Mastering Modern Elegance
How the Pierre turned lunch into its most profitable mealtime in a chef-driven restaurant concept.
Lunch business at hotel properties can be dreadfully slow. In large part, it can depend upon location, but other factors come into play. The Pierre in New York City has good location in spades, but that’s not the reason lunch is now the most profitable daypart at its Perrine restaurant. Paying very close attention to the needs of its closest demographics and neighborhood has resulted in a fine-tuned conceptualization of the space and menu to optimize the hotel’s historic vibe—while executing modern twists efficiently.
The Pierre has a bar and two restaurants. Perrine, opened spring 2016, is its French-American, three-meal venue, with a wide variety of seasonal luxury menu items from Executive Chef Ashfer Biju. He says Perrine’s busiest service is breakfast, but it’s very occupancy-driven. As for profitability, lunch is the meal period that rings in bottom line. Simple salads and fish mains in a short time window have proven more profitable than main courses that are served over a long period at dinner, says Biju. He attests that lunch is now 30 to 40% more profitable, considering its increase in covers and management of costs with efficient labor. But creating and executing that lunch required strategic acumen.
Destination Dining Meets Neighborhood Spot
Open since 1930, the Pierre is a top-tier luxury property, now under Taj Hotels & Resorts, that’s always had an F&B reputation.
“We have had previous restaurant tenants at the Pierre who brought their own signature touches and cuisines to the property,” says the Pierre’s Director of Restaurants Jay Poblador. “As of June of 2016, we are running all the outlets on our own. We are able to give the outlets the elements of Taj-ness, a unique cultural component of Taj Hotels & Resorts. We are able to pay homage to our neighborhood and our history through our menus.”
When the Pierre team first started talking about Perrine, the focus was that it had to be a neighborhood restaurant, says Ashfer Biju, executive chef at The Pierre. That’s something of a mouthful, considering the hotel’s positioning as a storied, upscale, destination property, associated with white tablecloths and special-occasion dinners.
“As much as we wanted to be on the higher end of fine dining, we’re in a neighborhood, the Upper East Side, that’s not as much a destination dining area as much as a daily eating neighborhood,” Biju says. “But, it’s still the Pierre, and people aren’t going to settle for anything that’s not great.” Of course, no matter how great the menu, professionals with a finite window will power-lunch elsewhere if they can’t fit it in.
“It’s a great location with a great restaurant,” says Biju, “but still with quick service so they can get in and out during lunch.”
Perrine’s demographics include local professionals having business meetings or entertaining, as well as a lot of neighborhood residents who don’t cook and thus eat seven to eight meals a week in restaurants. “In the summer, we also get a nice influx of tourists walking through the park and the proverbial women who lunch after shopping expeditions on Madison Avenue,” Poblador adds. “It’s also a tremendous feature to have longtime managers who recognize our guests and ensure that we are catering to their preferences.”
But how would the Pierre walk the tightrope between maintaining its tony brand and being accessible to its neighborhood clientele? The answer would come in carefully tying the elegant past of the property to the present moment.
“The menu had to be simple but elegant and concept-driven—what kind of menu would these people want to eat? One word that stood out was nostalgia,” says Biju. “We are in a building where dining and entertainment was at a peak in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. So, we looked within for inspiration.”
The Pierre keeps detailed archives, so the team was able to pore through menus from the past. “We made a menu that in a very subtle way pays tribute to those glory days, but it’s also simplified and modernized to fit our current concept,” Biju explains.
For example, deep in the dusty backlog of menus, they found a classic French bouillabaisse, and here’s how they modernized it and why it’s working: “We have great local sea bass, so we created a grilled sea bass dish with the broth of bouillabaisse, and we added seasonal ingredients as garnishes,” Biju says. “In the spring you have fennel, and in the fall you have artichokes. It’s presented in a modern fashion. It’s light; it’s not something you eat and feel you can’t go back to your office. We also took a classic Caesar salad, and instead of using Romaine lettuce, we use baby gem lettuce.”
Biju says Perrine sells a lot of fish and seafood dishes, both as appetizers and entrées. Highlights include the sea bass, oysters, lobster salad, and crab flat bread (more on the latter below). Also successful on the menu are the “Pierre Classics,” with the most popular dishes being Dover sole, short ribs, Beef Wellington, and chicken curry.
If Walls Could Cook
It’s not just been the menu archive that has had a say in nuancing the Perrine menu to attract local business people and residents. The room itself has put its two cents in as well. And, no, the Perrine team isn’t just hearing things.
“In our first meeting with Daniel Romualdez. who did the design of our Rotunda room (see sidebar), the briefing was that we needed to create a space without messing with the existing murals,” says Biju. “I sort of took a cue and did the same thing with food. I’d rather have the flavors untouched.”
Biju expounds on this concept using the example of Perrine’s Maine Crab Imperial Flatbread, on the dinner menu. “It’s very classic crab salad,” he begins. “So, I thought if we’re to call it ‘crab imperial’ on the menu, I should stay true to the flavors a crab imperial should have, which is the cream, the dill, and things like that. But I make it modern by presenting it on a housemade naan and toasting it. It’s a modern dish, but when you eat it, you think of a classic.”
Yin and Hang
Rotunda is Perrine’s boisterous, laid-back brother.
Reopened in the summer of 2016, the iconic Rotunda room at the Pierre was re-imagined by architect Daniel Romualdez. It’s now a public space with tableside cocktails and dining from 3 until 10:30 p.m., and it works as the yang to Perrine’s yin in terms of clientele and their needs.
“Rotunda in the past was a lounge where people hung out and had elevated comfort food,” explains Ashfer Biju, executive chef at the Pierre. “Before we reopened it, for the last seven or eight years, it was only being used for private events. So, we were offering it back to the public.”
Biju says the new menu concept had to be “celebratory, from a beverage standpoint; there’s a lot of Champagne. For food it had to be comfortable,” he continues. “At the same time, it’s in a very stylish, small plates presentation. For example, we have a pâté that comes in small jars. The focus is on having a great time. It’s very difficult for a chef to say this, but food almost plays a second fiddle; it’s there to complement the experience.”
Rotunda, Biju notes, is a natural refuge for spillover from events. “You may have, let’s say, a group of people who didn’t feel like eating at the party, who then come down to Rotunda at 10 p.m. for something to eat,” he says. “It’s elevated comfort food. You can have a Reuben or a small bowl of spaghetti and meatballs.”
Rotunda also has a stationary dessert buffet. “It’s not super-perishable desserts,” Biju says. “It’s more like if you went into Martha Stewart’s home; it’s what you imagine you’d find on her dining table—a few cakes, a few macarons, a few cookies, a few meringues. You sort of graze into it; it’s all designed to make you comfortable.
“At Perrine, you’d expect people to come in, have a great meal, and leave. At Rotunda, you expect them to stay. You may come in for a drink and end up staying a couple hours or more.”—TW