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Apr292013

« Turned Off by Parm »

Last Thursday, my wife and I had a disappointing experience at Parm. It's a restaurant on Mulberry Street that, prior to then, we had liked well enough for its good renditions of Italian hero shop staples.

But here's what happened: our ricotta appetizer came with only four slight pieces of toast ― not nearly enough for the quantity of cheese. So we asked for more. They brought us bread (untoasted) and, without telling us in advance, added a $1.50 charge to our bill.

The situation here concerns more than a $1.50 bread charge. It also concerns more than the issue of whether Parm serves enough bread with an appetizer. Rather, it raises the question, is it okay for a restaurant to charge for bread? If one restaurant does it others may follow, and it won't take long for $1.50 to become $1.50 per person, and then $4 per person. Is this a future we want?

Parm is a media-darling of a restaurant. On January 24, 2012, for instance, Pete Wells of the New York Times wrote this about Parm's meatball sandwich: "If it were a Florentine dish, the Four Seasons would have it on the menu for $95, or $55 without white truffles." Ick.

Ever since the opening of Torrisi Italian Specialities next door (it preceded Parm by about three years), chef-owners Mario Carbone and Rich Torrisi, plus Jeff Zalaznick (an investor), have been major players in New York ― most recently, due to the opening of Carbone (their latest venture) ― and have consistently received gushing reviews from all of the NY media outposts.

(The restaurant, Carbone, presents an ersatz homage to the very genre of New York-Italian restaurants it replaced (it took over the space of Rocco's, a venerable Italian spot on Thompson Street, in Greenwich Village): the old floors were removed to put in new old-looking floors, the waiters do a fake Vinny schtick, veal parmesan goes for $50, penne primavera for $28, and a glass of wine ranges in price from $14 - $28.)

It's all a problem. The effort by these entrepreneurs to upscalify red sauce standards with parlor tricks like fresh mozzarella, charges for bread, and character actor waiters represents a grim future for those who like to dine out in a common folk sort of way. Imagine having to pay for bread everywhere? What's next? Metered consumption of O2?

I sent an email to the restaurant. Here's what I wrote, and below it is their reply:

Dear Parm,

I'm writing to let you know that my wife and I ate at the restaurant early last night and -- perhaps mainly due to the waiter, but also maybe due to restaurant policy -- the experience wasn't so great.

The waiter got off to a bad start by being unfriendly when we joked with him. But that's okay, I guess waiters don't need to be nice. Maybe I should reset my expectations and be happy with efficient and fair.

We ordered the ricotta app, a baked clams, an egg parm dinner, and chicken parm sandwich for food. When the waiter mentioned that the toast that comes with the ricotta has meat in it, we asked if we could have some toast without meat and some with (since my wife doesn't eat meat). He said okay, but seemed a little bothered.

Then when the ricotta came out, it came with four slices of toast total. 

It would not be physically possible for those four slices of toast to hold half of the ricotta provided, even if we were to try to pile it up as high as it would stay, which would be silly.

So we asked for some more toast, and we mentioned that the amount given wasn't enough for the ricotta. He said something about, oh, they have to use a whole bread so this is how it works out when you divide into meat and no meat. Really, it made no sense. It's bread!

Anyway, he brought out a mini loaf of bread -- not toasted the way it should have been for the ricotta -- and we decided not to say anything.

I'm writing you to tell you of this experience because, on top of all that, the waiter added a $1.50 charge for extra bread.

Is this the restaurant policy? Or did the waiter have it out for us?

We spent over $70 including tax and tip (we had one drink each), and we get charged extra for more bread we need and it's not even the right bread?

Sincerely,

Michael Berman

 

The reply:

Hello Michael,

I apologize for the disappointing experience you had dining with us last evening. As for the servers attitude, I have spoken with him, he is usually wonderful, but clearly he did not provide you with the type care that we expect from our staff. As for the bread, we do in fact charge 1.50 for a side of extra bread. This is restaurant policy, but bad manners is certainly not and for that I do sincerely apologize. I hope to have you in again soon so we can have the chance to show you a better time.

Thank you for your feedback and please let me know if there is anything else I can do for you,

 -- 

Signed [name withheld]
[title at Parm witheld]  

 

--

Nice that the responder described the waiter as having had "bad manners," but I consider the response itself bad manners. The statement "I hope to have you in again soon so we can have the chance to show you a better time" ignores the basis of my complaint ― that the restaurant shouldn't charge for bread.

Besides, how will Parm know it's me, if I return, so that they can have the chance to show me a better time. Well, let's make it easy: I won't return.

--

I'm blowing the trumpet.

Pizza shops in Little Italy, Soho, and other parts of New York City ― in fact, affordable pizza shops and Italian restaurants across the USA: you can beat places like Parm in the very game they play. Here's how: offer a fresh mozzarella option for your meat or eggplant parmesan sandwiches and do a little diligence: double-check that the bread you're using is very good, taste the food you've been serving and ask yourself if there are little ways to improve it ― like always cooking to order, buying better chicken if possible, changing the oil more often, or adding a couple leaves of basil. Heck, you could even offer a healthier option for some sandwiches ― like grilled or broiled chicken parmesan. It will sell.

And by all means, charge an extra couple bucks for sandwiches made with higher cost ingredients like fresh mozzarella.

Just remember, people like free bread. 

We've seen, at least in NYC, some upscale spots now charge extra for sauces ― sauces that once accompanied main courses as part of the plate. Charging for sauce is a horrible practice. If something on a menu requires the presence of a certain other item, that other item should be built into the price and included. Nevertheless, it's not nearly as bad as charging for bread. At least a steak can taste good on its own.

But a dish like ricotta with toasts requires those toasts. Do you want to pay extra for chips when you order guacamole? Parm: it's just not friendly.

--

In some countries in Europe, restaurants add a per-person bread charge to the bill. It's money that goes to the servers. Customers do not have to add a 15% or 20% tip, though they may opt to add a couple or few coins to say thank you.

You get bread and you pay for it, but the money goes to the server. 

Restaurants in New York City pay servers $2.13 per hour. The rest of a server's income is from tips.

Parm: I assume you pay your waiters $2.13 an hour. Can you not treat your customers to some bread? 

Let's break it down. Here are some notes on what could happen if restaurants charge for bread:

  • Cranky and hungry people. Customers must spend more money in order to have bread, or wait for food they've ordered to arrive (good luck if children are involved). So much for sopping up an aperitif with something ferranaceous. And, you might leave dinner hungry ― perhaps not at the Cheesecake Factory, but quite possibly at places like Parm.
  • And here's the worst result: a whole industry will be under attack. Remember, a good bakery cooks from scratch every day (and during the night). It's one of the last remaining human-operated factory-type businesses still prevalant in our cities. Most bakeries rely on volume sales to sustain affordable pricing. If restaurants go the way of Parm, plenty of customers will decide against paying for bread at dinner. Restaurants will then order less bread and some bakeries might go out of business.
  • A boon to Paleo.

--

The ghost writer of "Jeremiah's Vanishing New York" ― a favorite blog of mine ― likes to celebrate remnants from New York's earlier, less chain-dominated days. Like me, he's also not pleased with how New York is changing. Independent businesses that offer affordable goods and services to regular people are vanishing. As for the expensive homogeneity and fake stuff that comes instead, well, read his take on the Rocco's-to-Carbone transformation. And as for the Parm people ― well they just don't seem like such friendly folk to me.

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