Against all odds, a record 650 restaurants in New York City are offering discounted prix-fixe menus for Restaurant Week.
The marketing program that runs until August 21 was hinted at by famed restaurateur Joe Baum and food critic Tim Zagat 30 years ago, when thousands of reporters and delegates flocked to Manhattan for the Democratic National Convention of 1992. That first year, several large restaurants offered a special lunch menu at $19.92, hoping to gain residual publicity from the political spectacle. Since then, the program has morphed into a biannual event that takes place over several weeks in New York City and has been copied across the United States. Several cities around the world, from Paris, to Cape Town, to Manila, have also adopted similar programs.
For foodies looking for bargains, Restaurant Week is a dream. It’s a rare chance to eat at the fanciest restaurants in town without breaking the bank. A lunch at Tao, the photogenic Pan-Asian restaurant, can cost upwards of $100 per person (yes it is $98 for the 12 oz ribeye); during restaurant week, a three-course menu costs $30.
But for restaurateurs, Restaurant Week can be stressful. It requires careful planning and creativity to manage food and labor costs, added to the pressure of dazzling diners. The challenge is particularly acute this year, given the rising cost of goods, rising rents and an unprecedented labor shortage.
Does participating in Restaurant Week still make business sense in 2022?
Evaluation of the economic benefit of the restaurant week
NYC & Company, the city’s marketing and tourism arm that runs Restaurant Week, has no data on the economic impact of the 30-year-old program, telling Quartz it’s hard to track because diners use many different booking platforms.
“We want to provide the best possible value and we want to help the restaurant industry in its recovery from the profound challenges of Covid-19,” says Tracy Nieporent, Marketing Director of Myriad Restaurant Group and longtime member of NYC & Company. . While there’s no data to quantify the program’s effectiveness, he says the overall positive buzz keeps them going. “Nothing lasts 30 years without wide public acceptance,” Nieporent offers.
Of course, there are enemies of the restaurant week. In its blog, restaurant management software xtraCHEF describes why a vocal contingent within the food industry mocks this program:
You get crowded dining rooms filled with people who have never been to your restaurant and are unlikely to return. Your kitchen is filled with Saturday night orders all week long. The volume of customers combined with a clean menu lowers the level that your regular customers benefit from. Servers are stressed trying to keep everyone happy. And oh yes, you can’t make money.
Despite increased participation in all five boroughs over the years, only a fraction of New York’s 24,000 dining establishments, less than 3%, registered for Restaurant Week.
What it takes to make Restaurant Week a success in 2022
Restaurant week can be especially tough for small businesses, says St. John Frizell, partner at legendary Brooklyn restaurant Gage & Tollner. “The margins are extremely low, the effort required can be extreme for small teams, and the community [diners] can be very critical,” he explains.
Frizell says Gage & Tollner’s regular clientele gives them just enough leeway to afford quality ingredients and experiment with new menus.
Designing the right fixed price is crucial. Restaurants need to stick to their budget, adjusting to portion size or type of ingredient, but a dish also needs to be emblematic of their brand. “I try to accommodate our existing production load, local produce seasonality and item group feel within our existing culinary identity,” says Frizell, noting that their Restaurant Week menu will highlight the bounty of Long Island heirloom tomatoes this summer. “It’s not easy, but it’s possible,” he says.
There is also the task of managing diners’ expectations. If a customer feels duped by poor quality or an unimaginative menu, they will be upset, and rightly so,” says Frizell.
Tren’ness Woods-Black, vice president of marketing at Sylvia’s restaurant, Harlem’s soul food mecca, said the introduction of three price categories ($30, $45 or $60) is a helpful change. of the restaurant week program. “The wide price range makes attendance affordable for customers and profitable during a sleepy season,” she explains, noting that restaurateurs are used to the “tight numbers game.”
“The first thing I consider is our guests,” says Woods-Black, whose grandmother founded Sylvia’s in the early 1960s. “What do they like? What can we give them without taking away our profit margin? She says Sylvia’s famous BBQ ribs and southern fried chicken are on restaurant menus this week.
For new establishments, Restaurant Week is a unique marketing opportunity. “The NYC Restaurant Week website has a vegan search option and that sets us apart,” says Ben Kaplan, CEO of fast-casual restaurant PLNT Burger. “It was a no-brainer for us to participate, especially as a new brand trying to reach new audiences.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that New York Restaurant Week continued through July 31.