Bento Boxing
by Amy Tarr

Prix fixe dining is far from a new concept in the restaurant industry. When paying à la carte, patrons are apt to skip dessert or appetizers and just order an entrée to save both money and time. But restaurants offering special menus that include multiple courses for a set price can convince diners to pay more because they see it as a value. From diners’ perspective, they are getting a meal that is considerably cheaper than if they ordered the courses separately.

Prix fixe menus can help increase the restaurant’s profit margins. The basic economic principle behind set price menus in fine dining restaurants is the same as that behind the value meal offers used by fast food restaurants - a tactic that has driven their sales up over the past two decades. Known as bundling in economics, the practice involves pairing individual items for one price as a package deal. By pairing low margin (high cost) food items with high margin (low cost) ones, restaurants can balance out food costs and increase their profits. “You know exactly what people are going to spend when they walk through the door,” says one chef about prix fixe menus. “You can balance your food costs very well.”

The prix fixe option also works well at restaurants that serve lunch or pre-theater dinner because guests generally have a limited amount of time to eat. But a three-course prix fixe service still requires time and money on the part of the restaurant. Three courses per person can overload the most capable wait staff and kitchen crew, especially when patrons aim to eat and run in an hour or so. And three courses per patron can amount to a lot of broken dishes.

A new trend is emerging in restaurants that can shave time and money off of the dining experience for restaurants and patrons alike – bento box meals. American chefs are adapting the traditional Japanese lunch box for their own purposes, offering a new twist in prix fixe dining. The economics of the bento box make sense. Instead of three courses, with three sets of plates, not to mention at least three trips for the wait staff, some restaurants are serving multiple courses in one elegant box, with separate compartments for various savories and sweets. Call it a TV dinner for the 21st century epicure.

French Master Chef Jean-Marie Lacroix serves two versions of a bento box lunch at his eponymous restaurant at the Rittenhouse Hotel in Philadelphia. One version is a business lunch designed for executives. For $24, Lacroix serves four courses in small bowls that are set on a wooden tray with cutouts for each dish. The restaurant also offers a box tailored to the genteel “ladies-who-lunch” crowd, called the Petite Menu (for a petite price). Chef Lacroix says that about half of the lunch orders on any given day are for the petite menu, which, for $18, includes soup, salad, and an entrée, usually a piece of fish. There is no dessert included in this bento box, but Lacroix says that customers usually end up ordering dessert because they’re not full. “That’s where you can make money,” he says. Lacroix’s bento boxes are a convenient vehicle for serving his reinterpreted French classics in a quick, hassle-free way. With the bento boxes, Lacroix says, he gets people in and out for lunch quickly and people come because of it.

Chef Troy Thompson at Jer-ne Restaurant at the Ritz-Carlton, Marina del Rey in California, is also a booster of the bento box. Thompson offers bento box meals on his breakfast, lunch and dinner menus, and definitely sees this inventive presentational format as an opportunity to save money. “Bento boxes are my number one selling item.” Each actual bento – a laminated, textured box - costs about $20. Thomson says. “I still have boxes that I started out with four years ago. It saves me money because I don’t break any china.”

For lunch, Thompson offers a variety of bento box options all for $21. There’s the Vegetarian Box featuring a sushi salad roll; the Sandwich Box, which includes a choice of items such as the chicken cheese steak, roast beef, Reuben, barbecue pulled pork, and white truffle chicken salad club. And then there’s Thompson’s special Jer-ne Box, which changes daily. All of his bentos are served with soup, salad, rice and dessert.

“It’s a very inexpensive medium to serve food, and I can get these out in 10 minutes – that’s pretty quick in a Ritz-Carlton.” Thompson says. “It doesn’t cost a whole lot to put the stuff in it. And you can upsell with the bento box. For example, our sandwiches sell for $13-$17. It’s easy to upsell to a sandwich box for $21. I brought up every check in my lobby lounge by $5 when I started offering sandwich boxes on the menu instead of just the sandwiches. It’s a value because it’s filled with food. If you put truffles and foie gras in your bento box you’re not going to lower your food cost. You’ve got be smart about what you put in them.”

Wayne Nish, Executive Chef and Co-Owner of March in New York City, presaged the creative use of bento boxes back in 1998 with his book, Wayne Nish's Simple Menus for the Bento Box (William Morrow & Company). Nish and co-author Ellen Greaves created twelve seasonal American menus with Japanese-inspired presentations. Nish was clearly ahead of the curve, and finally, some other chefs are embracing the concept.

While one could conceivably serve just about anything in the cute compartments of a bento box or tray, for chefs thinking about trying this concept, the key is to maintain the quality of food while making the meal quick and cost effective.

Published: August 2004