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TODAY’S TOPIC: Restaurateur Abandons Price-less Menus

January 2, 1986

WARRENDALE, Pa. (AP) _ Jerry Juliano sighed as he scanned the empty tables in his cozy little restaurant, where a year ago he stripped the prices from his menus and told patrons to pay what they wanted.

Although Juliano won’t say his experiment in trust failed, he finally gave in to pressure from his customers, the few there were, and restored the prices.

″Most people would have gone bankrupt already,″ said Juliano, 43, a robust man with a ready smile. ″We’ve had days where we’ve only had one table.″

A former truckdriver, Juliano opened his La Casa de Pasta Restaurant more than two years ago on an isolated stretch of U.S. Route 19 about 25 miles north of Pittsburgh. The restaurant offered Italian meals at reasonable prices.

Then, in Deceber 1984, Juliano removed the prices in what he called a humble ″act of faith.″ His menus instructed customers to pay what they felt the meal was worth.

″I didn’t do this to be a gimmick. I did this for the Lord,″ he explained. ″I said ’It’s yours. If you want it to go, it’s yours.‴

Throughout the winter of 1985, the family-owned eatery grossed a little over $6,000 a month - just enough to break even. By the fall, however, the restaurant was taking in less than $2,500 a month. The worst day was Oct. 31, when an entire day’s business amounted to only $6.51.

Juliano admits his menus without prices unsettled many people.

″I’ve had people say it was uncomfortable to pay that way,″ he said. ″They wanted me to put the prices on the menu so they could have something to judge by. But I thought, what’s the sense of doing that? If I had prices, that would be telling people that’s what I wanted to be paid.″

In an effort to make paying as guilt-free as possible, Juliano removed the cash register last March and put a slot in the counter so patrons wouldn’t have to face him when they paid.

″But even then, customers were afraid they would cheat me,″ he said.

Compounding his problems from spring till fall was highway construction in front of the restaurant.

″It makes me feel like they are trying to put me out of business,″ Juliano said, referring to a recently erected highway barrier that forces northbound motorists to backtrack a half mile to get to the restaurant.

Finally, at the urging of friends and customers, Juliano decided to return his restaurant to a more conventional format.

″I fought going back to priced menus for a couple of months,″ he said. ″The final thing that made me go back is one guy from church who told me that maybe the Lord’s purpose is finished with this. And two days later, another guy said the exact same thing.″

He changed the restaurant’s name to Corner Stone, emphasized more American and fewer Italian dishes, and adopted a menu with such meals as a grilled ham dinner for $6 and steak and shrimp for $10.

Customers still are scarce. Juliano says he can’t afford advertising to announce the changes.

On top of all that, his creditors are demanding their money.

″But I won’t go bankrupt until someone forces me,″ he said. ″When I get the money, I will pay.

″The only thing I don’t know is what lies ahead. I don’t know if I’ll be here next month. I can’t make promises to people, and that hurts. But I’ll keep going until someone forces me out of business,″ he said.

Although the experiment failed, Juliano’s faith in mankind has not been shattered. More often than not, he said, customers paid the value of the meal or even a little more. Rarely did they pay less.

But, unfortunately, they didn’t often return.

″If people were to come in today and ask me to go back to price-less menus, I’d go right back to it in a minute,″ he said. ″I know it can work. It does work.

″When I first did it, I had no idea what people would be like. But now I know we should trust one another more because people do try to be fair. They aren’t out to gyp you.″

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