Is Restaurant Week Worth the Squeeze?
When Visit Denver debuted Denver Restaurant Week in 2003, “the dining scene wasn’t nearly as strong as it is today,” says Justin Bresler, the organization’s vice president of marketing. And so the tourism group started the event to provide additional revenue for food establishments during the post-holiday lull and to champion the quality of the local dining scene.
The annual event typically takes place in late February or early March and includes at least 200 Denver restaurants, with each creating a set menu for the week at a price point of $25, $35, or $45. The past few years, the time frame has shifted and to-go options have been added. But this year, many in the business are hoping Restaurant Week (March 11–20) will be a festive return to dining out in Denver. Despite the hardships of the pandemic, 86 percent of the 70 restaurants responding to a Visit Denver survey stated that they wanted to participate in this year’s event—even with unknown food costs, supply chain issues, and staffing shortages. Still, the question remains: Does the event generate new customers or simply draw in people merely looking for a deal?
Frank Bonanno has been involved in Restaurant Week since the beginning. The chef behind Bonanno Concepts’ 26 restaurants says he wanted to help “build Denver up to have more of a national spotlight.” Today, he continues to see his involvement in the event as a way to support the city’s food scene.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s tremendously lucrative” for each individual restaurant, Bonanno explains, but with proper planning, there’s still a way to make a profit. This year, 20 of his 26 eateries will be participating. It’s all about offering meals that make it compelling for guests to come while still balancing the needs of the business, he says. For example, Bonanno has always tried to keep food costs comparable to typical daily spending by picking Restaurant Week price brackets that reflect average check numbers. Both Luca and Osteria Marco offer $45 meals because guests typically spend around $55.
“You pretty much have to participate in it because almost all restaurants participate.”
Michael Beary, Zocalito Latin Bistro
Bonanno is confident that his team will be able to price dishes accordingly this year as well. But keeping inflation and supply chain issues in mind, he assumes, “Everyone’s going to post that their menu is subject to change.”
At Zocalito Latin Bistro downtown, chef Michael Beary believes that the rising cost of food will make preparing meals for Restaurant Week challenging. “I don’t think restaurants will make the profit that they normally make during Restaurant Week,” he says. With food prices as high as they are, he wonders if some chefs will choose to bring down the portion size.
He also worries about staffing. Even under normal circumstances, Restaurant Week can take a toll on employees. It’s repetitive to serve the same pre-fixe menu day in and day out for the course of the week, not to mention to Friday and Saturday night crowds. “We will only take [as many guests as] the restaurant and the staff can handle,” Beary says.
Even though Beary has been a chef for 40 years, he has only been doing Restaurant Week since he opened Zocalito in Denver in 2019. “You pretty much have to participate in it because almost all restaurants participate,” he says. And while he appreciates the exposure and is confident new customers will come in during the week, he finds it hard to gauge whether those customers will continue to frequent the business afterwards.
Lon Symensma, executive chef of YumCha, LeRoux, and two ChoLon locations, agrees it’s hard to quantify the amount of new customers gained through Restaurant Week, but he believes the buzz and free press around the event result in some repeat customers.
Symensma began participating in Restaurant Week when he opened ChoLon 11 years ago, and one of his four restaurants has been involved every year since. However, several years ago, the already bustling downtown ChoLon lost money during that week, and Symensma decided to end its participation in the event. Still, he credits the week with helping to catapult ChoLon’s success in its early days. And the restaurant still pulls in business during Restaurant Week from clientele looking to get away from the rush of the event, Symensma adds.
A major goal of Restaurant Week is getting the locals to buy in. And when they do, their social media interaction and conversations with family and friends “sell the quality of our dining across the country,” Visit Denver’s Bresler says. The hope is that the extra publicity then leads to an increase of restaurant goers across the board.
Despite the challenges of the ongoing pandemic, Bonanno feels both Denver’s restaurants and its diners will rise to the occasion. “[Denver] is one of the most resilient cities in the country and has an unbelievable food scene,” he says. “I think you will see that during this year’s Restaurant Week.”
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