Each summer, the restaurant business slows to a crawl as temperatures rival convection ovens and monied customers flee for Colorado. Some restaurateurs use the downtime to close their businesses and give their employees a breather. Some trim employee hours and do their best to make a profit through the slow period. Some embrace promotions in an attempt to court a lethargic dining public.
And there's no promotion quite like restaurant week.
Restaurant Week exists across the country in various forms. Here, it offers diners a chance to explore area restaurants on the cheap, with dinner prices are set at $35 or $45, depending on the restaurant, and lunch fixed at $25. "Week" is, of course, a bit of a misnomer, as many restaurants choose to extend the event for up to three weeks. The expansion of the program points to its overall success, but it's still not a no-brainer for restauranteurs.
Diners have complained about feeling rushed through their meals, as restaurants try to offset lower price points with higher volume. Others complain that meals get dumbed down for restaurant week as chefs make use of lesser ingredients and simpler techniques to keep the plates flying off the pass. Spend too much time fighting for a coveted reservation at Tei-An and one might start to wonder if Restaurant Week worth it.
"It's important to remember the spirit of charity," says Brian Luscher, who owns The Grape and participates in Restaurant Week. Between $5 and $9 from each meal is donated to the Texas North Food Bank and last year, more than $754,000 was raised. When asked bout customer value, Luscher concedes that Restaurant Week menus can't be held to the same standards as a typical Friday night dinner service. "I can't put a lobe of foie gras on each plate," he says. "We try and use our smarts to make this a worthwhile function from the business side of it because it's very worth it from the charity side."
Over in the Design District at FT33, Matt McCallister says that he can't make the Restaurant Week event work with his restaurant's dining model. McCallister, whose approach is meticulous and based on expensive ingredients, doesn't want customers leaving his restaurant with anything but the best experience his kitchen can muster. "The food we do requires a lot of work," he says, noting that customers come to his restaurants expecting to be wowed.
Aware that his decision neglects the charitable aspects of Restaurant Week, McCallister points to other events he's supported, like March of Dimes and Chefs for Farmers. Events held at his restaurant relieve him from cost constraints that bind creative freedom and control. The Restaurant Week model incentivizes "a turn and burn mentality" to work as many tables as possible. "I don't want any part of that," he says.
Still, other fine-dining restaurants jump on board with the event, hoping that Restaurant Week will extend their reach and possibly attract new customers who come back for the full price experience.
Quality and principles aside, Restaurant Week is still a great way for restaurants to make more money during a typically slow month. "I wouldn't do it otherwise," Luscher says. He says he can see an increase of more than 100 covers on a good night, which is great for the bottom line, regardless of the additional stress and special planning that's required. While the charitable aspects of the event are certainly tangible for the chef, "it's a great opportunity for me, too" he says. "If I make it into one."