Over the last year or so, many, many restaurants have opened up in downtown Manhattan with a gimmicky concept or menus that revolve around one item (see here, here, here, here, here and here for reference). Although many have done very well, received acclaim, and continue to prosper, others have been forced to either change their concept several times over to appeal to their customers (Permanent Brunch), or shutter completely once things didn't work out as anticipated (T-Poutine). After weighing the successes and the failures, we now present a few tips for making your gimmicky downtown restaurant concept work.
1) Serve Food that Drunk People Want to Eat: People have a lot of dining options in the East Village and Lower East Side, so if you're going to open up shop, you need a strong instant draw, something truly satisfying — the kind of food that drunk people fixate on. Here's where a place like This Little Piggy succeeds — yes, it's hard to get a good roast beef sandwich topped with cheese whiz anywhere in this city, but it's almost impossible to resist the smell of that fresh cooked beef and processed cheese when you stumble home from one of the EVill's many fine drinking establishments.
2) Your Menu Must Have Some "Foodie" Appeal: A well-established restaurateur or a chef who has a solid background cooking your specialty cuisine will help get the non-drunk people in the door. And, if the food is great, it will keep them coming back. Sara Jenkins' pig sandwich joint Porchetta is a fine example of this — it not only serve a buzzy food as its main item, but comes from a vet of time-tested Italian standbys 50 Carmine and Il Buco.
3) Keep the Price Point Competitive: If there's any hesitation on behalf of the customer towards trying a gimmicky restaurant, the prospect of paying less than they would for comparable food at a full service restaurant will be a big plus. Case in point: people might prefer the seafood sandwiches at the Mermaid Inn to those at Luke's Lobster, but Luke's packs 'em in based on convenience and value, especially.
4) Only Open for Lunch, Dinner and Late Nights: There's no point in staffing a restaurant and investing in food costs during hours when your customers simply don't want to eat there. This is perhaps one of the things that caused 24 hour joint Permanent Brunch's identity crisis — sure, brunch on a Saturday night may be appealing to some. But on a Sunday morning, why go there when there are a million other places serving food that's just as good, if not better?
5) Serve Alcohol: There will be drunk people eating at your restaurant, and they might want to keep drinking. A liquor license is ideal, but draft beer or cheap wine is a must, at the very least. If a customer is opting to go to your restaurant as opposed to one with more extensive menu and service, odds are they're saving some money, which they might want to spend on booze. The Meatball Shop, for example, keeps moving till 3 A.M many nights a week, and they only have a beer and wine license.
6) If all Else Fails, Get a Truck: Mobile restaurateuring is certainly fraught with its own challenges and steep operating costs, but it's also ideal for gimmicky menu concepts, because food trucks are essentially born with a sense of gimmickry already built in. Certainly, there's some great work being done in mobile kitchens these days, but if your menu concept is already questionable, there might be a greater chance that customers will go for it if it's dished out of a big colorful truck.