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Why people pay thousands for opulent 'experience' foods
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(Credit: Serendipity3)
Spending $200 on French fries or €5,000 on a burger seems utterly improbable. But consumers across the world are increasingly willing to shell out for over-the-top dishes.
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The Golden Opulence Sundae at New York City’s Serendipity3 restaurant lives up to its name: three scoops of Tahitian vanilla ice cream are topped with 23-karat edible gold leaf, spoonfuls of ​​Grand Passion dessert caviar, a handcrafted gilded sugar orchid and Amedei Porcelana and Chuao chocolate, made from rare Venezuelan beans. The dish is served in a Baccarat Harcourt crystal goblet, and must be ordered at least 48 hours in advance to give the restaurant time to procure the exotic ingredients. 

At $1,000 (£730), it’s far more than Chantha Thach ever imagined spending on a dessert. “For me, growing up middle-class, $1,000 is someone's rent – maybe not New York rent, but someone's rent somewhere,” says the personal trainer. But in December 2019, her aunt and cousins came from Ohio for their first real visit in nearly a decade, and before lunch at Serendipity3, her aunt revealed a surprise: she had ordered the sundae. 

Shared among the table of six, tasting the dessert worked out at just under $170 per person. And the way Thach describes the experience, it was worth every penny. “I literally savoured every spoonful,” she says. “I mean, obviously it was the best dessert I've ever had in my life.”

This kind of superlative is exactly what the dish was designed for. It was added to Serendipity3’s menu in 2004 for the Guinness World Records title of “most expensive dessert”. The restaurant also holds the records for the most expensive sandwich (a $214 grilled cheese paired with South African lobster tomato bisque), the most expensive milkshake ($100, served in a Swarovski crystal-encrusted glass) and, as of July 2021, the most expensive French fries ($200, blanched with Dom Pérignon champagne and topped with truffle salt, truffle oil, truffled cheeses and shaved black truffles).

Chantha Thach had Serendipity3's Golden Opulence Sundae when her aunt surprised her in December 2019 (Credit: Chantha Thach)

Chantha Thach had Serendipity3's Golden Opulence Sundae when her aunt surprised her in December 2019 (Credit: Chantha Thach)

The restaurant is hardly alone in its pursuit of culinary extravagance. In Voorthuizen, Netherlands, De Daltons restaurant debuted a €5,000 burger last month, featuring the highest-grade A5 Japanese wagyu beef, Alaskan king crab and Iberico ham. In Las Vegas, Wally’s Wines and Spirits is now offering diners a chance to spend their winnings on a $1,000 200-day dry-aged rib-eye steak. And one high-end culinary creation that lives on in lore is a caviar-laden cronut for £1,500, from London’s Dum Dum Donutterie.

While shelling out eye-watering sums for a slab of meat or a plate of fried potatoes may seem ludicrous to some, these dishes are an effective marketing trick – as demonstrated by weeks-long waiting lists and I tried it-style YouTube videos that rack up tens of millions of views. Even as the pandemic has dampened opportunities (and, in many cases, appetites) for conspicuous consumption, why do these big-budget menu items remain so popular? Do we feel like now, more than ever, we deserve a treat? 

Primed to splurge?

For Serendipity3, at least, the pricey French fries were intended to drum up excitement around the restaurant’s reopening after more than a year of renovations and pandemic-related closures. Beyond generating headlines, the dish also quickly racked up a 10-week waiting list.

That the publicity stunt was successful comes as no surprise to Aaron Allen, founder of Chicago-based restaurant consultancy Aaron Allen & Associates. As a restaurant, introducing an over-the-top menu item “is a great way of being able to capture attention”, he says. Serendipity3 earned ample publicity for its gilded sundae when it was released, and now its latest product appears to be made for the post-pandemic climate. With more people feeling comfortable travelling and dining out, the timing is right to offer a dish that’s decadent, but not completely out of reach for the customer who’s eager to splurge.

We've all been locked up long enough that spending 20%, 30%, 40% more at a restaurant doesn't feel like it has to be reserved for birthdays and anniversaries anymore – Aaron Allen

“We've all been locked up long enough that spending 20%, 30%, 40% more at a restaurant doesn't feel like it has to be reserved for birthdays and anniversaries anymore,” he says. This shift in customers’ attitudes is also encouraging more restaurants to add lavish dishes like Tomahawk steaks – an extra-large, head-turning ribeye cut – for two or four people to their menus, where they previously may have balked at the price, he says.

