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Restaurants shouldn’t price gouge during Derby Week, and customers should be patient

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You get what you give in this life, and during Derby Week, Louisvillians—whether they are restaurant owners or restaurant customers—need to give a little extra.

As the past has proven, some restaurants—usually they’re expensive places—jack up prices Thursday through Saturday.

Nice. That’s pure greed, plain and simple, because no matter how many out-of-town guests you feed, at least half the crowd bellying up to your tables is made up of locals who eat at your place the other 51 weeks of the year. It’s the classic killing of the goose to get the golden egg, and any restaurateurs who do this should be ashamed of themselves.

One restaurateur—who is out of business now—seemed shocked when I asked him about his Derby Week price gouging practices a few years ago. I’d worked with the guy some years before and felt comfortable asking why I was charged $12 for a martini at his place one Derby Eve when the same drink was $9.50 the rest of the year.

“Hey, man, that’s when we make most of our money for the year,” he said. Trying to justify his actions further, he added, “Doesn’t everybody do it?”

Well, OK, Churchill Downs does it to the tune of marking up nearly everything 50 to 75 percent—freakin’ pirates!

But, um, no, “Mr. Out of Business Because You’re Greedy” restaurateur, everyone doesn’t. Including the restaurants right across the street from where his used to be, eateries still operating.

Ask any restaurateur how important this week is to their having an actual paycheck, much less putting away any money for the rest of the year, and they’ll tell you that a lot is riding on this week. So I understand the temptation to make the most of it.

But they shouldn’t.

If only because of sheer volume increases, restaurants (especially the pricey joints) should do a great deal better in the coming days because people are in the mood to spend big. Expensive menu and wine list options get much more notice when businesses are courting clients, friends are lavishing friends and a few horse players win money at the track.

But still, most of those people are locals, not out-of-towners forced to pay top dollar as a captive audience.

Even worse: This is especially irritating at restaurants that forego the regular menu to streamline service—and then price gouge on the limited menu. Think about that: Fewer choices, higher cost. Cool, no?

I have no problem limiting the menu to reduce the kitchen’s burden and speed up service, but I have a huge problem being told to pay more for fewer options when, as a local, I know I’m getting the Cliff’s Notes version of the regular fare.

Bars do it, too: Bars that add huge cover charges just because it’s the first Saturday in May are lame. (In fact, if you look at the bars that do this, they’re already lame anyway, so I’m being redundant and opinionated.)

Not only are these places going to be busier than usual, they can stay open until 6 a.m. and sell more to the already sodden saps still awake that late.

Extra revenue and extra hours spread fixed costs paper thin and widen margins handsomely. So why get greedy on one weekend and charge the bulk of that to your local loyalists?

To customers: Be patient and generous. Let’s say 100,000 people come to Louisville for the week: tourists, media and horse industry professionals. That means the number of live bodies swirling about the city proper swells by about 15 percent.

Louisvillians, we whine too much about our piddling traffic jams to begin with, and it’s only going to worsen this weekend. So ease up if you’re following a slow driver with an out of town license plate. (Trust me, I’m writing this as much for myself as anyone.) That person is probably searching for a place to spend tax-revenue generating money that’ll fill the potholes on your winter-worn street. Allow them—and if possible, direct them—to their destination without the stress of leaning on your car horn. People come here knowing the hospitality is unusually good, so keep that reputation going.

The wait is on: In restaurants, don’t get too irritated when, even though you have a reservation, you aren’t seated immediately. This is especially true Derby night when people are tired from being at the track all day and in no hurry to eat and run. (Servers call such people “campers,” because they don’t leave when their meal is finished. If you hear that word mentioned within earshot, check your watch.)

To steel yourself for the wait, plan on an hour in the cocktail lounge before you get to your table. If it takes less time, bully for you. If it takes longer, and it may, then inquire kindly as to when you might get a seat.

Causing a fuss at the maître d’s stand won’t help, and unlike the old days when a sweet bribe might hasten your arrival to a table, computerized seating software makes everyone honest. So save your money for dinner.

Expect overbooking: Chances are good restaurants will overbook this weekend to ensure no shows—at least 10 percent won’t honor their reservations—don’t leave tables empty. All a reservation means this weekend is you’ll be seated before walk-in customers. Exactly when is not guaranteed, especially as the night goes on.

Show a little love to your servers: By the time you see a server Saturday night, chances are they’re tired and more than a little stressed. The kitchen crew is doubly irritable and likely barking at the servers if only to vent. Though a profitable one, it’s already been a long week for any server in a good restaurant.

By Saturday night, they’ve made some good coin, they’re eager to add to that stash, and great servers are at their best under pressure. But their patience is wearing thin, and the surest way to get neglected is to say, “Can you come back in a minute? We haven’t decided yet.”

Be wise and be ready to order when they come to the table. The faster you order, the faster you’ll eat.

Tipping: Don’t have to act like Al Czervik (Rodney Dangerfield’s crazy rich character in Caddyshack), throwing greenbacks at everyone to get attention. Doubtless, such careless generosity is welcomed by all, but it’s not necessary.

Nor is anything above a 20 percent tip … unless service is truly outstanding or you’re an empathetic type who wants to share more with the working stiffs hauling your meal around in a week when everyone else in town is having fun.

Better yet, give the server 20 percent and give a 5 percent (or more) cash tip to the kitchen. And walk it up to the chef, if possible, to ensure it actually goes to the kitchen staff.

Kitchen crews are made up mostly of clock punchers whose overtime hours are so high that week their gross income bumps them into a new tax bracket, albeit temporarily. When their next check comes, they pocket little more than they do for an ordinary week. (Sure, that shakes out at the end of the year in the form of a tax refund, but still, it sucks to work that hard and not see the fruits of that labor sooner.)

Special orders don’t upset us, but … : Remember, when you ask for something special, the burden isn’t on the server to see it through, it’s on the kitchen to produce it. So if possible, reward the maker, not the deliverer.

Insider tip: If you’re not going to the track, look for early bird specials at restaurants. As NBC and Churchill Downs continue pushing the Derby post time later into the evening, it erodes every restaurants’s chance to feed the masses earlier.

Smart restaurants like Varanese are doing a 5-6 p.m. special ($50 prix fixe dinner for two, hell of a bargain) to make up for that lost revenue. Surely there are others getting in on that game.

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