Crab cake as a starter; tortilla encrusted tilapia covered with homemade cilantro sauce; a creamy Kaluha chocolate mousse pie for dessert, and a nice bottle of wine. How much would you pay for such dinner in the Chicago area? Maybe you could fix the restaurant’s broken sink if you’re a plumber, or offer the owner a massage if you’re a Shiatsu therapist.
Bartering, a payment method as old as time, is enjoying a new era during in the recent recession. The Fireside Restaurant and Lounge, on the northwest corner of Chicago, started to trade meals last year: "There are personal trainers, electricians, dentists, you name it," said Joey Metler, the general manger - who enjoyed a vacation in Cancun, Mexico, thanks to the bartering system. "We just re-did our floors. The guys gave us an estimate and we gave them a credit equivalent to meals at the restaurant." Although the owner Richard Wohn has been informally bartering for years, Fireside does not barter directly with clients. All transactions are made through a couple of bartering websites, like ITEX and International Monetary System.
Five to ten percent of the restaurant’s business – corresponding to an average of five tables a night – is made through bartering. Mr Wohn is not alone in his choice. In North America, several restaurants are bartering meals to fill seats on slower days. Some choose it to swap the goods they need. Andrew Taranowski, the owner of Marlowe Restaurant in Richmond Hill, Ontario, Canada, has traded gift certificates to his business for print marketing, carpeting, and repairs. He’s a member of Barter Network, a company where professional brokers connect clients and vendors, making transactions safe in exchange of a one-time fee of 399$, plus five per cent of each purchase and sale.
In 2011, over 400,000 companies worldwide earned an estimated $12 billion in bartered assets, according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association (IRTA), a U.S. non-profit organization which promotes the oldest form of trade. Bartering trade is expected to grow between 5 percent and 10 percent annually, IRTA says.
This trend does not include untracked deals, such as the ones happening at L’é Maiala, a new trattoria in Florence, Italy. Its name - which translates to “What a pig” – is actually a Tuscan saying for “hard times”. It is exactly because of the current hard times that the bartering place was born. The director, Ms Donatella Faggioli, is willing to exchange products and objects for meals. She bargains directly with clients and they can call in advance to make their offers, or even show up with what they want to barter in hand.
We spoke with her three days before the restaurant’s debut late September. How do you estimate the objects’ value? “A kilo of tomatoes is a kilo of tomatoes!” laughs Donella in her strong Tuscan accent. And what kind of offers have you received so far? “Just minor things” she said, “like a ceramic pig I liked, and some home-made conserves we exchanged with desserts”. A few weeks have passed; clients and barterers grew steadily. Food and wine bottles are the most traded goods, and a pensioner with a fruit garden has become a regular client. Many people are now enjoying Donatella’s cooking, happy to forget about the existence of credit cards.