COVERS UP: New York's Montrachet is among the city's high-profile operations participating in Restaurant Week.
WIN-WIN: Myriad Restaurant Group's Tracy Nieporent says restaurant week is good for guests and for business.
RAISED PROFILE: Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce's (both above), helped put together San Diego's first restaurant week this past winter. The goal: to burnish the city's dining image.
ICE BREAKER: Restaurants participating in the first Eat Denver reported weekend-like crowds every day.
CROWD CONTROL: How the organizers plan to handle security is one important consideration.
Looking for a sure-fire business booster? Then hop on the restaurant week bandwagon. If you haven't already, take your cue from the growing number of cities that have pulled off this increasingly popular and successful promotion and consider organizing one in your community.
The concept is simple: Local restaurants band together, often in conjunction with the area convention and visitors bureau and sometimes their local restaurant association, to plan a week-long fixed-price meal. Participants pay a fee to cover promotional and advertising costs, and sponsors are often solicited for financial and additional promotional contributions.
New York, Chicago, Boston, Denver, San Diego, Miami, Atlanta and Philadelphia are a few of more than 26 major cities nationwide, plus a growing number of smaller communities, hosting restaurant weeks. In addition to showcasing a city's great dining options, restaurant weeks spur both locals and outoftown diners to revisit old favorites and, best of all, try new places.
Deals Deliver Diners — and Dollars
The benefits are many, the costs doable, report veteran and novice participants alike. Unlike the ubiquitous "taste of" promotions that feature restaurants serving a signature dish off-site with a crowd of other restaurants in often uncomfortable, congested conditions, restaurant weeks let you shine in your own place and show off your unique atmosphere and service.
New York City's is the granddaddy of the concept, dating back to 1992, when the first restaurant week coincided with the Democratic National Convention. The idea was to offer delegates and New Yorkers alike a good lunch deal at the best city restaurants for just $19.92 (get it? The prices often reflect some kind of gimmick, in this case the year). Restaurant legend Joseph Baum and Zagat Guides' Tim Zagat were the principle architects of the promotion, reports Tracy Nieporent, partner of Myriad Restaurant Group (Nobu, Montrachet, Tribeca Grill) and chairman of the restaurant committee for NYC & Co., the city's official tourism marketing organization.
"It's such a terrific concept, and a win-win for everyone," says Nieporent. "It's a no-brainer for bringing in new business." What restaurants give up in check averages, they usually make up in volume, he reports. And often the check averages end up higher than expected. There's a psychological factor at play: Guests figure they're saving money on the meal and often ramp up the tab by ordering wine and spirits.
Under Nieporent's leadership, the program has grown from one week of lunches at 20-30 participating eateries, to more than 200 this past year, with the promotion expanded from one week, to two, twice a year, summer and winter...and, from lunch only to lunch and dinner. This year, the dinner price is $35 for three courses and lunch is $20.12 for three courses (the 20.12 reflects the city's bid for the Olympics in 2012). "We're playing with the idea of $24.07 for next year's lunch," says Nieporent, "the idea being that New York is the city that never sleeps—it's open 24/7 —hence $24.07. That would be a logical way to connect an important marketing idea about New York and at the same time generate more revenue and have it be less of a loss leader for some of the restaurants."
Some very successful and well-known restaurants really don't need the promotion but participate anyway, notes Nieporent. Restaurant weeks feature quintessential New York eateries Brasserie 8, Eleven Madison Park, Mesa Grill and Tavern on the Green, and new favorites like 66, David Burke & Donatella, Ono and V Steakhouse. "We try and leave our parochial interests at the door and do what's best for the industry," says Nieporent. "For example, in our group, Nobu doesn't need to participate in restaurant week; it does extremely well without it and the week may actually bring our check down a bit. But what it does do is bring in a host of new guests to the restaurant. And research shows that the people come back and will pay more when they do."
