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October 23, 2008 at 11:00 AM

Priceless restaurant promo: “Pay what you can afford”

When I stopped by Shell Creek Grill yesterday afternoon to introduce myself to owners Brian and Heidi Petoletti, their dining room looked like this:

And when I came back for dinner later, the place was jumping, thanks to the Petolettis, who’ve felt the heat as the local economy has fizzled and decided to take drastic measures to do something about it:

Granted, big-time coverage of their promo on the evening news the night before last didn’t hurt. And wouldn’t you be interested in eating at a casually elegant restaurant when the “bill” comes out looking like this?

“Things had been going well for us going into our second year,” said Brian, who bought the existing restaurant in January 2007. “But with the Boeing situation, three weeks into the strike we really started to feel it. It’s trickled down, and now it’s snowballed.” That snowball effect — and Boeing’s Everett plant’s proximity — has contributed to a serious slowdown. “These are really trying times,” he said. “And it’s affecting people at all different levels. We used to have customers coming in once or twice a week. Now they’re coming in once a month. As a restaurateur, to see it going from being full, to being half-full or even a quarter-full is tough.”

And when the going gets tough, the tough do their best to tough it out.

“Heidi and I were driving to work one day and thought, `What is the craziest thing we could do?’ And we said, `Well, we could not charge for anything.'” If that sounds insane, so be it, but the Petoletti’s largesse allows customers to pay what they will — which is a service to them — and, for now at least, helps drive business and keeps Shell Creek’s steadfast employees employed, said Brian.

On the first night of the promotion, patrons determined their own pricing on the bistro-style menu, and paid as they saw fit for non-alcoholic beverages. (They’re required to to pay for alcoholic drinks — it’s state law). Here’s how it panned out: “About 80 percent paid a little bit less, a couple tables paid the actual price and a couple paid more — which was certainly surprising, but welcome,” Brian said. “There’s an expression in business: You take dollars to the bank, not percentages.” In the final tally, those who paid less paid about 10 to 15 percent less. Which is still more than they might pay if they were, say, waving Entertainment cards, half-off coupons and other come-and-get-it come-ons — promos we’ll no doubt see more of as diners tighten their belts and restaurants struggle along with them.

But running a business with notoriously slim profit-margins, one has to wonder how long restaurateurs like the Petolettis can keep on keeping on. “Our intention is to do this moving forward,” said Brian. “As business owners, we might not take as much as we did in the past, but the real benefit goes to our clientele — and to our employees” — who keep their jobs, and the increase in tips they’ll see along with the uptick in business.

So, for the past two nights at least, the Petolettis drive home feeling a bit crazy, but juiced. “The phone’s been ringing off the hook all day,” said Heidi, who was dressed in chef’s togs when she stopped by my table last night to meet my family and ask how I was enjoying my half-rack of lamb chops (delish — as was my “526 salad”). Later, looking around their full dining room, her husband smiled and said of the sudden increase in business, “It feels great.” And indeed it did.

If you were wondering what we paid for our meal, take a look:

The $105 “open food” is my calulation. After filling in the food total (see earlier bill), our server took my credit card and returned with the above, which includes charges for a glass of wine and accounts for the government’s taxation stipulation. Calculated here at home, I paid precisely what we’d have paid had we showed up to eat before the promotion started (standard prices were listed on our menu). And yes, we left our terrific waitress a nice tip.

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