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Caviar is New Recessionista Fare

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Hey, bargain-basement caviar may be coming to a location near you. Or maybe even a "McCaviar."

It's all an outgrowth of a fast evolving trend in which worried merchandisers of luxury goods--recognizing that everyone, including the well heeled, is trying to save a buck--are adding some options to their product offerings that sport sharply lower prices.

In The Godfather, Marlon Brando, bent on inducing someone to do something that he wanted done, cryptically told an associate, "we'll make him an offer he can't refuse." That, in effect, is what luxury merchandisers are also trying to do--make the public an offer that it can't refuse.

No, there're not looking to do that through an implied death threat or bodily harm, but rather via enticing bargains in a recessionary environment, one of the newest being caviar, the ultimate luxury in gourmet food.

In this case, the low-price pitch is coming from none other than one of the nation's most luxurious lodging companies--the sprawling Four Seasons hotel chain, which boasts 91 units worldwide, 47 of which are located in the U.S. A few weeks ago, the chain's New York City hotel, located in a posh midtown Manhattan location between Madison and Park avenues, opened a small caviar lounge in its lobby that includes a selection of low-cost caviars from Italy and the Caspian Sea region.

The Calvisius Caviar Lounge, as it's called, is the first of many such lounges that are contemplated. "If it works, it will be in all the Four Seasons around the world," I'm told by the fella heading up this new venture, Tommaso Mazzarella, sales manager of Agroittica Lombardo, a leading company in Italian Aquaculture and a caviar importer and distributor.

Four low-priced caviars are offered in the lounge, which are imported from Calvisano (the Latin pronunciation is Calvisius), a small Italian town sandwiched between Milan and Venice. The offerings are seven grams of caviar with blini or toasted bread at $25 and $35 and warmed potato puree topped with 10 grams of caviar at $35 and $55.

"The business is starting off well; we have no complaints," Mazzarella tells me. One reason for the lounge's initial good response, he says, is the very low prices. "We know these are bad times, but buying from us is like buying from the factory, and why shouldn't people be able to eat caviar in a recession?"

If you're a gourmet and money is no object, the lounge also offers a variety of higher priced caviars ranging from $60 for 28 grams to $756 for 250 grams.

Accompanying drinks, such as wines, vodkas and champagnes, are available from $14 to $28.

The lounge could also attract room reservations at the hotel. If you might think of staying there, make sure you bring a thick wallet. The cheapest room for the cost-conscious is $850 a day. Or if you're a spendthrift, there's a room on the 52nd floor with "drop dead" views for $35,000 a day.

Significantly, the opening of the caviar lounge is yet another sign that many merchandisers of luxury products--anxious to beef up their sales and survive in a deteriorating economic climate--will willingly trade down to lower price points to appeal to a larger consumer base, which they hope will fatten their volume.

Leading luxury retailers, for example, are already trading down by slashing prices, some by as much as 70% to 90%, and top restaurants are traveling a similar path by adding inviting low-priced meals and dishes to their menus.

On New York City's restaurant circuit, for example, such well known and posh dining spots as the Four Seasons, Le Cirque and Petrossian, Manhattan's leading caviar restaurant, have taken the discount route by offering three-course meals ranging from $35 to $59.

Even Donald "I'm the greatest" Trump has jumped into the discount fray, with the bar in the luxury Trump Tower on Fifth Avenue offering a trio of food and drink for $20.09.

Whether the Four Seasons hotel will be successful in its caviar venture is anybody's guess. My wife, Harriet, a caviar lover (not me), tosses in a cautionary note, reminding me that a number of retailers and restaurants within a few blocks of the lounge have ceased operations and that the area is littered with shuttered and unused commercial real estate. It has been a jinx location for a number of restaurants, including the Playboy Club, Harriet pointed out.

My own thought, seeing a lot of wealthy folk also cut back appreciably in their spending, is that $25 to $55 caviar--even though it appears low--may still become off limits to many potential buyers if the sagging economy continues to sag.

The average check for caviar at Petrossian--20 grams worth--runs between $130 and $150.

Dandordan@aol.com