing a problem (compounded by the fact that just about no one does what I'm proposing). Can you help suss out the downside?

Here's the email I wrote (but didn't send yet):

I understand the economics of family Italian restaurants. It's impossible to make everything from scratch, even if you want to. You'd need to charge more than customers would pay. If you made really great from-scratch marinara, you'd need to raise prices. It's risky! But I thought of a way to sneak into it with no risk.

You know how some diners let you order real maple syrup for an extra buck? How about an option to add on "super-charged marinara" (to dishes, pasta, pizza, dipping for apps, etc) for an extra $3 or $4? It'd work like any other up-charged side.

Customers who like the regular sauce won't have to change a thing. But you'd be able to please customers who do care about the diff, so you'd be more versatile. The up-charges would be some nice income (it adds up!). Plus...you'd have some really good sauce, which would be closer to the way I know you'd like to do it.

It's the same as what you're doing in the beer bar: offering Coors, plus an option for expensive beer for those who care. Choice is good!

If this worked, you could also maybe charge for super-charged mozz and other stuff. Customers (and your partner!) couldn't complain, because the guts of the restaurant wouldn't change. Unless, that is, if everybody starts up-paying for premium stuff. If that happened, you'd have lots of interesting options in terms of more creative and higher-quality choices.

I don't see any downside. This would guarantee at least some extra income, and allow you to please a wider variety of customers, and give the business a lot more versatility going forward.

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  1. "the place uses this awful canned red sauce, because economics won't allow them to make it from scratch."

    You have that ass backwards. They have bad economics because they serve crap. A decent homemade marinara costs no more to make than a bad canned one.

    4 Replies
    1. re: PotatoHouse

      I agree...if they were to use canned tomatoes, and im sure they would be, how much more would a few aromatics, maybe some inexpensive wine or broth and seasonings cost for a marinara?

      My issue would not be so much the ' nickle and Dime' thing as would be wanting to know whats so inferrior about the current sauce that they are offering a choice.

      1. re: PotatoHouse

        No, my ass is facing properly forward. Er, backward.

        The place prints money. Which is why the owner's complacent and doesn't want to change a thing.

        It's strictly a pride issue for the junior partner (I'm simplifying the relationship, but you get the drift), nothing more.

        1. re: Jim Leff

          Then he should probably get over himself if everyone else (including the customers) is happy. It's not about him and his pride.

          1. re: Jim Leff

            Lots of places that are successful for years don't want to change anything for fear of jinxing that success....if it ain't broke....don't fix it.

        2. The choice to use canned marinara may not be based on economics alone. They may not have the cooler space to support all of the ingredients required to make sauce from scratch but may have plenty of space in their dry storage for cans. There may not be enough stove space to let the scratch sauce simmer for hours. They may not have the manpower required to cut and chop all of the fresh ingredients.

          There are some scenarios where offering an upsell is a great idea that requires little to no extra space, cost, or effort. Selling a bottle of Dogfish Head 90 Minute IPA instead of a bottle of Coors is a great example. Making a consistent sauce from scratch each and every day just may not be a viable option in this case.

          3 Replies
          1. re: jpc8015

            They've got lots of cooler space. And the efficiency of the kitchen involves following long-established methods, which a critical mass of customers is ok with.

            This is a means for my friend to take pride, and to gingerly feel out the crowd's threshold for quality/price upticks without upsetting the cart to violently.

            1. re: Jim Leff

              You say in your response above that the place is doing quite well. Why change something and possibly disrupt the apple cart for pride?

              1. re: Jim Leff

                If the only issue is pride and a desire to offer a more culinary type sauce, I would not do what you suggest in your unsent email and risk disappointing the healthy base of loyal customers.

                I think what you suggest is risky. But creating entirely new offerings as specials or a chef's choice or specialty part of the menu where he can create what he'd like and test the customer response could satisfy his creative impulses while keeping the rest the way folks apparently like it.

