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The Business of Rare: Why Restaurants Love Investing in Limited Quantity Items

December 27, 2019, 12:00 PM UTC
Fatty Tuna at Sushi Nakazawa in Manhattan, New York, Friday, September 18, 2015.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Though restaurant trends come and go, one constant guests can rely on when dining out is that the appeal of vintage spirits and authentic ingredients is far more exciting than a current flash in the pan.

Or in the case of today’s preferred food phrases, a dramatic salt drop.

According to research conducted by the National Restaurant Association, two-thirds of consumers find they can’t replicate their favorite restaurant foods at home. And with the association projecting industry sales to hit an estimated $863 billion this year, both consumers and operators are finding meaningful connections through food are now made in public more so than ever before.

Top-shelf tastes

In Chicago, beverage director Kevin Beary’s rare rum selections at Three Dots and a Dash and The Bamboo Room are major draws for those intrigued by a tiki-bar atmosphere. However, for those who might balk at high price tags when perusing a menu, Beary explains there’s a hidden benefit for guests who want to celebrate with something unique.

“The more expensive the item is for the bar to purchase, the less of a margin we will add,” explains Beary. “For example, a $20 bottle of rum will be priced at a 20% cost (an 80% margin) whereas a $300 bottle of rum will be priced at a 40% cost (a 60% margin).”

Part of the rationale in doing so is to put limited-quantity items within reach for guests. While being able to procure and showcase rare bottles on the back shelf might score points within the industry, the experiential aspect of opening one for guests to share with one another is the reason bars are in business.

Building character, building reputation

Though San Francisco has a well-known obsession with Fernet-Branca and Irish coffee, it’s also home of America’s largest vintage Chartreuse account, thanks to Brandon Clements, the bar and spirits director of Bacchus Management Group. “For us, Chartreuse and our collection of rare and vintage bottlings is a big part of our identity,” says Clements, who admits it can be bittersweet when a bottle is sold. “While there is money to be made selling rare and vintage spirits, this is really a passion project, and the thrill of the hunt and satisfaction of the find, are the main driving forces.”

And if you’re a proven hunter, the target might just wind up coming to you. Over time, businesses that have proved to be big sellers may be invited by producers to handpick their own inventories, as in the case of Three Dots and a Dash, which chooses some barrels of rum directly from distillery warehouses and has them bottled exclusively for its bars.

It’s not just about popping bottles

Though you can’t discuss luxury ingredients this time of year without mentioning white truffles and caviar, today’s guests are just as likely to be intrigued by obscure items they may never have tried before. One restaurant category that’s reaped the benefits of our curiosity is omakase sushi, where exclusive relationships with fishermen determine what appears on our plate each evening.

“We love to place orders for the things that aren’t always seen, but we need to be careful not to introduce too many different kinds of fish at the same time,” explains chef Daisuke Nakazawa of Sushi Nakazawa, a high-end omakase restaurant in New York City. Though the familiarity of toro, uni, and Wagyu on omakase menus is a necessity to appease many taste buds, a recent scroll through the restaurant’s Instagram page revealed lesser-known courses to the American palette like icefish. “It looks like a glass worm with black eyes—and you eat the whole thing,” Nakazawa says.

Chef Daisuke Nakazawa, flanked by his sushi chefs, individually serves sushi pieces at Sushi Nakazawa in Manhattan.
Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Though chef Nakazawa has enjoyed renown since the release of Jiro Dreams of Sushi, even his Michelin-awarded establishments need to reinvent themselves to stay relevant. The restaurant recently made a point of reinforcing its sake offerings, including an investment in a rare sake known as Absolute Zero, of which Sushi Nakazawa was allocated five bottles out of the 300 produced worldwide. “Many of our customers are sake savvy and request that we have certain sakes on the menu,” explains Dean Fuerth, beverage director of Bedford Street Hospitality, which oversees Sushi Nakazawa.

Rare etiquette

Though there aren’t any uniform rules when it comes to enjoying high-priced items, there are some attributes one must consider when seriously deciding to place your order. “I think that the guest should have a prerequisite experience before ordering a rare or vintage spirit,” Beary says.

While there’s a first time for everything, spending a sizable amount of income without having a frame of reference for what something tastes like can lead to disappointment. “As a guest, definitely be open-minded and honest about your budget,” Fuerth says. “Money can be a bit taboo to discuss. But give a range, and then that way, your sommelier will be able to give you a range of bottles as well.”

“I did have a group of businessmen who had just closed a multimillion-dollar deal; they had never tried Chartreuse but wanted to splurge on something special,” Clements says of a particularly memorable transaction. “After spending nearly $2,000 for just three ounces, I was shocked to see that none of them had finished drinking this extremely rare distillate.”

Above all else, perhaps the most prudent advice is to make a connection with your server, whether it be at a table or bar, and trust that your special occasion will be made even better by opting for the unknown. After all, the best part of any hospitality experience is what happens before the bill comes. “You’re betting on the fact that there are others like you out there,” Clements says. “The occasional few that are so passionate and intrigued by these extraordinary finds that they are willing to part with their hard-earned cash for a taste of history.”

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