News  News brief: Restaurants in recession

For-sale signs, clearance sales, and two-for-one deals are tell-tale signs that Canada’s in an economic crisis, but outside of Montreal restaurant Taverne Crescent, a sign reading “Pay What You Want” hangs in the window.

There is no fine print. No minimum price. Just a question mark in place of a total. Every Monday to Friday from noon until 3 p.m., clients pay what they want – or better yet, what they can – for a combination of plates picked from a daily menu. It’s lunch that sympathizes both with Montrealers’ thinning wallets and the restaurant industry’s drop in business.

At first glance, the move to lunch donations looks desperate. Taverne Crescent is a classy restaurant-bar that used to draw in a steady clientele of Montreal’s fine white-collar professionals, many of them American tourists. While not luxurious, it never used to attract frugal spenders.

Since having started this luncheon special, however, business for the Taverne has picked up, allowing them to avoid hard decisions that other restaurants face on fiscal spending, said co-owner George Pappas.

In the few weeks that the pay what you want policy has been in effect, the restaurant has had its lunchtime clientele jump from 20 to 90, sometimes reaching 150.

Also sharing in the newfound excitement are the staff. While tips may not be as high on average per table, overall with more clients to serve and more shifts, they’re easily making up the difference. Manager and waiter Garry Mathieu appreciatively noted that customers have generally been fair and honest.

As for the future of the Taverne’s luncheon special, Pappas said he sees no likely endpoint in sight.

“Obama reminds us that the ways of yesterday are finished,” he said. “What we are doing is potentially the ‘new way’ of this industry, and once the ball gets rolling, how could be go back?” 

—Sarah Howell