            2. These type of premium charges are more typical at higher end restaurants -- e.g., a restaurant with a 3-course prix-fixe option where you can pick any app, entrée, and dessert, except that there is an upcharge for the foie gras app or soufflé dessert, etc.

              I can imagine a scenario at a pizza joint where there was a set price per topping of x, but the house-made sausage or fresh clams were 2x, for example. Charging extra for something as basic as a better tomato sauce, however, would be off-putting to me as a patron. And, as others have pointed out, the economics might not work anyway -- especially if the extra cost for the premium sauce resulted in only a few patrons ordering it, such that it would be difficult to recover the costs of the extra labor and ingredients involved.

              4 Replies
              1. re: masha

                Not a pizza joint (sorry, I wasn't clear). Nice sit-down restaurant doing pizza and pasta with waitress service. Not super cheap, but definitely not upscale. And doing perfectly fine. No economic imperative to take this step. Just a pride thing for my friend.

                1. re: masha

                  And unlike, say, beer, uneaten sauce can't be kept forever. And that IS wasting money. As has been written here, I think the friend needs to have a little talk with himself and just suck it up. Or move on. I have a chef friend who left his previous executive chef job at a pretty cutting edge place. Due to "issues." He's now working where I'm sure he's disappointed at how few options he has for doing innovative and better cooking. But that's his job. For now.

                  1. re: c oliver

                    I think that's the key.

                    If I went to a restaurant and they charged extra to add clams to the red sauce, I wouldn't blink. If they offered an upsell for the good tomato sauce, I'd think "What the $@$#! Their default is mediocre tomato sauce and you have to pay extra to get the edible stuff?" and I'd probably walk away without ordering.

                    Unless the whole key of the restaurant was that they had a selection of different sauces at different price points, for you to assemble a pasta dish - I know a chicken soup place like that, where there are different prices for regular, free range, black skin, and vegetarian chicken.

                    Even if it's not difficult to do, logistics wise, I think this would be a bad business decision, and likely to hurt the bottom line.

                    As it is - the restaurant is popular and is making steady money. The main owner likes things the way it is and doesn't want to change things. If this guy wants to do things differently, he probably needs to start his own restaurant, and take the risk himself.

                    1. re: tastesgoodwhatisit

                      This is where marketing comes in. You (probably) can't sell "the good sauce" at a higher price. However, "Mario's Nana's Special Sauce" or "Puglian-style Tomato Sauce" might pull in a little extra.

                2. As a customer, I would feel nickel-and-dimed if I was asked if I wanted the regular or super-charged sauce with every dish. I am thinking of how often my husband and I would encounter that sauce in a typical dinner -- calamari appetizer, eggplant parmesan, ravioli. Would the server ask, "Would you like regular or super-charged sauce?" with each dish? That would irritate me and make me feel like the standard sauce is substandard, even if I enjoyed it before. I wouldn't have a problem paying extra for a different sauce altogether, nor would I mind paying a fair price for a special featuring "our special small batch fresh marinara." I know that is not so rational, but consumers usually aren't.

                  1 Reply
                  1. re: Tara57

                    Good point. But probably 95% of customers are long-time regulars (it's a small town, and the place serves regulars). It's not a walk-in crowd, so there's some tolerance and good will built up.

                    Also, customers don't need the option rubbed in their faces. It can just be a quiet alternative for those who are curious, wealthy, or who've been quietly putting up with bad sauce for years wishing it'd be improved (sauce aside, the food's pretty good here). If it works, an interesting thing has been learned, and my friend can perhaps introduce other improvements. It's hard to propose improvements in a successful restaurant. That's what my proposal is trying to achieve.

                  2. I have trouble believing that the price difference between "awful canned sauce" and an acceptably tasty substitute costs so much as to justify a substitution charge.

                    2 Replies
                    1. re: jaykayen

                      Because the restaurant is successful, the majority partner has zero incentive to ever change/improve anything. If we're going to talk strict economics, status quo wins, and sauce never improves.

