What can an event professional like me learn from an acclaimed Chicago restaurateur/chef? As it turns out, a lot.
A few months ago, I picked up Grant Achatz’s memoir, Life on the Line: A Chef’s Story of Chasing Greatness, Facing Death and Redefining the Way We Eat. It’s an inspiring story of his culinary career, his cancer diagnosis and recovery (tongue cancer — devastating for a chef!) and how he’s changing the way people look at food and dining.
With the 2011 opening of his Next restaurant, Achatz aimed to do something truly unique. Here’s how Next operates: For three-month blocks, it serves a menu (and incorporates details like décor and silverware) that evokes a particular place and time. For example: Paris, 1906. Once the three months are up, Next morphs into an entirely new restaurant with an entirely new menu.
Friends of mine had been raving about their amazing experiences at Next for a while. After reading Achatz’s book, I was sold and ready to make a reservation.
But, wait. Next doesn’t take reservations. Nor does it take walk-ins. So, how do you actually get into this place?
Months in advance, Next puts nonrefundable tickets on sale via an online booking system. The ticket, which covers the food and gratuity, can be sold, scalped or bartered. When the tickets go on sale is a bit of a mystery — really, the only way to find out is to follow Next on Twitter or stalk the Facebook page. And when I say stalk, I mean it.
Before Next opened last year, it put three months’ worth of tickets on sale. Eager diners scooped them all up in just eight hours. Worth noting: The online ticket window opened at midnight. That means many people woke up the next morning to the disappointing news that they had already missed out.
On Being Fearless
So, why do I consider Achatz a game-changer? And what can an event professional like me take away from Next’s success?
First of all, Achatz has elevated something relatively ordinary (a meal) into something extraordinary. Yes, the food at Next is excellent. But many restaurants, particularly in Chicago, can make the same claim.
What separates Next from other high-end restaurants is the experience of eating there. You’re transported to another place and time, and the multicourse meal leisurely unfolds over three to four hours. It’s dining as theater. And you can come back again in three months for a totally different experience.
Second, the Next ticketing approach is really intriguing. I’m annoyed that I can’t just call ahead to make reservations and that I’m at the mercy of my Internet connection when tickets do go on sale. (For the record, I still haven’t been able to score a table.) But it’s clear the Next audience is willing to schedule a special dining experience months in advance — and to pay a pretty penny for the privilege.
Recently, Next started selling season tickets, guaranteeing you a seat at every iteration of the restaurant throughout the year. The patrons don’t have to jump into the fray of ticket sales every three months, and Next is guaranteed a sold-out house for a year. A win-win!
For those of us in event fundraising or most any profession, Next’s success should motivate us to be fearless. We should continually look at every aspect of our work and ask what we could be doing differently. Sometimes that means flipping common sense on its head (like a restaurant refusing reservations). That’s okay. In fact, it’s better than okay; it’s a great way to start looking at things.
Therese Grohman is the director of marketing at Event 360, where she focuses on building Event 360’s thought leadership platform and developing relationships with organizations through impactful and relevant communications. She has also worked directly with a variety of organizations to create and implement event fundraising strategies, drawing from her experiences working in the nonprofit sector.