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Denver Restaurant Week: Is It Worth It?

The gloves come off. (Not really. Wear your gloves. And masks.)

On September 30, Visit Denver announced a fall Denver Restaurant Week scheduled for November 13 through November 22. While the surprise announcement wasn’t as impactful as other proclamations (from, say, March) that hit everyone like a punch to the gut, it did make us wonder: Is Restaurant Week worth it?

Josh Wolkon (owner, Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve) and Andy Ganick (owner, The Pig & the Sprout) were kind enough to give us their thoughts. If, after reading what they both have to say, you decide you want to participate, sign up at Visit Denver by Thursday, October 22.

Josh Wolkon: “The Reality Is Restaurant Week Has Changed.”

Since its inception I have always felt that Restaurant Week is one of the most affordable marketing opportunities, with measurable results, and at a very low cost. We have been participating in the event for 16 years.

Restaurant Week is an opportunity to attract first time guests, which is the hardest part of restaurant marketing. The hope is to turn these guests into regulars, even if it’s just yearly for the Restaurant Week experience.  

In the early years, I believe the success of Restaurant Week turned some restaurants off, as it was a grind to be doing weekend numbers all week long. It also proved to be a bit boring and repetitive to be serving the same menu items repeatedly. We countered these challenges by offering many staff perks like massages, BBQ cook-off competitions, and sales challenges. Plus, [we] gave the chefs the opportunity to expand Restaurant Week offerings and offer our entire regular menu to cater to guests who were not necessarily visiting for the Restaurant Week menu.

We have been offering the same exact Restaurant Week menu at Steuben’s every year, which is a discounted menu of clam chowder or house salad, a lobster roll, and butterscotch pudding.  All of these items are on our existing menu, which makes execution very easy. We work with our supplier on pricing to help us offer the Restaurant Week discounted price.  

We have always tried to give the guest an incentive for a return visit. We always offer add-ons of wine, cocktails, or small bites to increase average check.

Any marketing at this moment that might encourage guests to dine in or take out is a positive thing.

Josh Wolkon

We have embraced the fact that guests are often looking for a deal and try to exceed expectations versus offering a smaller portion size or cheaper product that is not up to our standards. Ultimately, we want guests to have the sense of a daily experience at our restaurants.

At Ace Eat Serve, chef Thach has used Restaurant Week as a great opportunity to test out new menu items. We create menus that work for the kitchen and [that] we know the guest will appreciate. In general, the increase in volume makes up for the increase in our costs, and historically, Restaurant Week has been one of our most profitable times of the year.

The reality is that Restaurant Week has changed, mostly due to the number of restaurants that participate. For most restaurants it’s not the constant busy grind. Sales increase nicely, but not to a crazy level. Plenty of diners continue to order off the regular menu.  

Any marketing at this moment that might encourage guests to dine in or take out is a positive thing, and this year there is no cost to participate. Restaurants can choose takeout, dine in, delivery, or some combination. You can always create a [Restaurant Week] menu off your regular menu using some of your better-costed items, or work with your purveyors to lock in a better price at quantity.

At Secret Sauce, we are here for the community. In this time of social interaction loss, of too much cooking and cleaning at home, and of constant anxiety and unknown, restaurants can serve as a break from all the noise. We need the support of the community, our friends, and our neighbors. There are still plenty of people who have not yet ventured to dine out [who can] be reminded of what it feels like to connect with each other and be served. Perhaps they have not heard live music in seven months (come to the Ace patio on Saturdays). 

Restaurants are part of our culture and the fabric of our community.  Whatever we can do to remind guests and possibly incentivize them to support local restaurants is a positive. Once inside, diners will realize how safely we are operating. Of course, takeout remains an easy option. Restaurant Week is an easy promotion to participate in. Every diner that comes into Ace or Steuben’s and has a memorable dining experience will most likely tell their network. This keeps the percentage of diners potentially growing and now, more than ever, we all need butts in seats.  

Andy Ganick: “We have been out of our comfort zone for six months now.”

Restaurant Week puts a lot of stress on the entire staff. It takes us out of our comfort zone— which can be great for growth and improvement when stability and consistency come before and after—but we have been out of our comfort zone for six months now. 

It forces us to menu engineer in a way that works for our profit margins and works for a service to (mostly) couples. And in the interest of luring new diners, we want to impress and give a great deal, so our profit margins tend to be lower than normal. This is not ideal ever, but [it’s] even more so these days. In both my restaurants over the years, we have always felt the need to serve a special menu along with our regular menu due to the fact that we have many regulars at both stores. [They] depend on us to always be there to serve them their favorite burger and beer, or whatever their “usual” is. So now we are serving not just one menu, but two. There is back-office work to set up the buttons in the POS for all of these new/special/different items. We don’t tend to get all of the modifiers right on the first try. This particular brand of coursed meal service is a different kind of timing that the kitchen needs to adjust for. (Again, all of this is specific to my place[s].)

Last year, for the first time, we didn’t participate and saw our sales increase significantly anyway.

Andy Ganick

When I first opened The Berkshire (2007), I remember Restaurant Week being a special week during which a select number of restaurants participated, and it was very successful. We definitely saw a significant boost in our sales during those first few years. [But] it seems that the number of participants has grown so much over the years, [it’s] thinning the guest pool that we are all competing for. This is also probably because of the three price options. [I’m] not saying that that is a bad idea at all, but in the past five years or so, there really hasn’t been any boost in our sales associated with it. Last year, for the first time, we didn’t participate and saw our sales increase significantly anyway. [I’m] not saying that it had anything to do with not participating, but it was a relief to know the decision didn’t hurt us.

A few ideas to increase business during these challenging times:

  • Restaurant Week for take-out/delivery only. Maybe some of the third-party delivery companies would drop fees for a couple days to potentially expand their clientele. 
  • How about a few Restaurant Weeks over the course of the year separated into the different price categories: the $25 participants are a week in January, the $35 a week in February, and the $45 a week in November? This would limit the number of restaurants participating during every week [and] driving the people to just them. They would still get that one busy week, but the customer share would be less thinned out.
  • How about only offering it Sunday night through Thursday night? I have been very fortunate in that both of my restaurants have always tended to be pretty full on Friday and Saturday nights, so we can’t really increase the revenue on those nights anyway. This is especially true these days when we only have half our tables.
  • Another suggestion might be to ask our mayor or governor to promote a city-wide program in which every citizen get a $10 voucher to be redeemed at the restaurant of their choice during a specific week. The restaurant would then turn in all of their vouchers at the end of the week and collect the money from the city or state, both of which would be benefiting from the increased sales tax revenue. They don’t even have to send us a check. Reimburse us through the sales tax collection at the end of month, which could be reduced by the amount of coupons collected. Spread it over a few months if necessary.

What’s your take on DRW? Email askus@diningout.com with your experiences and thoughts about the intense influx of customers.

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