It’s become fashionable to hate on restaurant week, that annual or semi-annual promotion in which eateries across a city offer multi-course dishes for a set price from a prix fixe menu. It’s called different things in different cities – there’s Dine in Brooklyn and San Francisco’s "Dine About Town" – but as constant as the fixed prices are the poisoned darts that both diners and restaurant staff shoot at the whole concept.
On paper, it looks like a win-win. Chefs get to shorten their menus to just a few dishes and make up for the lower price point with higher booze sales. Customers pay a fixed price (usually something like $20.12 for a three-course lunch and $33.12 for dinner) to sample a restaurant they might not have visited otherwise. But each year, the promotion receives a prix fixe menu of criticism: that some chefs cut corners with quality, ingredients and service; that it’s when the "amateur eaters" come out; and that the deal just isn’t that great.
And if it’s not enough dealing with tables full of "amateur eaters" (like the parents I heard about who brought their kids to a Richmond wine bar, brought in McDonald’s for them to eat, ordered off the prix fixe menu, ordered only waters, and tipped just 10 percent), some restaurants are actually losing money during restaurant week.
Customers may lose out as well. While none of Chef Marc Vetri’s three Philadelphia eateries participates in the city’s restaurant weeks, he argues that if they did, diners would pay as much or more during restaurant week than they would at another time.
"The downside is that everyone who eats out that week is not turning into a regular customer – they’re just looking to get the deal, which they’re not getting but they think they’re getting," says Vetri, who made waves when he spoke out against Philly’s restaurant week on Facebook in January.
All this raises the question: If restaurant week sucks for both those who prepare the food and eat it, then what keeps it going?
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An understanding of where the idea for restaurant came from – and what it is now – starts to get at an answer to that question. The first restaurant week happened in New York City in 1992 as a "goodwill gesture to the 15,000 reporters coming to cover that year's Democratic National Convention," wrote Restaurant Week co-founder Tim Zagat in a 2010 post on TheAtlantic.com. The concept didn’t go nationwide until the 2000s. Washington, D.C., added a restaurant week after the attacks on Sept. 11, when the city’s hospitality industry was in turmoil. In the years following, similar promotions began popping up in cities across the country, but it has been the current economic downturn that seems to have turned restaurant week mainstream.
Today, even small towns and mid-sized cities have added restaurant weeks, and they’re getting longer and longer each year, it seems. In New York City, a citywide Restaurant Week is now complemented by promotions at other times of the year in several of the boroughs and a three-week extension of prix fixe menus at a number of restaurants.
Certainly, one major factor in its continued success is that restaurant weeks are often scheduled for the two slowest seasons of the year – early January and late summer. "Hats off to anyone who is so fully subscribed in August that they don’t need to do something to show their stuff to people who wouldn’t be in otherwise," says restaurant consultant Henry Patterson of The Delta Group in Boston.
Add to that an economic downturn that has Americans eating out less and turning to quick-casual restaurants when they do, and it's easier to see why the higher end spots opt in to restaurant week. Any kind of promotion, says John R. Walker, McKibbon Professor of Hotel and Restaurant Management at the University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee, can help a restaurant build up a customer base. "You’ve got to do things that attract your interest and get them engaged in becoming an extended family of a restaurant," he says.
Specifically, it’s the second-tier restaurants, the ones without a committed clientele, who will benefit most from restaurant week, Patterson says. While participating won’t be right for every restaurant, he advises many of the restaurants he works with to consider it.
"In general, it is worth it," he says. "If it were me, I would say sure, let’s take the opportunity to show people who wouldn’t come in otherwise what we do. Certainly, a place that’s not well-known, that has a new chef, that wants to have trial – it’s a no-brainer."
In a city with an especially competitive dining scene, some restaurants may feel pressured to participate just to keep up, says Charlie Perkins, founder of The Boston Restaurant Group, a commercial real estate firm specializing in selling and renting restaurants. Perkins says he’s seen the addition of 4,000 to 5,000 new restaurant seats in Boston over the last two years, which means there are now more places competing for Bostonians’ dining dollar. Restaurant week (which begins this weekend in Boston), is "something you’ve got to do because everybody else does it. It’s not necessarily a money-maker for the restaurants but it does get their name out there and lets them show off for the public at a discounted price."
Perkins likens restaurant week to Groupon and similar discount sites because it infuses a business with new customers. But given recent studies questioning Groupon’s effectiveness at bringing repeat customers, that may not be a comparison restaurant owners want to hear.
Maybe that’s okay with some restaurant owners, though, if it means sales over that two-week period are up. For Marc Vetri and his mini-food empire in Philadelphia, though, a "quick fix" or "shot in the arm" doesn’t cut it. Just because other restaurants "follow the flock" to promotions like restaurant week, Vetri says he’ll stand firm in his abstention.
"[Following the crowd] is the way of the world, but it doesn’t mean it’s the right thing," he says. "I like to stay steady, to work hard, and always offer them the best that we have to offer them."