According to Anat Keinan, an associate professor of marketing at Boston University, US, people may be more willing to indulge when circumstances nudge them towards taking a long-term perspective. In her research, she’s found that when you ask people about their regrets and priorities in the short-term, they tend to focus on concerns such as not working hard enough, not dieting or exercising enough or not saving enough money. By contrast, when you ask them to think back over the past five or 10 years, or look to the future, they tend to prioritise and regret missing out on pleasurable experiences.

Circumstances like travel (as in the case of Thach’s aunt), as well as major events like the pandemic, encourage this kind of long-range perspective. People become more inclined to say, “‘Oh, you know what, I don't want to miss out on opportunities to be happy and have these special experiences with my family, with my friends,’” says Keinan. “And that allows them to have these special experiences without feeling guilty.”

De Daltons in Voorthuizen offers The Golden Boy, a €5,000 burger that includes Dom Pérignon-battered onion rings and beluga caviar (Credit: De Daltons)

De Daltons in Voorthuizen offers The Golden Boy, a €5,000 burger that includes Dom Pérignon-battered onion rings and beluga caviar (Credit: De Daltons)

These over-the-top dishes check all the boxes of what Keinan refers to as “collectible experiences”: they’re iconic, rare (as demonstrated by the waitlists), unique, extreme and Instagrammable. Together, these qualities make for a memorable experience – one that’s enjoyed not just in the moment, but also through anticipation in the lead-up and with photos and memories afterwards. When we have special occasions that we want to commemorate, “we want these unique and memorable and rare experiences to help mark these occasions”, she says. 

When Thach had her decadent meal, her aunt was celebrating the successful year she’d had with her business. To her niece, she emphasised that an indulgence like the ice cream sundae “is a life experience that doesn't come often or easy, and she's worked really hard to get to this point so she wanted to share that with me”, says Thach. “I think that's why it meant more to me than just like, 'Oh, I spent $1,000 on this dessert'. lt meant a lot.”

‘The Emirates effect’

Of course, it wouldn’t have been difficult to ring up a comparable tab for a full meal at a high-end restaurant in the city. But part of the attraction of a novelty item like an over-the-top pastry or burger is its high-low appeal: it’s a food that’s usually affordable and widely accessible – much like a plate of fries or a burger.

“Everybody knows what it's like to eat a burger,” says Leigh Caldwell, a cognitive economist, partner at London-based Irrational Agency and author of The Psychology of Price. “So, you're more likely to notice that there's a €5,000 burger than if it was some kind of fancy tasting menu from [New York City’s three-Michelin-Star] Eleven Madison Park. You wouldn't see that as relevant to yourself.”

And even if you don’t splurge on the big-ticket order, its very existence may change your experience of dining at that restaurant. Caldwell points to what he refers to as “the Emirates effect”, in reference to the airline’s ultra-luxurious first-class private suites.

Dum Dum Donutterie's Luxury Zebra Cro, which was sold for £1,500, was made with Cristal Rosé Champagne caviar (Credit: John Phillips/Stringer)

Dum Dum Donutterie's Luxury Zebra Cro, which was sold for £1,500, was made with Cristal Rosé Champagne caviar (Credit: John Phillips/Stringer)

“Even if you're flying economy for $400, you still have this idea that some of that magic of the $30,000 flying apartment in the sky is going to spill over into your little economy seat at the back,” he says. Similarly, with a $200 plate of fries, “this one item has a halo effect and makes you think that the rest of the menu, the rest of the experience that you're going to get is still something quite special”.

This, he offers, is one reason Burger King debuted a limited-run £95 ($130) Waygu beef burger in 2008; even if few people got to taste the menu item, it furthered the chain’s messaging of being a more premium fast-food option. “The information contained in a price does many of the same things that a well-managed brand does,” says Utpal Dholakia, a professor of marketing at Rice University. “It creates all these associations in your mind about what to expect and what the quality of the product will be like.”

Even if the only thing you knew about the Golden Opulence Sundae were its price, he says, you’d already have a vivid image in your mind about what it might look and taste like – and, more importantly to the restaurant, what kind of experience you might have there, no matter what you order.

As a marketing move, it has the opposite effect of, say, offering a Groupon for 99-cent French fries, he says. It draws in customers who are likely less price-sensitive and gives the restaurant more pricing power over the overall menu. “If you want to communicate that you have a certain quality, a certain ambience, a certain experience,” says Dholakia, “a really effective way to do that is with a really high price.”

As the pandemic continues to limit consumers’ spending opportunities, every trip and restaurant meal now feels, to many, like a special occasion. So, long as diners are in such a celebratory mood, why not fill the void with gold leaf and caviar?

“With the way we have lived our lives in the last year-and-a-half, many of us are itching to do these types of things,” says Dholakia, “so this is an opportune time to offer these kinds of outsized experiences.”

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