It has long been a puzzle why certain commodities receive a higher “mark-up” than others. Why is popcorn so expensive at the movie theater? Why is wine so expensive in fine restaurants?
Daniel Boulud, one of New York’s leading chefs (Daniel, Cafe Boulud, and DB Bistro Moderne), addresses this question in his recent memoir Letters to a Young Chef. Boulud tells us that wines make up 30 percent of revenue in his restaurants and have a mark-up of two to three hundred percent.
John Lott and Russ Roberts (yes, that is the John Lott) once raised the possibility that a high drinks price is a way of charging those people who wish to linger at the table longer. Boulud offers another explanation based on price discrimination. He (p.62) claims that drinkers of fine wine are “a great clientele,” and are “willing to indulge.” They will expect “only the finest ingredients,” such as good truffles, and are willing to pay for them. By offering these people fancy wines at high prices, you induce them to pay a higher net price for their meal. At the same time you need some acceptable, cheaper wines: “Those [other] customers are your future and you cannot afford to drive them away with the sticker shock of a Greatest Hits wine list.”
Boulud also claims that good restaurants are well-situated to invest profitably in wine, thus the special importance of wine for revenue.
The book contains many kinds of advice. Keep your knives sharp, we are told, and if you want to make other chefs happy, serve them a pig’s head, not caviar.