Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Taste of Chicago Bargains

I had my first experience at the Taste of Chicago festival last night, and ended up learning not only about Chicago, but also a little about negotiations.

As a relative stranger to this kind of festival, I'll try to explain it as best I can.

Imagine the largest stadium food vending area you can. Take the quality up by about 75% and the variety up by about 1000%.

That's pretty much what it is. You basically proceed down the streets between dozens of booths, each set up by a different Chicago restaurant. Each restaurant offers you a 'taste' (get it, I just used the title of the festival in the description of the situation, much like a Steven Segal movie).

There's a lot of different variety of food and it all seems pretty good. It's like going to the new Mets stadium, only you don't have to watch the crappy Mets play.

Anyway, what I thought was interesting about the festival (other than having breaded steak for the first time), was what we did towards the end of the night.

At the Taste of Chicago, you don't pay with money, you have to pay with tickets like its some kind of carnival. You go buy 12 tickets for $8, and then you can buy food (or a relatively tiny amount of alcohol) with different amounts of tickets. To put things in perspective, most restaurants have a full portion of a main dish for 8 tickets, while many offer a 'taste' portion (see, there I did it again!) for 4 tickets.

But because some restaurants price their items at odd numbers (e.g., 9 tickets, 5 tickets, 3 tickets) you can wind up with some odd lots of tickets.

Well, this came into play towards the end of the night, when my girlfriend started getting antsy for dessert.

There was a gelato booth, but there was also a fudge booth. The gelato place had a 4 ticket taste portion and the fudge place had a 3 ticket taste portion. My girlfriend, an acknowledged megachocoholic, thought both would be the optimal dessert.

Of course, we only had 6 tickets left and weren't about to buy more.

So the thought occurred to us, could we bargain with the restaurant employees and negotiate a lower price?

My girlfriend didn't think that would work. These places had listed prices.

I didn't agree, and not because I thought the teenagers behind the counter would be sticklers, but because of what time it was.

It was around 8:45pm in the evening, and the festival officially closes at 9:00pm.

At that point, sales stop. Of course, these restaurants aren't making each order individually for each customer. They're batching, doing a whole bunch of them at once. They make a bunch of hot dogs, or pizzas, or whatever, plate each of them for easy distribution, and make another batch as needed.

Well, given that these places obviously had more product sitting ready than they could realistically sell by 9:00pm, that appeared to be an opportunity.

A critical assumption of this idea is that, to a restaurant, 2 tickets is better than 0 tickets. I don't know if they get paid based on the number of tickets they bring in or what, but for bargaining to work, the restaurant musts value the tickets.

Another critical assumption is that once the clock hits 9:00pm, the product ceases to have value to the restaurant. What this means, is that if they have something sitting on the shelf at 9:00pm, they can't simply hold on to it and sell it again tomorrow. For perishable food items, I thought this was a safe bet too.

So we went and got gelato first (not for any specific reason, I think my girlfriend just wanted it more than the fudge), and paid the 4 tickets.

Then, we went over to the fudge counter, where I approached the teenage girl behind the counter with a proposition.

I don't have the three tickets for the taste portion, but I do have two tickets that I can give you.

In about 20 seconds, she had our two tickets, and we had our fudge.

The plan also worked for my girlfriend's friends, who managed to finagle pieces of cheesecake and fudge with the same plans.

It's obvious that bargaining works, particularly as the alternative is throwing food away (or from what I was told, being given to the workers for nothing). It's in the benefit of the restaurant, because the obtain marginal revenue (the tickets) and their costs are already sunk. To those who are going to go out and try this, I'd suggest aiming for things that cannot possibly be preserved and sold (e.g., plated ice cream/cheesecake as opposed to say, caramel popcorn or something).

I would also suggest some Pepto Bismol

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