                      I'm trying to help my friend slide in an upgrade in a way that will pay for itself and not threaten the status quo too badly. Sneaky-like.

                      1. re: Jim Leff

                        If that business thrives due to long time regulars, you can't sneak it by them, they HATE changes, they go for reliability. Bad business idea.

                    2. I agree with others that the manpower and storage may be an issue, as well as customers feeling nickle and dimed somehow.

                      What about creating a "daily special" or something similar that features this sauce? I'm thinking of the incredible yet simple spaghetti at scarpetta... Perhaps this would be a way to both introduce customers to it as well as price it appropriately.

                      1. I LOVE IT!

                        What a great idea! Especially if they make it in small batches and run out of it most nights..... Trust me, that will build up some demand for it, even with the regulars...

                        1 Reply
                        1. I'd look carefully at the economics of making sauce. It can't be that much more expensive to make it scratch.

                          But you need a good recipe and serious quality control.

                          How about goosing the bought stuff to get it up to snuff?

                          3 Replies
                          1. re: sal_acid

                            To the thread as a whole (not just you, sal_acid),

                            Two things:

                            1. NOTHING is as easy and cheap as opening a big can of sauce and sloshing it over everything. Nothing.

                            2. The place doesn't have a problem which needs solving. So they're not interested in changing their basic procedures.

                            If the issue was "My goodness, our red sauce is a problem, how do we solve it?" my proposal would be convoluted to the point of complete insanity. I'm not insane. I'm trying to work around an issue. If you have light to shed ON THIS ISSUE, that'd be great. Thanks!

                            1. re: Jim Leff

                              Like I said, How about goosing the canned stuff to get it where you want it?

                              I resist up-selling. I wouldn't pay for the special sauce.

                              In fact I'd never go back to a pizza place who pulled that move.

                              1. re: sal_acid

                                The problem is that the customers seem to like the sauce as it is. They're not losing business, they're not complaining, the place is actually doing quite well (which is pretty good for a restaurant in this economy).

                                Changing the sauce might make the cook happier, but drive away the existing customer base.

                                Ultimately, if you want to run a successful business, the owner's pride has to take second place to what the customers want and what sells well. Otherwise, you'll end up carrying that sense of pride to your going out of business sale.

                          2. Honestly, I would wonder why they want me to pay more for tastier sauce. I would be going in with the assumption that they're already trying to put out the best product possible at a basic level, and I'd be turned off if I found out that wasn't actually the case. To me, it just calls attention the the fact that the regular sauce is crappy.

                            3 Replies
                            1. re: lngrunert

                              "t just calls attention the the fact that the regular sauce is crappy"

                              What if it's billed not as an upgrade, but as a new sauce with a fancy name (and a +$2 upcharge)?

                              And have it actually just be really good marinara (which, compared to the place's usual red, would indeed taste like something fancy and exotic).

                              You see a problem with that?

                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                "And have it actually just be really good marinara (which, compared to the place's usual red, would indeed taste like something fancy and exotic)."

                                That's the problem for me, I would see through it immediately. You would have to clearly delineate why it is worth the extra $$$ for me to buy in. "Pay more for fresh, delicious sauce" doesn't impress me at all, it's what should be happening in the first place.

                              2. It's an interesting idea, and you're explained it very well, I think; but you've also clarified in your follow-ups exactly why it probably won't fly.

                                No one but you and your friend seem unhappy with the regular sauce; you've said it's simply a pride issue for him. But we don't change menu items to satisfy the egos of the junior partner or chef -- we exist to satisfy our guests. If the guests are happy and the place prints money and there aren't any complaints about the sauce then there isn't a lot of support for any kind of change.

                                And some posters here have it quite wrong; it *does* cost more to do things from scratch, even if they are better, than from a can, because time is money. So even if the can costs more off the shelf, the prep time adds up.

