Saturday, March 29, 2008

Sizzle or Steak?

I am just back from Mumbai where I ate at an amazing Bandra restaurant called Soul Fry. It's got mismatched furniture, a few ink drawings hung on the walls, and generally has an air of decrepitude. Yet, I go there whenever possible because the food is so good. Another Bombay (it predates Mumbai) institution is Britannia which serves excellent Parsi food. The paint is peeling, the ceiling crumbling and it's only open for lunch. It has a queue waiting to get in. (We used to persuade a friend travelling from Mumbai to pack the berry pulao in a box and fly it to Bangalore, it is so memorable.) In Bangalore, Pecos is one of the few pubs that has survived from my early days of Brigade Road bingeing. They did switch from tapes to CDs a couple of years ago, and even gave it a lick of paint, but it still looks as dingy as ever. It's jammed every evening.

I have friends in the restaurant business and they completely obsess about positioning, decor, cuisine. But in an age when everything is spanking new and glitzy, are we seeing the emergence of a counterculture of reverse snobbism where, if the food is fantastic, the worse you look the more "character" you acquire? It's worth thinking about in Bangalore where so few restaurants and pubs survive three years. And if you aren't paying huge amounts for space and overheads, you can pay your cook so much more. Success of the restaurant also seems direct proportional to the rudeness of the proprietor. There are two famous restaurants from my dissipated youth in Bangalore which are run by stereotypically cranky old men. They've both since moved to swanky new premises but that has not improved their humour. I dare not name them - like Jerry Seinfeld in the Soup Nazi episode, I swallow my pride to eat at these restaurants!

Is the marketing moral that if you have a good product and not a great deal of money, flouting every customer-orientation philosophy will have clients beating a path to your door? Worth thinking about this as an exercise in reverse psychology. Particularly if you are starting a restaurant.


Anonymous said...

Well, in consumer psychology, you would think of it as "motivational value" (Higgins) the more you have to put an effort to get something, the more attractive it becomes. That's why the Soup Nazi is so popular. Lots of experiments with rats to show that erecting barriers increases attractiveness of the food or their 'wanting" (Berridge and Robinson).

The decrepit decor and assessment of food quality might be an attributional explanation that only holds if there is one more piece of inconsistent information - if decor quality is low AND the restaurant is crowded, you can only reconcile thse inconsistent cognitions by assuming that food quality is high. On the other hand, if decor quality were low and number of people were low, you would not need to make sense of these consistent thoughts. The interesting thing is if the food quality were the same in both places. i.e. there is no actual correlation b/w decor quality and food quality, only consumers infer that it is so.

Again, in the attribution thing, one more thing to think about is the reference point - if the restaurant started out dull and dingy, then its not a diagnostic piece of information about how good the food is as decor and food quality have been shown not to be correlated. But if it started out quite spiffy and food quality was high and decor then became decrepit, I would assume that people will correlate the two and assume food quality has also gone down even though it may not have.

An interesting thought and set of studies to run!


Anonymous said...

After reading this, I analysed my own consumer behaviour. When I want to impress someone or celebrate something special where the ambience would be a major part of the experience, I would go to Olive in Bandra but I wouldn't go there to have fun and just eat. Churhill in Colaba was a place I fequented when I wanted no frills good food despite the long wait. I can't say I am a glutton for punishment so rudeness turns me off no matter how good the food is. Infact I just can't enjoy my food if I get it after an unplesant experience at a resturant. Thats the thing about Churchill, it has so many regulars because of the relationship the owner has with his customers- always a smile, some little chit chat- one doesn't even mind the long wait.
The place is just a part of the whole experience- anything can take you back- the waiter's good suggestions on things to try on the menu or apart from it, the fact that they gave your kid a balloon- anything as small as that.