Two of Momofuku’s hottest meal tickets are about to become more a bit more attainable for those willing to chip in for a good cause and pay a few dollars more — sometimes hundreds more — than the publicly listed prices. Starting this week, Noodle Bar is partnering with Reserve to auction off one fried chicken dinner per night to the highest bidder, with the proceeds going to charity. And the tasting menu-only Ko, which had been selling Saturday night charity dinners for two since January, will extend that policy to every night the restaurant is open.
Prospective diners can place bids using Reserve, a mobile booking and payments app, on an iPhone or Android device. The default suggested bid will start at 30 percent above market, which means that a large format fried chicken dinner, normally costing $135, will run $176 before tax and tip, with the entire $42 difference going to charity. Anything else ordered during the meal — beer, wine, appetizers — will be charged the markup as well, with those proceeds going to charity too.
The same policies apply to Ko — regularly priced at $175, or $228 if a 30 percent bid prevails in the auction. Add on wine pairings, tax, and tip, and you’re at $1,049 for two, about $200 more than you might otherwise pay.
Momofuku says it hopes to raise $100,000 in the first year for its charitable partners, a list that includes Edible Schoolyard, The Food Bank for New York City, Donors Choose, and One Percent for the Planet. In furtherance of these goals, both restaurants will resell last minute cancellations through Reserve on a "case by case basis," a Momofuku spokesperson tells Eater. Momofuku is also consider adding Ssam Bar dinners to the Reserve system. Financial contributions to the charities will take the form of "quarterly partnerships." Edible Schoolyard, which helps students adopt better eating habits though integrating gardening, cooking, and real food into schools, will be the first of those partners.
Booking via Reserve more or less mirrors the standard online reservations process; fried chicken dinners become available 28 days in advance, while Ko reservations go live 15 days out. Got it? Good. So now that we have the news out of the way, here are a few Suttonomic observations about the auctions, the bidding process, and the charities.
- Class A vs. Class B: Momofuku isn't the first restaurant group to ensure that its involvement with a high-end reservations service has a charitable component. Keith McNally's paid reservations on Resy are directly linked to donations to City Harvest. This is a logical combination. As apps like Resy and Reserve provide a formal, above-the-table booking process for a clientele who are eager and able to pay a bit more than market price, the charity link helps shield any involved restaurants from criticism of what some might perceive as a two-tiered reservation system. And most importantly, the charity-resevations combo allows restaurants like Momofuku to leverage the intense demand for its critically-acclaimed fare to benefit humanity!
- Empowering Consumers to Give: What's interesting about this brand of Momofuku and Reserve philanthropy is that it puts the diner in direct control of a restaurant's charitable giving; we've seen this at the original Mission Chinese Food in San Francisco, where a portion of the proceeds from every dish ordered is donated to a local food bank. It's an empowering policy that gives a wider class of diners a greater stake in the well-being of others, and I'll argue it's a more intelligent means of philanthropy than a chef simply making a big donation at the end of the year. And here it's worth noting that if you're splitting the bill four ways, a thirty percent winning bid on the fried chicken dinner works out to an extra $10.50 per person – a much lower barrier to entry to giving than buying a ticket to a fancypants charity dinner.
- About the Other Charitable Partners: The Food Bank for NYC is a hunger relief organization that provides emergency food, free meals, and income support (food stamps, tax credits) to low-income, food insecure residents. Donors Choose is an organization that lets schoolteachers seek crowdfunding for classroom projects. One Percent for the Planet is a network of companies that pledge to give one percent of their annual net revenues to environmental non-profits.
- The Blind Bid: Unlike eBay auctions, the Reserve app doesn't display either the current high bid or the winning bids. This policy can favor Momofuku and its charitable partners as it prevents participants from specifically seeking out meals with lower markups; those seeking a reservation on a specific night will likely find the most success submitting the highest bid possible. And as a result more money will go to the people who need it. Well, maybe. The decision not to disclose bids can also work against Momofuku’s charitable goals if Noodle Bar and Ko end up receiving many identical bids for the same night. With a more transparent eBay-style auction, Momofuku could potentially raise more for charity if potential buyers started bidding each other up.
- Technical Intel: First: Despite the fact that the recommended bidding starts at 30 percent, prospective guests can bid as low as 10 percent. Second: In the late Spring, when Ko only offered a single charity table via reserve, the default starting bid rose to 50 percent after Momofuku saw a "consistent, positive increase in bids."
- Charity as a Desirable Good: Non-charity reservations for both Ko and Noodle Bar can get snapped up quickly, but a current scanning of the online reservations site shows that fried chicken bookings are significantly easier to come by. That doesn't necessarily threaten the success of that particular auction. It's quite possible that Reserve's clients are different from the clients that normally log onto Momofuku's reservations system, and that some of those users wouldn't have otherwise found out about the fried chicken dinners if not for Reserve. It's also likely that the charitable component will make both the fried chicken and Ko dinners even more desirable to consumers who derive increased value from more-expensive-than-usual goods (or meals) that help out human kind. That is a good thing. And so that's why I'm calling this partnership a STRONG BUY.