"Nobu doesn't really need to participate.... what it does is
bring in a host of new guests to the restaurant."—Tracy Nieporent
Participating restaurants pay an entry fee of $2,500, which helps cover the myriad promotional activities and materials, plus advertising and educational business-building seminars that Nieporent sees as a value-added amenity for the restaurateur. " It's an extremely good return on investment,"claims Nieporent. "Spending $2,500 can bring back several hundred thousand dollars in business. The volume is so much higher for restaurants, at least 25-40 percent higher and sometimes higher than that." (Actually, 2005 winter's week saw dinner covers up 75 percent over the previous week's covers, according to surveyed participants.)
"We do all kinds of PR events to get the word out, too," says Nieporent, such as a kick-off event held in Grand Central Station with a giant cheesecake." A handy promotional item is the Z-card, which looks like a credit card with a map on the front; it opens up to list the addresses and phone numbers of participating restaurants. The promoters have even gotten into publishing, creating a cookbook celebrating the recipes of restaurant week participants. It's been a great success, reports Nieporent, and a restaurant week cocktail book is in the works.
Obviously, the promotion can't accommodate every restaurant. "There's only so many you can promote intelligently and also the caliber of the restaurants has to be at a certain level," says Nieporent. NYC & Co. insists that restaurant meet certain criteria, such as achieving a minimum score in the Zagat Guide. "We're also looking for certain measurements," he says, such as reviews and public feedback. "We try to be pretty democratic and more inclusionary than exclusionary. The promotion is built on the notion that birds of a feather fly together. A restaurant of good quality reflects well on the other restaurants that participate."
It Takes a Village
Sound like a daunting undertaking? San Diego restaurateurs organized their first restaurant week this past winter—in less than four months—and made a critical and financial splash.
Credit Ingrid Croce, owner of Croce's (named for her late husband, the popular singer, Jim Croce). Croce, a fireball of energy and enthusiasm and relentless city booster, spearheaded San Diego's first such effort, using New York as a template.
It helps that San Diego has a lively restaurant scene. The city has experienced a renaissance in dining and culture over the past 30 years that parallels the community's growth. Still, its culinary profile is not as strong as many would like, and Croce is determined to change that. She sees restaurant week as a key tool in that effort. "People are hungry; they want to know where to eat and whether the value is there and this is an opportunity to showcase our bounty," she notes. "And people who would never drive from downtown to another community will venture out (San Diego's event is spread out over the vast county) because they realize it's a value and they're prepared for good dining.
Restaurants in the promotion attract guests who dine out
all the time but don't get to try all the restaurants they want to try.
"With the 'Taste of' events of the past, people who went to those wouldn't necessarily go back to the restaurants they sampled," Croce says. Restaurants participating in the week-long promotion, however, attract guests who dine out all the time but don't get to try all the restaurants they want to try, she adds. "This focuses people on dining out for an entire week."
Croce, who headed up the 30-person committee devoted to the week for the San Diego Restaurant Association, together with San Diego Magazine and CONVIS (the marketing arm of the San Diego Convention and Visitors Bureau), worked to get 67 restaurants on board and organized in the brief time. Business partners included American Express, Costco, OpenTable and a local car company. They planned and executed six nights of dining (three courses, three options per course) for $30 per person January 30 through February 4. Participating restaurants paid an entry fee of $5,000, with a food distributor offering each establishment $500-$1,000 toward the cost of food.
Restaurateurs may balk at steep entry fees, but organizers use the money to cover high advertising and promotion costs. One reason New York pushed for two weeks of restaurant week was to give restaurants more mileage out of their advertising and promotion efforts. In San Diego, the promoters mounted a dedicated website (sandiegorestaurantweek.com) as well.
Croce reports the promotion was a great success, and a second restaurant week is in the works for next January. The participants are also publishing an accompanying cookbook and hope to use it as a promotional tool for their next event.
Rocky Mountain's Way
Like San Diego, Denver wrapped up its first restaurant week last winter, with 83 restaurants participating and 98 percent reporting they'd do so again in the future. The event grew out of ideas generated from a group of restaurant marketing people put together by the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau. Called "Eat Denver," the group was formed to help generate more national press about the Mile High City's dining opportunities.
