Does your community have a Restaurant Week? Since its first iteration in New York in 1992, cities across the country have embraced the concept: one week (sometimes more) out of the year, usually in the slower season, where participating restaurants offer a prix fixe menu at a reduced rate. Many cities align their restaurant weeks with tourism or chambers of commerce, and in some cases a portion of the proceeds benefits a local or regional nonprofit.In the 25 years since its inception, Restaurant Week has come to take on different meanings for chefs, cooks, guests and food writers. Some cooks and servers grumble about ‘amateur diners’ who tip poorly and never return. While guests and food writers have been known to complain about a lack of creativity in menus, which are designed to appeal to a wide audience while still being profitable for restaurants. But participating in Restaurant Week presents an opportunity to attract first-time customers and make them lifelong fans.
Community EngagementRestaurant Weeks are a good time to connect with your local community. Be sure to take advantage of PR and social media coverage around the event. Create content to share your menu items, and don’t forget to tag the Restaurant Week accounts and to use those hashtags!
When Aline Reitzer, co-owner of Acacia Mid-Town in Richmond, VA started Richmond Restaurant Week in 2001, she created a new model. Cities like New York and Washington, D.C. encouraged diners to support the restaurant community, but there wasn’t a charitable component to the activity. Reitzer wanted to change that: “When I opened Acacia with my husband, I was amazed at how many donation requests we received,” says Reitzer. “I wanted to be able to do something and give to an organization that we wanted to give to.”
That first year, Reitzer pulled together nine restaurants and designated what was then the Central Virginia Foodbank (now FeedMore) as the beneficiary. “It was an obvious choice. We’re in the industry, and we feed people every day. There are people in our community who don’t have access to food on a daily basis.” Reitzer says it was important to pick high-traffic times to make sure the dining community would be in town and ready to support the foodbank in one of its most important times of need--right before the holidays.
“At ten years, we added a week in April, leading up to the summer where there is also a big need,” explains Reitzer. “It’s been a wonderful partnership in the sense that we are able to pull together the restaurant community and give back to our neighbors to help support them in that time.”
As of the fall of 2017, Richmond Restaurant Week had raised a staggering estimated total of $591,679.59. “This is a special event that takes place in the restaurant that everybody from the dishwasher to the valet, hostesses, cooks, chefs, and owners participate in. It’s a way for them to give back and so something. Everybody works their butts off,” says Reitzer. “It’s heartwarming. To get the kind of feedback we get and to see the donation checks that we pull in from each of these restaurants and knowing how hard they’re working. That’s why it’s a success I think.”
CreativityOne of the biggest gripes about Restaurant Week is that the menus can lack inspiration. Decide how you want to present your restaurant to the public, and create a menu that reflects that. Do you want to be known for creativity? Allow your BOH staff to take some ownership of the menu and cook food that’s interesting to them (as long as it meets your food cost controls). Or, if you want guests to get to know who you are as a restaurant all year long, consider offering a ‘greatest hits’ version of your menu, with your best-loved menu items taking center stage.
Don’t judge your Restaurant Week crowds before they sit down. Many guests see Restaurant Week as an opportunity to try new things while supporting a local nonprofit, and just because they’re taking advantage of a discount, don’t assume they’re frugal to a fault. This can be an opportunity to upsell! Develop an exclusive Restaurant Week cocktail menu or beer and wine pairings as an additional option.
Consider dietary needs when structuring your menu. It pays to create and call out options that work for a variety of diets so that you’re prepared when diners make requests and so that guests looking at menus in advance see options that work for them. Make sure all FOH and BOH staff are well-versed in your menu, so that servers can answer guest questions and so that cooks can prepare the food the way you envisioned it.
Lasting ImpactAccording to Toast.com, 80% of diners who try a restaurant during Restaurant Week are likely to return! That means the stereotype of a guest who is looking for a discount, never to return again, isn’t always accurate. And regardless, it’s important to provide an exceptional experience to every guest who walks through your doors.
Prepare your FOH accordingly. This can be a high-volume time, and while reservations are encouraged, there may be some bottlenecking at the host stand and slammed sections on the floor at peak hours. Make sure your hosts and servers have a game plan for exceeding guest expectations.
As Restaurant Week concludes, share your successes! Let your customers know how they impacted the community with their dollars by sharing how much money was raised for charity. If there are new menu items that emerged as favorites during Restaurant Week, highlight them and add them to your menu for an extended time. Taking the time to recap your involvement and success is a great way to keep the momentum up after Restaurant Week is in the rearview mirror.