Armed with 20-year-old snapshots and dusty college yearbooks, Spokane residents have gathered all week near First and Monroe to gobble gluttonous amounts of spaghetti.
Pasta-hungry penny-pinchers Tuesday night waited in a line twisting down an alley for up to two and a half hours - often in hail and drizzle - to eat cheap at the Old Spaghetti Factory’s “20 Year Price Setback.”
The promotion, which ends tonight, lets diners eat for the same prices that were on the menu in 1975. Back then, no meal was more than $2.90.
But there’s a catch: Each diner must bring something dated 1975.
“We had one person bring in the actual Spaghetti Factory menu from 1975, and we’ve had a few Playboy magazines,” restaurant manager Susan Schwartz said.
Although most customers bring coins, some relics have been more personal: divorce notices, foreclosure decrees and disco or MoTown albums.
The promotion is a twist on coupon deals frequently offered by restaurants. Since it started Monday, sales volume has been triple that of normal weeknights for the restaurant, 152 S. Monroe.
On Monday, 557 people jammed the restaurant from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays usually draw fewer than 200 people - just barely enough to fill the 160-seat eatery, Schwartz said.
The Northwest is the first region to participate in the sale, and within the next month all 28 franchises nationwide will sponsor the 4-day event.
Despite suffocating crowds, profits are down as a result of the Price Setback, said Bob Barr, vice president of marketing at the company’s Portland headquarters.
“This is a break-even promotion. What it amounts to is that we’re serving the meal right below cost while refamiliarizing customers who haven’t been down to the restaurant in a while,” Barr said.
Experts say, however, that the success of such promotions are not measured by immediate profits.
“The restaurant has managed to break back into public awareness, and that’s the larger goal,” said Carl Borchgrezink, assistant professor at Michigan State University’s School of Hotel, Restaurant and Institutional Management.
“This type of promotion is quite common, actually,” Borchgrezink said from East Lansing, Mich. “A restaurant uses this technique to get people in the door, especially people who have lapsed into not going to the particular restaurant in a number of years.”
Dorothy Kennedy fits the customer profile Borchgrezink described: The Spokane resident hadn’t set foot in the restaurant for five years.
Clutching a 1975 telephone directory and coins for her children and grandkids, she waited patiently in the doorway. The hostess predicted she’d wait for at least two hours.
“If it were just me and my husband, we’d wait,” Kennedy said. “But with the rest of the family and the babies, it’s too long. We just thought it’d be fun to go out to a place offering these kind of prices.”
All meals cost between $1.60 and $2.90 including salad, bread, beverage and spumoni ice cream.
Ultimately Kennedy and her family got fed up with the long lines instead of the pasta. They left without eating, but Borchgrezink said the promotion was nonetheless a success.
“There’s always the risk of people waiting too long and the place getting a negative word of mouth. On the other hand, any restaurant with a line of people waiting outside to get in is a strong advertisement for people to try it,” he said.