At this restaurant, you pay what you want

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

Vancouver restaurant asks patrons to pay what they think their meal is worth

Bruce Constantineau

Rogue Kitchen and Wetbar owner Eli Gershkovitch sits at the newly renovated bar in his establishment at the Waterfront station in downtown Vancouver, formerly the TransContinental. Gershkovitch says that eatery was ‘perhaps too grand.’ Photograph by: Gerry Kahrmann, PNG, Vancouver Sun

It’s a rogue concept for a new restaurant — telling patrons to pay what they think the food is worth.

But Vancouver entrepreneur Eli Gershkovitch will give it a try, at least for a couple of weeks.

Gershkovitch has transformed what used to be the grand, ornate Trans-Continental restaurant on West Cordova into a funkier new eatery called Rogue Kitchen & Wetbar.

The new establishment aims to be hipper, more casual and more affordable.

There are set menu prices but customers can choose to pay more or less, depending on what they feel the food is worth based on fair market value.

It’s believed to be the first time a Vancouver restaurant has put its full menu under the pay-what-you-think-it’s-worth policy.

Rogue opened with the new subjective food-pricing concept late last week and Gershkovitch said no one has paid an outrageously low price for anything yet — like $2 for a $24 New York steak.

“So far, it has almost balanced out,” he said. “People have knocked off or added a buck or two but they take it very seriously and we have had some very insightful feedback.”

Several restaurants throughout the world have tried the innovative pricing policy in recent years but the concept has never taken a firm hold in the industry and Gershkovitch admits he’ll drop it if it costs him money.

A Seattle-area coffee shop — Terra Bite Lounge — got a lot of hype when it introduced the policy in 2007 but it only lasted about two years.

U.S. bakery and restaurant chain Panera Bread Co. opened a St. Louis outlet last month where customers donate what they want for a meal. A non-profit foundation runs the restaurant and the pilot project will be expanded across the U.S. if it works.

Gershkovitch likens the policy to Radiohead’s 2007 release of its album In Rainbows, when fans paid what they wanted for a digital download.

He said he had to think outside of the box after the commercial failure of the TransContinental, which he opened with great fanfare three years ago.

It started out as a lavish, high-end restaurant with a decor that reflected the glory days of transcontinental rail travel. But it never caught on with Vancouver restaurant-goers.

“As beautiful as the TransContinental was, it was perhaps too grand,” Gershkovitch said. “There was no way of bringing it down to the point where people felt comfortable and relaxed without doing some major work on it.”

So he shut it down for six weeks this year and spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on interior design changes that made the space more intimate by creating several smaller spaces within the establishment.

Four-and-a-half-metre light fixtures were installed to reduce the sense of high ceilings while hardwood floors and exposed brick have been featured to be more reflective of Gastown.

Gershkovitch said the Rogue name represents the radical transformation of the restaurant space and the unique nature of a menu that includes mini corn dogs and sushi bombs.

“This was not the time to be formulaic,” he said.

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The Ground Rules

  All food menu items are subject to the policy, while liquor is not.

  Servers should still be tipped on overall quality, service and atmosphere.

  It’s not pay-what-you-want. It’s a “social contract” where you pay what you honestly feel is fair market value.

  If patrons pay more than the menu price, the difference will be donated to charity.

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