All participating restaurants offered a multicourse dinner for $52.80 for two (5,280 feet equals a mile) or $26.40 for one. According to a bureau survey of participating restaurants, an estimated 25,300 special dinners were served during the week, held February 26-March 4. "Many of the restaurants experienced weekend-like crowds every night of the week," says Richard Scharf, bureau president. "A lot of the restaurants set all-time business records. One restaurant was so busy it ran out of plates and the owner was in the back washing them trying to keep up." The event proved so successful that many eateries have extended the program, some offering it now every Sunday night.
"The fun of Denver restaurant week is going online (www.denverrestaurantweek.com) and looking through the special menus at 80 different restaurants," says Scharf.
Some of the ideas being considered for next year's event include the addition of specially priced theater tickets and making gift certificates available in time for holiday shoppers in December.
"What makes this thing work is the creativity of it," notes Rich Grant, director of communications for the bureau. "You want to give as much creative freedom to participating restaurants as possible. So we didn't set many rules."
It's about having fun, too. To launch the week, Denver gathered 55 chefs for a press event, with sample menus from all the restaurants and a lot of conviviality. Grant also suggests another great pre-event promotional idea: "In a couple of cities that do this, like Toronto, they don't give out the restaurant week dates very far in advance. They turn it into a big event, like the announcement of Oscar nominees. And it works, because by the afternoon of the announcement, half of the restaurants are sold out. It creates a great buzz."
"There's just something so special about restaurant week, and there's always a real buzz about it," NYC & Co.'s Nieporent agrees. "And we notice a drop-off in business when it's over. My joke is next year we're going to do 50 weeks of restaurant week with two weeks off for good behavior. Maybe we'll have a restaurant year."
Tips from the Veterans
Timing is important. Plan the promotion for a slow time of year. For New York, this is January, after the holidays and late June, before the busy summer tourist season. For Denver, it was the last week in February, a slow period following Valentine's Day and the NBA all-star game. Also, consider running the promotion for two weeks to get more bang for your advertising buck.
Participants should have common guidelines to ease the way. And some consistency is important: In addition to a shared set meal price, there should be an agreed-on number of courses, for example.
Get your staff on board with a pep rally. One of the biggest complaints among guests is snarky servers, who feel they're sacrificing tips/wages. Try to prevent this by reminding the public, in ads and promotional materials and menus, that gratuities aren't included in the promotional price and are greatly appreciated.
Prepare for crowds. Get your supplies in order, prepare for the phone to ring off the hook (many cities use online reservations services such as OpenTable) and consider adding valet service if you don't offer it now. Be prepared to placate disgruntled diners shut out of a reservation, perhaps with a coupon or an offer to extend the promotion a few days.
Don't skimp on the offerings. "It's very important that you give real value to the guest," says Myriad restaurant Group's Tracy Nieporent. "There's a tendency sometimes for restaurants to say 'that's so far below our price point that we can't serve anything good.' I'm sorry, but if you're going to do the program, maintain the spirit of the program and do it full on. For $20.12 you might not be able to serve a huge lobster, but you can do good things that are representative of your restaurant.
"At Nobu, we've done the black cod and miso, which is probably the most popular dish on the menu. It's important that restaurants put their best foot forward because it diminishes everybody if someone dumbs down."
Set a realistic price point—yes, it's fun to set a price that has local or historical significance, but if it's too low, higher-end restaurants won't find it worth their while to participate, and if it's too high, you'll alienate guests and lower-end establishments.
Build a customer database: San Diego offers a "Year's Worth of Dining" Sweepstakes during restaurant week. It's a good way to acquire contact information of dining participants for future promotions.
Jump in with gusto. Don't do half measures and don't act like you're doing the public a favor, because you're not, says Nieporent. "It's smart business—and good business—to give it your all and give people value. It will come back to you, in creating good will and building good relationships."
Another way to get exposure for your restaurant is to participate in a fundraising event. Often these take the form of "taste of" festivals that usually support crucial needs in the community. How can you decide whether it makes sense to participate? Here are some issues to consider: