“Eat What You Want, Pay What You Want”

UPDATE 2: Chef Zod Arifai's 16-year-old daughter gives him a new perspective on his big experiment.

A closeup of the sign outside Zod Arifai's two restaurants in Montclair this week.

UPDATE, SUNDAY JUNE 21: In terms of turnout, the experiment went well. Blu and Next Door, which share the same kitchen, pulled in about 120 customers, roughly double the usual combined total for a Wednesday, according to chef/owner Zod Arifai.

He offered one menu of 13 items, a kind of greatest hits, the same menu in both restaurants.

The top of the menu spelled out the terms in bold capital letters: basically, it would be a clean-plate club. No takeout, no wrapping leftovers. Finish the dish (a portion somewhat smaller than a regular order) and feel free to order another. Keep going until you explode. Kidding! Until you feel happily full and satisfied. Then decide for yourself how much to pay.

“Most people had at least three dishes,” Arifai said. “A table of four would come in and typically order eight to 10 dishes, then maybe order a couple more. There was one table of two people that had nine dishes. Overall, it was a bit overwhelming for the wait staff, as they had to visit most tables three or four times.”

Anecdotally, it seems that some customers made an effort to calculate how much their bill might have been, taking into account the slightly smaller portions, figured in a tip, and left that amount. About half the customers paid in cash, the rest by credit card. Either way, Arifai took 7 percent of the amount paid for tax and 20 percent as tip for servers.”

Arifai was disturbed that some people ate a lot of food and left only a few dollars, in one case a single crumpled dollar bill. But a talk with his precocious 16-year-old daughter, Brianda, gave him a different perspective.”

“She said that there are probably a lot of people who have been wanting to try the food at Blu for years, but thought they could never afford it,” Arifai said. “So they paid what they could afford. After she said that, I felt peaceful and happy.

“She loves Mexican food, and we went to a place she likes. We ordered a sampler, and it was a huge plate of food for $12. The food, to me, was not good, not healthy. But she pointed out that it could feed a family of four. And I realized, Wow, people can’t afford to eat healthy. It made me think about opening places where people can eat healthy food that tastes good for an affordable price instead of going to these fast food places, and it’s because of Brianda.”

Next Door is close to being just such a place, though its prices, low for the exceptional quality of the food, are still higher than fast food prices. Next Door’s prices might be close to what so-called fast-casual chains charge.

Looking back at Eat What You Want, Pay What You Want, Arifai said, “Overall, it was a good experience, and I think I might try it again before I close.”

Blu and Next Door will end their acclaimed runs (10 years, in Blu’s case) on August 31.

HERE IS THE ORIGINAL STORY:

Zod Arifai, who will be closing his award-winning Montclair restaurants Blu and Next Door August 31, is thanking his customers this Wednesday, June 17. The sandwich board outside the two adjacent restaurants says it all:

Wednesday, June 17
EAT
What You Want,

PAY What You Want!
Blu and Next Door

“It’s a way to thank the community,” Arifai says. “Blu from the beginning was a casual, inexpensive place for the community. Then the media took it to another level. Then the same thing happened with Next Door, especially after our burger won.”

The reference is to Next Door’s victory over nine other restaurants noted for their burgers in NJM’s 2011 Great Burger Showdown, in a blind tasting by a panel of five judges. Blu has made NJM’s list of Top 25 restaurants in the state every year since the list was created in 2007.

Speaking of the current offer, which he said he might extend, depending on response, Arifai said, “I’ve had this idea for five or six years. Restaurants have to evolve, and we’ve been doing business the same way forever. Originally, I thought there would be no menu. You come in, say, ‘Bring us food,’ we bring you food, you leave what you want.

Chef Zod Arifai and his daughter, Brianda, in front of her school. Photo: Chris Crisman, 2009.

Chef Zod Arifai and his daughter, Brianda, in front of her school. Photo: Chris Crisman, 2009.

“But there are complications in doing it that way. Everything has to be ordered, broken down because of tax and tip. Somebody leaves $10, 7 percent of that goes to tax, 20 percent goes to the servers and front-of-house staff, and the rest is for me and the business.

“The cooks have nothing to do with it. All the cooks are on a weekly payroll. They get paid their regular wages whether or not anybody shows up.”

So the great experiment is on.

“Now that we’re closing, I want to try it and see what happens,” Arifai says. “People think it’s crazy, it will attract the wrong people. But I have hope in humanity. I don’t think people will just come in and abuse it.

“I’m interested to know what people think of the idea: Good? Bad? Crazy? I’m interested to know what humanity makes of it.”

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