You know things are bad when bankers start bartering. But Smith & Wollensky put out a proposition in a full-page New York Times ad today: You can use blue chips to pay for your black-and-blue. The chain, which does a significant chunk of its business with financial professionals and for corporate lunches, is keenly aware of its clientele's evolving cash flow status -- and its trickle-down effect on the service industry.
The ad, from agency Walrus, New York, puts it to the suits in appropriate tongue-in-cheek fashion: "This bonus season has taken an unexpected turn, with the large banks paying out their bonuses not in cash, but in company stock. Its effects on the local economy could be catastrophic, leaving large tracts of land in the Hamptons and Martha's Vineyard undeveloped, legions of real estate brokers, personal shoppers and pet psychiatrists unemployed and massive amounts of steak and lobster uneaten."
Alan Stillman, founder of Smith & Wollensky and Fourth Wall Restaurants, said the response has been "over the top." He's already taped TV interviews with major networks and spoken with reporters representing "thousands of newspapers." Mr. Stillman said the idea came to him last week. "I got a little bit annoyed that business will be a little off at restaurants, not due to anything but politics," he said of Wall Street's revised bonus strategy. "I don't mind being off [because of] the economy -- that's part of the business, but this one bothered me because it's more or less politics, and it's bothering everybody and wasn't helping anybody." Of course, the promotion is about business, not making a political statement.
But the company is serious. The ad is accompanied by an appropriate amount of legalese. For instance, the stock's registered owner must be present, and must surrender the original certificate and a separate stock power with a medallion signature guarantee. At the moment, this offer only pertains to the chain's New York City location.
A company spokeswoman said the restaurant has been flooded with inquiries to make sure the offer is legit, but participation isn't the point. "Even if people don't come in with stock, we've created enough of a buzz that we'll get people coming in that would normally have come in and that's what it's all about," Mr. Stillman said.
And a promotion so closely tied to news that's deeply meaningful to the restaurant's core customers was sure to generate interest. "Don't forget, restaurant advertising is not very cutting-edge; I think that's something that's lacking for the entire genre," Mr. Stillman said. "When we do our advertising, we consider the fact that if you can get it to be cutting-edge, then you're doing something different from everybody else, and you don't have to worry about people copying your advertising." It's important to note that Mr. Stillman is a legend in the restaurant industry. He founded TGI Friday's in the 1970s with a $5,000 loan from his mother.
Deacon Webster, chief creative at Walrus, said that client Fourth Wall Restaurants, which owns Smith & Wollensky, brought the idea to the agency last week. He noted that the timing couldn't have been better and added that the agency is hoping the restaurant will create faxable menus that adjust based on stock prices, so, for instance "you can see what you can get for 10 Citi shares."
Mr. Webster's agency represents all of the Fourth Wall brands, including Park Avenue restaurant, which changes its décor every season, and Maloney & Porcelli, which got its own tidal wave of press last year with the "Expense a Steak" effort. Walrus built a tool on the chain's website for consumers to enter a dollar amount, and they were then able to print out fake receipts for the requisite figure.