                                Offering a better sauce is in fact admitting that the regular sauce isn't very good and everyone will indeed see through that right away, so that will be counter-productive. You're saying, "Our regular shitty sauce is included for free but if you want the good sauce it's four bucks extra." Don't think for a minute that anyone won't see that.

                                And while you are admitting that you know they can't afford to make their sauce from scratch, you are suggesting that they do just that as well as continuing to make their regular sauce, which only adds to their costs without any guarantee they will recoup their additional costs. Better that they switch entirely to the new sauce and raise their prices without giving guests any choice; at least then they will sell the new sauce without having a batch of it lying around unsold.

                                It takes just as much time and effort to make a small batch daily as a big batch. So in addition to everything they have to do every day, now they have to do this and hope some of it will sell. And what if it doesn't? Do they just stick it in the cooler? Try to sell it the next day? For how many days before they throw it out? How long do they call it "Fresh"? Can't call it "Fresh Daily" on the second day, right?

                                Your last paragraph is problematic because what you are proposing is, in fact, *only* downside: there is only extra expense and no guaranteed extra income. If they've done customer surveys showing a significant degree of dissatisfaction with the sauce then maybe you have evidence to propose such a change but in the absence of that I think this is a non-starter. The Big Boss's first question is going to be "Why should I?" and your only real response is going to be a stammering "Um, no reason, I guess..."

                                The manager of a very successful steakhouse culinary division once told me: "This place is an accounting firm that just happens to have food." You don't do a damned thing you can't justify with a spreadsheet down to the tenth of a penny.

                                I am not for a second suggesting you, your friend or anyone else serve lousy food. But if his guests are happy and you can't justify upgrading the sauce overall then it's not a great business decision. Sometimes we do these things anyway because we need to be able to sleep at night. But that's why we go out on our own and don't rely on partners.

                                6 Replies
                                1. re: acgold7

                                  "And some posters here have it quite wrong; it *does* cost more to do things from scratch, even if they are better, than from a can, because time is money. So even if the can costs more off the shelf, the prep time adds up. "

                                  Whether the time is a significant cost all depends on whether it is active cook time. Dump a bunch of ingredients in a pot and cook for two hours doesn't require a lot of staff time or attention. Its two hours cooking, but only 10 minutes of actual work.

                                  1. re: sal_acid

                                    Well, maybe yes, maybe no. You're not simply dumping ingredients into a pot in most cases, or else it's not going to be much better than the canned stuff. Presumably you are using fresh ingredients which require inspecting upon receipt with your delivery (or you shopping for them daily), sorting, washing, peeling, cutting, slicing, dicing and/or chopping, and then when they go into the pot, probably sautéing in stages if you know what you are doing, and then you're not going to send someone home or have them clock out; they have to be around to stir the pot every few minutes so it doesn't burn, especially if it's tomato-based.

                                    Yes, obviously the staff will be around doing other things so the incremental labor time after that might not be much if you plan correctly, but what if things get screwed up and it happens that they must do this at the end of the day? Don't laugh; it's not as rare an occurrence as you might think. Don't ask me how I know.

                                    1. re: sal_acid

                                      Whether they simply stir the pot...or watch the pot ...you still have to pay them the same two hours.

                                      But i would disagree with you regarding the amount of attention needed to make a pot of sauce...or even some soups. The bottom of the pot can burn very easily if not scraped.

                                    2. re: acgold7

                                      "No one but you and your friend seem unhappy with the regular sauce; you've said it's simply a pride issue for him. But we don't change menu items to satisfy the egos of the junior partner or chef -- we exist to satisfy our guests"

                                      I'd like you (and those echoing your line) to consider and reply on the following question:

                                      If human beings don't have any meaningful reason to do better than whatever is necessary to achieve economic success, and if bucking that reality indicates nothing more than dumb ego, deserving of sneering dismissal on the web site most devoted to celebrating venues which lie furthest up the curve of declining results and offering a level of quality that's seldom rewarded, then what hope is there for the world?

