Rare species

Whatever Happened to the Early Bird Special?

The decline of this once-common dining discount says a lot about how Sarasota has changed.

By Cooper Levey-Baker March 2, 2021

Pull up an old issue of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, gaze at the restaurant ads and you'll discover a whole way of dining that has nearly gone extinct: the early bird special.

On Jan. 2, 1985, a date plucked at random, you'll find ads for early bird specials at the Windjammer (prime rib, almond-fried flounder or chicken cordon bleu for $5.95 until 5:45 p.m.), Oberlin's (macaroni and cheese with ham or "broasted" chicken for $3.15 from 4 to 5 p.m.) and the Rain Forest Restaurant (seafood or ribs for $5.95 from 5 to 6:30 p.m.). Poki Joe's Cafe, Merlin's Bar & Board, Walt's Fish Market, The Summerhouse and even "all participating Suncoast Arby's" locations were offering early bird deals back then, too.

Fifteen years later, around the turn of the millennium, when I waited tables and worked in the kitchen at Hemingway's on St. Armands Circle, the early bird special was still going strong. We'd put together inexpensive platters that aped the normal dinner entrées, but with smaller cuts of meat or fish and less-generous scoops of sides, and we'd curse the people who came in five minutes before the early bird was over but still wanted to order off the discount menu.

Today, however, while restaurants still offer plenty of discounts and deals, it's rare to find an eatery touting something called an "early bird special." Why? Turns out that the decline of the early bird special says a lot about how Sarasota has changed in recent decades.

Ia 2018 Eater article, Jaya Saxena traced the history of the early bird special back to the early part of the 20th century, when restaurants began offering them as a way to bring in older diners without kids. "Social Security benefits, which arrived with the New Deal expansion of the welfare state, ushered in a new category of personhood — the retiree, who could live independently, if frugally," wrote Saxena.

Jean-Pierre Knaggs, who opened The Bijou Café in downtown Sarasota in 1986, echoes that assessment.

"It goes way back to the time when people first started retiring to Florida," he says. "They really could do it on just their Social Security. It was a relatively cheap place to go. Housing was fairly cheap. There was no state income tax. And restaurants took advantage of it by getting in people who were pretty frugal. They were OK with spending $5 for dinner even though they had to eat at 4:30, because they were really watching their bucks."

Plenty of people still want to move to Sarasota, but affordable? Not so much. The median sale price of a single-family home in Sarasota County hit $350,000 in December, more than double the median price from a decade prior, and multimillion-dollar sales are now common. Residential real estate sales in Sarasota County totaled $6.2 billion last year. And when you adjust for inflation, the median income in the City of Sarasota rose by 29.1 percent between 2010 and 2019.

"People coming to Florida now are not necessarily retiring to live on Social Security," says Knaggs. "They're not as concerned about how much they spend on their food."

For restaurant owners, the appeal of running early bird specials was simple: It brought people into the restaurant during a time of day when it might otherwise sit empty. ("Putting butts in seats," is how Knaggs puts it.)

One of a handful of local restaurants to still carry an early bird menu is Bevardi's Salute! in downtown Sarasota. Owner Laszlo Bevardi says the menu has been a staple at the restaurant since shortly after it opened in 2010.

The Salute! early bird menu isn't just a list of simple entrées. It's a three-course prix fixe offering that comes with an appetizer, an entrée and a dessert for $26.95. It's a great deal—definitely not a cut-rate dinner designed to get customers in and out quickly.

Bevardi says the early bird menu is popular among people who want to have a nice meal before attending a show. The restaurant draws a mix of customers who come in regularly for the deal and newcomers who stop in for maybe a drink and an appetizer and end up ordering the full meal.

"We still have a decent crowd," he says. "It's great to have some early diners."

Miguel's on Siesta Key also offers an early bird menu, and Sarasota's Café Baci has done one for more than three decades. From 4 to 5 p.m., you can pick from a list of 10 entrées that cost just $12, or you can put together a three-course meal for $17.

Owner Roberto Mei calls Baci's three-course early bird special "the best deal in town." He says the popularity of the early bird special has remained steady. "People appreciate it," he says. "They recognize the value in it."

For some restaurants, early bird specials never made financial sense. The Bijou is located near several theaters and other performance spaces, and became known as a quality destination for a meal before a show. If people were already coming in at 5:30 to dine before a play, why offer them a discount?

Raymond and D'Arcy Arpke purchased Euphemia Haye on Longboat Key in 1980. The restaurant has never offered an early bird special. D'Arcy Arpke says doing so would mess up the timing of its evening service.

"Our reservations are based on a two-hour seating," she says. "If we book a table at 5:30, we're going to book it again at 7:30, but probably not at 9:30. To have a lot of people come in at 4:30, that would mean we would probably book a 6:30, probably not an 8:30." Offering a deal to that 4:30 p.m. table would cuts into Euphemia Haye's revenue.

Walt's may have run early bird specials in the past, but they were eliminated from the menu years ago. General manager Justin Wolff says Walt's had already stopped offering early bird deals when he began working there nearly 12 years ago.

There's no real reason to offer the discount these days, Wolff says. "We don't really have a downtime," he says. "From the moment we open the doors to the moment we close them, the restaurant's pretty full." When you're running an hour-and-a-half wait for dinner, there's not much motivation to draw in new customers.

It's not just economics that have made early bird specials less popular. Knaggs says Americans' desire for new foods has grown since the Bijou opened, a trend he credits to the popularization of food media, which started in the 1990s with the Food Network.

At the same time, diners have also become more concerned about where their food comes from and how it is prepared—all part of what Knaggs calls a "big awakening" that has taken place in recent decades. People still want value when they eat out, but they're also obsessed with trying new dishes and are careful about they put in their bodies. That's cut the market for simple, inexpensive early bird platters.

There is also a basic generational dynamic at work. Baby Boomers who are retiring now don't want to retire in the same way their parents did. "We're at that age now where we should be playing shuffleboard and wearing our pants up around our chest, but we don't want that image," says Knaggs. "We want to go to a Rolling Stones concert and smoke a joint every once in awhile."

Part of the change is simply a shift in nomenclature. Many restaurants have gone from offering early bird deals to expanding their happy hour service. The Bijou never offered an early bird deal, but the restaurant launched a happy hour program after customers began asking for it. Knaggs says that while some customers just take advantage of the drinks specials and then leave, others linger and might even stay for dinner. "It's turned out to be pretty lucrative," says Knaggs.

Could we see a resurgence of restaurants offering early bird specials? In 2010, The New York Times reported that Florida restaurants offering early bird specials had seen an influx of young customers whose dining out budgets had been slashed by the Great Recession.

Given the economic stresses of our current era and Americans' mania for all things retro, I'd wager there's a hip young Sarasota chef out there right now plotting a new, stylized take on the early bird special. Chicken cordon bleu served with a mug of hot water and a slice of lemon at 4:45 p.m.? Let's go. No trend lasts forever, which also means that no trend is ever truly dead.

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