Boston’s East Coast Grill has a surefire—emphasis on the word “fire”—way to bring people in on a winter’s night. Something similar might work at your place.
If you operate one of the many restaurants that struggle to fill up their seats during January and February, check out how Cambridge, MA’s East Coast Grill and Raw Bar runs its annual Hell Night series. This concept—think of a Man v. Food hot chile challenge, recalibrated to attract average patrons as well as unrepentant chile-heads—could work in many restaurants that suffer from a post-holiday traffic drop.
You wouldn’t think a restaurant like East Coast Grill would need to run any sort of promotion, let alone one that relies on dumping varying amounts of mouth-burning chile peppers into every dish. It’s a busy, well-established restaurant whose high-profile chef/owner, barbecue expert Chris Schlesinger, already packs plenty of lively flavors into everything his restaurant serves.
East Coast Grill has been in operation since 1986 and remains at the peak of its popularity. It beat out every other big-name restaurant in Boston to win boston.com’s 64-restaurant Munch Madness head-to-head customer popularity contest in 2010, finishing second in 2011. It doesn’t need a gimmick to fill its seats.
But the restaurant has come up with a great one anyway. It’s “Hell Night,” a four-day-long promotion whose special 28-item menu focuses on chile-infused dishes. Their heat levels span the spectrum from mildly hot (1/2 Dozen Island Creek Oysters with Pequin-Napa Kimchee Puree, $14) through darn hot (Phuket Style Wings of Ass Destruction with Thai Bird Chiles, Nuoc Cham and Aromatic Herbs, $10.50 up to crazy hot (Crispy Hell Hot Pork Spare Ribs with Guava Lava Glaze and Inner Beauty Hot Sauce, $3 each). The offerings top out with the beyond-category entrée, Hotter Than Ever Pasta From Hell with Sausage Bolognese, featuring the Trinidad Scorpion Pepper ($13.50). At 1.4 million Scoville heat units, this is the world’s hottest pepper. Also for sale: The Antidote, an orange creamsicle that costs $2.50 and rescues customers who overreach.
One patron who ate this pasta dish passed out, receiving medical assistance when an ambulance crew arrived. Strangely, the resulting publicity was good for business.
The beauty of this promotion is that any patron can participate without committing to a dish that would be too hot for his or her personal taste. There’s also a much shorter “wimp” menu for those who want to skip the spicy stuff entirely. Some of the special offerings are regular menu items amped up with chile-spiked sauces; others are Hell Night-specific. The menu changes with each new Hell Night promotion, which Schlesinger runs as frequently as three times a year.
The most recent East Coast Grill Hell Night took place last December. We’re recommending you give it a try during the dead of winter, when many customers need a reason to leave the house.
Will they? Keep in mind that Schlesinger and company pull off this Hell Night series in Cambridge, MA, where much of the clientele are brainiacs who study or work at Harvard or the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Given the enduring popularity of the Travel Channel’s Man v. Food series, interest in food-related challenges dealing with either bulk or heat now extends to all segments of the dining public.
Not many customers actually order East Coast Grill’s signature Hotter Than Ever Pasta From Hell, but they are eager to watch someone seated elsewhere in the dining room give it a try. Offer a well-designed version of this promotion and you could wind up with an annual event that fills your restaurant on a reliable basis during those cold post-holiday months.