                                      1. re: Jim Leff

                                        I applaud your friend's pride in his own creativity. The problem is just that it's not his business and his aspirations don't match the owner's. His striving might be a better match for some other proprietor's own ideals, and may your friend one day own his own establishment and have free rein.

                                        He gets to choose for himself, but not for an owner who's got different goals. Not sneering, just practical, izzall.

                                        1. re: Jim Leff

                                          >>>what hope is there for the world?<<<

                                          Wow, really? Over canned red sauce?

                                          Gosh, Jim, with all due respect, I anticipated and already answered that question in the last paragraph of my prior post. You gotta read *all* the words, sweetie.

                                          Most people here have been very respectful of you and your friend's desire to take pride in the food. But all have also been realistic that this is a business that neither of you own and you are potentially jeopardizing someone else's profits and taking on none of the risk. I would guess that neither you nor your friend will lose their house if this business fails.

                                          ==economics won't allow them to make it from scratch
                                          ==The place prints money
                                          ==It's strictly a pride issue for the junior partner, nothing more
                                          ==the efficiency of the kitchen involves following long-established methods, which a critical mass of customers is ok with
                                          ==definitely not upscale. And doing perfectly fine. No economic imperative to take this step. Just a pride thing for my friend
                                          ==probably 95% of customers are long-time regulars
                                          ==It's hard to propose improvements in a successful restaurant
                                          ==Because the restaurant is successful, the majority partner has zero incentive to ever change/improve anything
                                          ==The place doesn't have a problem which needs solving
                                          ==the restaurant is functioning at this point
                                          ==there's always a danger in saying "new and improved"
                                          ==they don't want to go near the point of conceding that their current sauce is drek

                                          You asked for us to tell you the downsides of this idea that you are missing. I think the responses to date have done a very comprehensive job of this without portending the end of the world. But based on your own very thorough analysis, above, I don't think you've missed much.

                                          But when the situation gets this intolerable, that's when you know it's time to strike out on your own and risk your own money and march to the beat of your own drummer, as they say.

                                      2. Generally speaking, I don't like it when restaurants make something an "extra". Doesnt matter if its an extra sauce, an extra vegetable accompaniment or, even, an extra dish that says that'll be more than the table d'hote menu price.

                                        I pay it, of course, when I have to - like, say, to get a carb with the dish - but I never like it. It just never feels like this is my understanding of how the hospitality business should work.

                                        1. Two problems i see here. 1st, they're killing it with the crappy sauce. Their clientele might love the canned stuff. As others have said, why change?
                                          2nd: how does one advertise this on the menu without turning off the customers who like the crappy sauce?

                                          Large cheese pizza with shitty sauce from a can that I wouldn't serve my dog: $7.99

                                          Large cheese pizza with a freshly made marinara that's so much better than the crap we've been serving you for years: $10.99

                                          4 Replies
                                          1. re: bobbert


                                            Going too far the other way now. Customers aren't smearing shitty red all over their faces in a state of jubilant exultation screaming "we love it!"

                                            The restaurant just barely gets away with it in an area without lots of alternatives (at least at this price point).

                                            I'm not the only customer who'd appreciate better. The range runs from 1. customers who love the place and the people, and who manage to eat there by never ordering red sauce to 2. people who aren't particularly picky but who'd pay another couple bucks if you offered them something great to 3. Those who don't give a damn at all. Sections one and two of the clientele would adopt. And more chowhoundish customers are mostly avoiding, but could be won back.

                                            So I'm not the only customer who'd want this.

                                            I'm not sure why it's got to be all one way or the other. The point is that the restaurant is functioning at this point, so the main owner, understandably, is loathe to fool with the formula. The junior owner understands that the restaurant could function as well or better if this improvement were made, but doesn't know how to sneak it in without making the senior partner nervous. I'm trying to help. And the answer isn't a simplistic "Screw it, just improve the damned sauce, it's cheap and easy!" nor is it "Screw his pride, just keep doing what makes money". I'm looking for a more nuanced solution that keeps everyone happy.

                                            And I've answered your second question above in the thread. Don't call it "better version". Call it "new sauce name". Just another sauce choice ("Salsa Vestutzia" or something) that happens to cost extra. An in-the-know option.

                                            1. re: Jim Leff

                                              I went extreme to try and make a point. If all of a sudden prices on all the red sauce pizzas went up or worse, I'm now given a choice between what I've been (apparently) enjoying based on the "new" product being made with higher quality ingredients my first thought, as a customer, is "what have they been serving me until this point?" It's a fairly precarious road to travel, one that i certainly would be hesitant to venture on with my successful business.
                                              Maybe some sort of "gourmet" creations that did not overlap with the current successful pizzas? I think it was Domino's that successfully changed their product by advertising that they were serving crappy pizza but now they learned their lessons and have put out a new, better product. Took some nerve but it worked for them.

                                              1. re: bobbert

                                                Agreed, there's always a danger in saying "new and improved". Kinda similar to Ivory advertising 99-44/100% purity (what's the rest, vomit?).

                                                So, yeah, they don't want to go near the point of conceding that their current sauce is drek. Domino's can get away with that better than a biz in this position.

                                                That's why I suggested rebranding. Call it a new sauce, not an improved sauce.

                                                1. re: Jim Leff

                                                  Many restaurants test new ideas and new dishes as "specials".
                                                  Could this be a way for your friend to intoduce his "italian grandmother sauce made with san marzano tomatoes" or whatever he names it? The customers would be less likely to compare it to existing dishes and perhaps more honest with feedback about pricing.

                                          2. 1. Make a batch of sauce with notes on cost.

                                            2. Offer it as an option to all your customers if they'll give you feedback. Did you like our new sauce or our classic one better?

                                            3. Collect feedback, decide on new or old sauce.

                                            I wouldn't be charging anything extra for doing it right.

                                            Storage or cost really isn't an issue. A decent bright and fresh tomato sauce is dirt cheap to make, easy to can or jar and store.

                                            2 Replies
                                            1. re: Zalbar

                                              Good one, thanks. Their customers are like family, that's the sort of thing that's done anyway.

                                              Problem is, again, "dirt cheap and easy" though it is, it is NOT as cheap and easy as slathering from a can. And senior owner doesn't see a problem to be solved....and this sounds a little too much like problem solving to get his approval.

                                              1. re: Jim Leff

                                                If he's really passionate about it he can do it on his own dime. If you get overwhelming approval, senior management would be stupid not to listen to their clients.

                                            2. After more consideration...
                                              For me the only reason to rock the boat would be if the canned sauce is significantly more expensive. And I'd be reluctant to do even that if business is good, with people who appear to like the status quo.

                                              A change won't bring in new business and will surely alienate some of your existing customers.

                                              You want to have a new line of distinctly different "designer" pizzas with new/better stuff (without changing the basic pizza that you woul dcontinue to sell)?...that's different. profitable? who knows?

                                              1 Reply
                                              1. re: sal_acid

                                                You want to have a new line of distinctly different "designer" pizzas with new/better stuff (without changing the basic pizza that you woul dcontinue to sell)?...that's different. profitable? who knows?

                                                That's precisely what I'm suggesting. But not just pizza.

                                              2. The place is successful and the owner is content with the decisions he makes and the running of the restaurant; your employee friend is not. In that situtation, I would start looking for another job at a place where the food quality and management were a better fit for me. It's not his restaurant. I thin the thing that bothers me the most about this is that marinara is a basic item, not a luxury item (like foie gras) and to couch it as a special ingredient and charge extra seems like nickel and dimeing.

                                                1. I usually pay extra for the better beer, sometimes for the better Bourbon, but never for the top shelf margarita.
                                                  I would hate to even be asked to pay an upcharge for such a staple as red sauce at a "suburban shopping-strip Italian restaurant/pizzeria...family place, nothing fancy".
                                                  HOWEVER, maybe your friend could offer a Tonight's Special using his magic sauce.

