The downside of friends and family
Reevaluating a restaurant industry tradition
Part of the fun of being a food writer is racking up all kinds of culinary experiences, from judging a flan contest in Tampa to jumping into an inflatable tub filled with grits. But because I don’t accept freebies, I’d never attended a Friends and Family dinner until this past June, when the owners of a restaurant I’d chronicled on a weekly basis as part of a pandemic recovery series invited me to their event. As someone new to the ritual, I was stunned by my fellow diners’ appetite for free food and drink. “What is going on here?” I wondered.
When forced to stand up for a restaurant review that strikes the tenderhearted as too harsh, online and professional critics alike resort to the same defense: Look, they say, the food’s not free. If the place was giving away rib eyes, nobody would gripe about them being overcooked.
Nobody, that is, except maybe the exacting eater who showed up for a pre-opening practice meal at Pasture in Richmond, Virginia.
The dinner was one of several rehearsal events hosted by the restaurant, which in 2019 closed after an influential eight-year run on East Grace Street. Owner Jason Alley hadn’t intended to treat the town to pimento cheese night after night, but with Pasture’s liquor license caught in a bureaucratic thicket, he decided to host a few get-to-know-us parties. The week culminated with two mock services at which people were seated and invited to order whatever they wanted from the full menu, on the house.
One of the guests wanted a burger. But he didn’t get it as quickly as he would have liked, and it wasn’t prepared to his precise specifications.
Or so he wrote on Yelp.
Thanks to the disgruntled attendee, Pasture’s star rating was tarnished before the restaurant’s doors were even open.
“He basically snuck in on a fucking Friends and Family and left us a bad review,” Alley says with so much indignation that his head shake is nearly audible through the phone. “You’ve sunk everything you have into this business; you’re three months to a year behind schedule; all of your cash flow projections are out the window and you spend your last money to buy products you’re going to give away. It’s punishing.”
Friends and Family dinners, at which either the food, drink or both are comped, have been a fixture of the restaurant industry since the turn of the current century. In cities with highly developed dining scenes, such as Charleston, South Carolina, announcements of projected opening dates cue social media influencers, suppliers, and community bigwigs to be on the lookout for their invitations.
“It takes a literal village, and a Friends and Family event is a fun and rewarding way to give something back, say thanks and make people feel special,” says publicist Annie Byrd Hamnett.
Hamnett, whose firm recently helped coordinate raved-about preview meals for North Carolina chef Vivian Howard and South Carolina pitmaster John Lewis, stresses the importance of getting the guest list right so attendees don’t “share their experiences prematurely online or on social.” The primary objective of a trial run, she adds, is to identify trouble spots before paying customers notice them.
Restaurateurs who have put on Friends and Family dinners agree that the format helps speed operational tweaks, such as adding a “no sesame seeds” modification button to the point-of-sale system or putting brown sugar on a lower shelf in the kitchen.
But as food business owners reconsider their relationship with patrons and employees amid the financial and cultural tumult spurred by the pandemic, some of them are starting to question the value of a $20,000 handout to the well-to-do.
“Think about what 20 grand could get you as far as health insurance or having money in your accounts,” says Kristian Niemi, chef-owner of Bourbon in Columbia, South Carolina.
Niemi calculates that the average restaurant surrenders $10,000 in sales and spends about $9,000 to entertain in Friends and Family fashion. In South Carolina, that equals out to roughly what a restaurant dishwasher earns in a year.
“It’s a nice thing to do if you’ve got deep pockets, but we just don’t do it,” Niemi says. “We get asked constantly, but when it comes to opening day, we’re scratching the bottom of the piggy bank.”
Niemi suspects Friends and Family events are a corporate restaurant invention, created to familiarize crews of inexperienced employees with vast workspaces and proprietary systems. Indeed, the earliest press references to soft openings for select crowds concern department stores and theme parks.
In the late 1990s, New York City restaurants came around to preview dinners in a big way, but not because they had so much square footage. Their owners were contending with an opposite problem: The U.S. economy was strong, and food was emerging as a trendy preoccupation. There were suddenly more new restaurants in Manhattan than the industry had seen since Gordon Gekko prototypes were stalking the streets. Buzz was a finite commodity.
“Few places simply fling open the doors and fill the reservation book,” The New York Times’ Florence Fabricant explained in a 1999 column titled “They Practice, and You Get a Free Meal.” Instead, many of the city’s 50 new restaurants that fall debuted by “inviting taste makers from the fashion, food and society worlds to small dinners.”
“It's part of the process known as a soft opening,” another Times story, headlined “Spread the Word: We’re Not Open,” elaborated. “It's a two-way street: the restaurant owners court the attention of the chattering classes, and the beau monde is eager to arrive early at a hip new destination.”
While the practice caught on elsewhere, Lara Swan, owner of Great Bagel & Bakery in Lexington, Kentucky, says its utility diminished as social media expanded the chattering class to include anyone within wi-fi range.
“People have become inundated with the big flashy parties,” Swan says. “It’s stuff they see on Instagram or whatever and then it’s out of their minds: They’re looking for the next big thing. I never will do an influencer event again.”
For Swan, the biggest problem with the preview meal is it’s at odds with her company’s commitment to sustainability.
“We try at every touchpoint to evaluate where our money goes,” she says. “We can give raises to people who’ve been busting their butts for two years or we can give away a bunch of shit: Why would we do that?”
Swan doesn’t think the first paying guests to brave a dining room should be subjected to untested kitchen experiments. But rather than rely on event attendees for feedback, she leans on professional colleagues to evaluate her recipes as she develops them.
“We were thinking of doing pizza nights, so we started making dough and had a handful of people we trust to our house a handful of times,” she says. “It was very successful.”
Restricting Friends and Family events to actual friends and family members could make the custom more useful, Alley suggests.
“In the perfect world, they would come at the time I tell them to come; order what and how I tell them to order and say kind things out in the world,” he says. “I just want a real and legitimate service to get an idea of how everything is going to flow.”
After the typical Friends and Family, Alley doesn’t have much more information than he had before service started.
“Because of people’s propensity to overindulge, you don’t get a good example,” he says. “You get what happens if somehow you get a restaurant full of expense accounts and, Katy bar the door, they’re ordering the whole menu: In real life, that just doesn’t happen.”
Not only is the Friends and Family diner’s inclination to have it all costly and counterproductive: Alley believes it reflects a sense of entitlement that’s corroding the restaurant industry. And he’d rather challenge than encourage it.
“It really shines a light on the amount of access that people assume they ought to be granted,” Alley says, recalling how his team agonized about raising a pork chop’s price to $20, even though they stood to lose money by charging less than $27 for the dish. “It’s a completely different expectation of generosity.”
Alley is out of the restaurant business now. He’s working for the city of Richmond as its restaurant liaison, a position he pitched. But when he was on the line, he used to marvel at customers who showed up 30 minutes before the restaurant opened, demanding a table and berating workers who wouldn’t provide it.
He tried to imagine what would happen if someone went to a bank early in the morning, banging on the door and insisting upon an immediate loan origination.
No doubt, he concluded, the situation would occasion an intervention.