Critic's Notebook

Rising Trend in Seattle Restaurants: “Only 30 Chickens a Night!”

Scarcity marketing comes to the dining room.

By Kathryn Robinson February 27, 2012

Fried chicken. Made at Ma'ono, served up in sandwich form at the Rhino Room.

We’ve all been to restaurants that run out of stuff—barbecue joints that close when the meat goes, sushi bars that nimbly switch specials according to what disappears, taco trucks that fold up earlier and earlier the more popular they become, bakeries that run out of their special brioche or—hey Nook !—freakishly delectable biscuits, a certain Cuban sandwich joint that routinely stabs its fans in the heart by hanging what might be the world’s saddest sign: No Bread.

(“I will buy them some bread,” muttered my devastated companion last time this happened. You want his number, Paseo?)

We all know why this happens: freshness demands it, and sometimes the best demographic demand prediction models—ie. guesses—are off.

So why not turn it into a marketing strategy?

Last week we were informed by our warm and welcoming waiter at Marjorie that its signature, The True Burger—a big freakin’ ball of beef with Worcestershire onions, harissa ketchup, bone marrow aioli, all the fixin’s, and a strip of bacon thick as a blade steak, on one strained-to-the-limit bakery bun—is only available to 10 lucky customers a night. “If you want one, you might want to tell me now,” our waiter confided when taking our drink orders. The place was starting to fill up.

Whew…we got ours! (It was fine, by the way…though insanely messy.)

Spring Hill did the same thing when it transformed itself a couple of weeks ago into the Hawaiian-tweaked Ma’Ono. The savvy joint knew how popular its fried chicken dinners were—periodic chicken-dinner-night test drives at Spring Hill had made that manifestly clear—so announcing that they’d be frying just 30 chickens per night and pricing them at $38 per couple seemed not just a safe strategy, but a savvy one.

Indeed, when I called for a table last week they were not only out of tables for the night—they were already out of chickens.

We will see more of this; from a restaurant’s standpoint what’s not to love? It sends the message that the kitchen cares about freshness. It (artificially) vaults a dish to star status. It has the potential to sell those tough-to-fill early tables. It grabs attention, of the sort I am bestowing right now.

And if it’s annoying for a customer to be told her favorite dish is already sold out for the night—it is, in equal measure, human nature being what it is, alluring. Indeed, call scarcity marketing the back-of-the-house’s version of a dining room’s no-reservations policy: A restaurant’s way of making itself look as popular as it possibly can.

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