                                                  3 Replies
                                                  1. re: AreBe

                                                    That might be the best gentle approach, you're right. Make a kick-ass sauce, offer it on a special, give the sauce a custom name ("salsa atlantica" or something) so it's not directly competing with - and shaming - the house red), and try to get customers hooked on it (per Zalbar's suggestion, offer tastes around the room, ala "check out this new item we're developing). Once they're hooked, go to my proposal, and let customers order a side of salsa atlantica at any time as a smart insider's move for a buck or two extra.

                                                    Eventually, add it on as a supplemental pizza bonus ("substitute salsa atlantica for tomato sauce for a supplement).


                                                    1. re: Jim Leff

                                                      Also, as a concession to those on the thread insisting that from-scratch can be as cheap and easy as canned, sure: do a cost/time assessment, and if the new sauce can be offered without extra charge, so much the better. If customers can be hooked on it, that's all the incentive senior owner needs. It's sort of an "end run".

                                                      1. re: Jim Leff

                                                        I'm sorry but I worked at a place that made marinara daily from scratch...now, they ordered the best tomatoes and spices, some from Italy; the best imported olive oil, etc. In this case, the price was not as cheap as it could have been.

                                                        That aside, the time involved with making a basic marinara takes a few minutes to put in a pot. There will be the occasionally stirring of the pot, perhaps another few minutes to layer the flavors in active time. The rest is allowing the sauce to simmer for a few hours. So yes, it will cost a bit more but there is not a whole lot involved with the actual making the sauce.

                                                  2. Plenty of pizza places in Manhattan offer the option of buffalo mozzeralla for an extra buck or two. Maybe your friend could specify the tomatoes he'll use - San Marzano, heirloom, cage-free, whatever - since a more expensive ingredient is easier to explain (and less subjective) than just calling the pricier sauce "better."

                                                    1. So sort of a "secret" higher-quality menu for discerning customers? It already exists at a better restaurant. There's a reason people go to restaurants liek these and a reason people avoid them and go to better restaurants. You aren't going to sell a $12 burger at McDonald's.

                                                      2 Replies
                                                      1. re: ferret

                                                        "So sort of a "secret" higher-quality menu for discerning customers "

                                                        Yes, that's kind of what I was actually aiming for here. I've gotten some good ideas (create scarcity, offer samples, rebrand rather than call it "better"), and if anything else occurs to you, please shout it out....

                                                        1. re: Jim Leff

                                                          What I was getting is that it's a fairly bad idea. If people are already going there then they're content with the price point and the food. Trying to create a different restaurant within that restaurant is a bad idea.

                                                      2. Consistency is also an issue. The owner knows that the sauce he gets from the can or jar is going to be exactly the same each and every time. The sauce that is made from scratch will vary batch by batch; it has to. Tomato season comes and goes, some garlic is spicier than other garlic, some basil has a more anise flavor than the traditional basil flavor. One off batch of sauce can alienate a segment of the clientel.

                                                        1. I'm not sure your first sentence will go over well, you're telling the owner that you know his business better than he does. That sentence may create a harsh reaction.

                                                          1. I've now read 50 replies and am read to chime in.

                                                            If I were a regular and offered the special sauce at an upcharge, I'd either ignore it, be offended or ask for a free sample of the new item. Regulars should be offered free tastings to stimulate sales.

                                                            That said I'd approach it as some of our local 'red-sauce joints' handle pasta (and this establishment sounds like such a place).

                                                            Gnocchi with Marinara Sauce $11.95
                                                            House Made Gnocchi with Marinara Sauce $14.95

                                                            Customers are offered a choice between commercial and made in house pasta (same variety) at different prices. This is no different than Glass of House Wine $4.95, Glass of XXXX brand wine $6.95.

