Dining on a large scale

Ashley Milne-Tyte Jun 9, 2006

CHERYL GLASER: First it was the fatty french fries. Now Wendy’s says it’s dumping its “Biggie” and “Great Biggie” fries and drinks. Well, not dumping exactly. Changing the names. Wendy’s “Biggie” will now be called a medium. The “Great Biggie” becomes a large. And the original small size disappears. The restaurant says people want large portions. The names were just confusing. It’s not just serving sizes that keep getting bigger and bigger. As Ashley Milne-Tyte reports, in New York they’re supersizing entire restaurants:

ASHLEY MILNE-TYTE: When Buddakan opened, it opened big. This lavishly designed Asian restaurant on the edge of Manhattan’s meatpacking district is 16,000 square-feet of concept in a space that used to be a lumber yard.

STEPHEN STARR:“. . . This was a monumental project, I mean this was like producing a movie, a lot of elements, coordination, the design, I mean it’s . . . It wasa€¦exhausting.”

Philadelphia restaurateur Stephen Starr wanted his foray onto New York’s dining scene to make a huge impression. So he spent nearly $14 million on Buddakan. The giant restaurant with its sweeping staircase, grand chandeliers and Chinese screens opened only two months ago. But already it’s buzzing every night with diners who drop an average of $73 each on dinner and drinks.

Starr says the restaurant is on track to make $20 million a year, though it’ll still be five years before he can pay back investors. Oh yes, and Morimoto, his mega-restaurant just down the street, cost him $11 million. Still, Starr seems confident:

STARR:“Part of the reason I can justify it and sleep at night is that I negotiated a very good lease here, several years ago, before it really hit that hot, hot peak.”

Perhaps the intimate table for two in a small, exclusive restaurant still appeals to plenty of diners. But New Yorkers and out-of-towners are flocking to the enormous eateries not just for the food, which has got good reviews. This is entertainment on a grand scale — beautiful people in a theatrical space.

Uptown, old world elegance is the order of the day, at Country, a 14,000 square-foot restaurant in a carefully restored, early-1900’s hotel on Madison Avenue. Here, in Country’s more expensive upstairs dining room, diners can feast on truffle-infused dishes under an antique Tiffany stained-glass dome.

GEOFFREY ZAKARIAN:“It was under two feet of drop ceiling and, uh, it took two years and many millions of dollars to restore.

Geoffrey Zakarian is Country’s chef and owner. He admits he was nervous at the prospect of running a place that’s three times bigger than his other restaurant.

ZAKARIAN:“It’s very risky because it’s such a large space you need so many employees, you know the payroll is a big deal here. You need to have a lot of turn to make your payroll numbers work, but I’m very confident that they will work. I mean, they’re working right now, and as we add on banquets and get even busier, we should be fine.”

With nearly a dozen entries, competition in the humungous restaurant league is healthy, says Tim Zagat, founder of the dining guides that bear his name.

TIM ZAGAT:“Nobody’s ever built that large, and they seem to be filled with hungry and more importantly thirsty young people every night, and some of them you can barely get through the front door because there are so many people.”

But what would happen if New Yorkers stopped eating out so much? Michael Whiteman is a restaurant consultant. His firm created Windows on the World, the restaurant at the top of the World Trade Center. He says the good times can’t last forever. And when they go, oversized restaurants with high investments are far more vulnerable than the local bistro. Huge restaurants rely on a huge flow of customersa€¦

MICHAEL WHITEMAN:“Incomes in New York are cyclical. A big downturn on Wall Street would empty these restaurants very quickly. My sense is that when you get decorative, highly expensive, monster places like this that it’s usually an indication that you’re getting towards the end of the cycle.”

But restaurant guru Tim Zagat says even in tough times New York has a unique dining economy: many people eat out on expense accounts, and plenty of well-paid couples dine out most nights a week. For restaurant owners Geoffrey Zakarian and Stephen Starr, both say they’ll enjoy the moment while big seems to be better and get on with the business of feeding lots of people in style.

In New York, I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte for Marketplace.

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