                                                            The Pasta section of the menu could read:

                                                            All of our pasta is available with the following choice of sauces:
                                                            Marinara $10.95
                                                            Antonio's Family Recipe Marinara $13.95 (has a little kick)
                                                            Garlic and Oil $11.95
                                                            Mushroom Sauce $13.95
                                                            Meat Sauce $13.95
                                                            Clam Sauce $13.95 Red or White
                                                            Clam Sauce with Fresh Clams $13.95 Red or White (comes with 3 or 4 small clams in the shell on top of the dish)

                                                            It's all in the sales technique.

                                                            BUT NEVER could you get away offering a second red dauce as a substitute for all dishes at a specific upcharge, that says our regular sauce is crap.

                                                            1. Does the tomato sauce go straight from the can directly on to the pizza or pasta dish? What about a compromise? Sauté garlic and onions, some herbs, hot pepper flakes, cook the canned tomato sauce for a few minutes, add a little sugar if needed, etc....

                                                              As a kid I hated canned tomatoes and jarred sauce and thought tomato paste was putrid and not fresh tasting, but now as an adult, while still not my favorite, I do, rarely, use canned plum tomatoes as a last resort, just doctored up.

                                                              1. I'm all in favor of trying new things because people can always learn from that. It could be that business would further improve. The idea of doctoring up existing canned product should be the easiest and least risky.

                                                                1. To be honest, if you friend keeps pushing this, he's going to come across as a junior cook with delusions of grandeur.

                                                                  By the sounds of it, someone else owns the restaurant and your friend has been hired to cook and manage (ie, he's not a part owner). He's floated the idea of changing the pasta sauce, and the owner is not keen on it - what he has is cheaper and people appear to like it just fine.

                                                                  It may offend your friend's artistic sensibility to have to cook this way, but that's the job he was hired to do, and that's the price of working in the field - you cook what you're hired to do, which is not necessarily not what you want to, or what expresses your creativity and sensibility.

                                                                  If he wants, he can build up the experience and move to a higher class restaurant, or save up to try to open his own place, rather than trying to convince his boss to change the restaurant so he's less offended by the menu.

                                                                  I have musician friends who absolutely loathe Pachelbel's canon, because it's played at every wedding. But if they take a wedding job, they do so knowing they're going to have to play it - it's not their job to educate their employer into more refined musical tastes.

                                                                  1. I wouldn't put it in terms that translate so easily into "the usual awful stuff" and "finally something decent for those of you who, nudge nudge, know we usually serve crap."

                                                                    Rather, he could add an entirely new menu item called "sugo di pomodoro" or "traditional ragù" or, even better, something with another ingredient, such as bucatini (or spaghetti) all'amatriciana or sugo di tonno or something -- even penne all'arrabbiata -- and use decent tomatoes (definitely canned; his fresh would probably never measure up to good canned and would be a major pain).

                                                                    I can't imagine what you mean by "super-charged mozz," but many pizzerias here in Rome offer the option of mozzarella di bufala. That approach should be feasible for him.

                                                                    But I would do this gradually and diplomatically so that it doesn't put the rest of the menu, and the faithful customers who have been paying for it for years, in a bad light.

                                                                    1. I think the question that needs to be asked is this:
                                                                      Has the restaurant EVER adjusted its menu? I mean, at all? And, no, unfortunately adding a couple better beers does not count.

                                                                      If they have ever changed/added to/modified the menu, then find out how that was handled. There may be a blueprint on how to handle this change.

                                                                      And actually, I partially retract my statement about the beers. If the better beers were a new addition at some point, and now they sell like hotcakes, perhaps that's "evidence" that better food will sell, too. (Of course, if the more expensive beer barely moves, well...)

                                                                      (Finally, all this pre-supposes that the fresh marinara really is good. There are plenty of people who think their cooking is the s#!t, and it actually sux. Or, is good for a dinner for six, but does not translate well into the industrial quantities needed for a busy restaurant.)