Inaugural Restaurant Week gets under way Wednesday

October 29, 2010
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More than 50 area dining establishments will participate in the city’s first Restaurant Week that begins Wednesday and runs through Nov. 13, which actually makes it a 10-day event. All restaurants taking part will offer a three-course meal for $20.10, a number that matches the event’s inaugural year.

A dozen of the 18 businesses that make up the Arena District, a coalition of taverns, restaurants, coffeehouses and nightspots located downtown, are participating. Just a handful includes Tre Cugini, The BOB, HopCat, Louis Benton Steakhouse and Bar Divani.

“The concept is a great idea. It will drive more people to try different fare, basically. … I don’t think it’s really geared for a more upscale meal and a lot of people don’t go out unless there is a reason or a promotion or a discount-related purpose, unfortunately. Hopefully, this will drive them to try more than just one, to try two or three or four different venues and get a grasp of what’s here downtown,” said Dennis Moosbrugger, Arena District president and co-owner of Bar Divani at 15 Ionia Ave. SW.

The specially priced meals are expected to be available throughout the day, including lunchtime for those restaurants open for lunch. But Moosbrugger said customers will get the most value for their money if they dine in the evening when prices are normally higher.

“The price is going to remain the same. I think the portions and everything is going to be consistent at lunch or dinner,” he said.

As for the price, Moosbrugger felt that many restaurant owners won’t make a dime on the meals. “I think it’s kind of a loss leader. It’s just for food, so alcohol is an addition and they hope to recoup it maybe on that side of the equation. I think it’s more of a loss leader to get people to try our food. If they like it, we assume they’ll come back and try it again,” he said.

A dollar from every specially priced Restaurant Week meal sold will go to the Secchia Institute for Culinary Arts at Grand Rapids Community College. “That’s something we decided was a great idea to promote culinary expertise. A lot of our local chefs are from GRCC.”

Moosbrugger said at least some of the Arena District restaurants, including his, will offer more than one three-course meal during the event. “We have three different options, so people can come back a couple more times, actually. I can’t confirm that everybody else is doing that, but we have three,” he said.

Not all participating restaurants are located downtown. The Spinnaker on 28th Steeet SE and the Red Jet Café and Graydon’s Crossing, both on Plainfield Avenue NE, are three that are beyond the district’s boundary. Some of the restaurants are even outside the city limits. Three of those are Reds on the River in Rockford, the Flat River Grill in Lowell and The Acorn Grille at Thousand Oaks in Plainfield Township. A list of the 53 participating restaurants is online at RestaurantWeekGR.com.

“I’m thrilled with the enthusiastic response from our restaurant community. I had a first-year goal of 40 restaurants, so we are obviously encouraged by the 50-plus who have engaged the concept,” said Doug Small, Experience Grand Rapids president, in an e-mail to the Business Journal.

“Some of our area’s finest dining establishments are located outside of the core downtown, from Rockford to Lowell, to quaint neighborhoods and out to 28th Street. We all have the opportunity to celebrate the art of dining in Greater Grand Rapids, and I encourage folks to explore,” he added.

Small proposed the event as a way to promote the area’s dining establishments and advance the city’s culinary reputation throughout the region, following his experiences with a similar event in Denver.  He sees Restaurant Week as a way for consumers who may not have been able to afford to dine at some of the restaurants to do so starting this week. He also sees returning customers coming back to sample the new items created for the event.

“The ability to dine on creative cuisine at some of the finest establishments in the Midwest at a wonderful price point is reason enough to go out several times during the course of the promotion,” said Small.

The Grand Rapids Downtown Development Authority contributed $25,000 to help make the event a reality and is underwriting it with Experience Grand Rapids. The November dates were selected as a way to tie the event to the International Wine & Food Festival that the Convention and Arena Authority and Showspan Inc. holds at DeVos Place. This year’s festival is set for Nov. 18-20.

But Moosbrugger said his group would like to see Restaurant Week held twice a year with a summer date added to the schedule to help beef up the slowest time of the year for the downtown restaurant business. Along the same line, Arena District members said they would like to see ArtPrize start in July and end in August, instead of continuing its September-October run when schools are in session. Moosbrugger passed that suggestion on to Seyferth & Associates, the event’s public relations firm.

“Now that it’s an entity that is known, you don’t have to create the brand. It’s been created and it’s there. The timing is so much better in the summer. People might schedule vacations (around ArtPrize) and stay a couple of days to see the art. So you would also be scheduling tourism around it, eventually,” he said.

“With ArtPrize as the spotlight, you wouldn’t have to give (hotel) deals. People would flock to the hotels for a night or so. They could put a package together for the hotels. It’s just that the timing (in the summer) would be much better.”

Moosbrugger said Arena District members reported sales gains from this year’s ArtPrize that ranged from 25 percent to 250 percent compared to the first competition a year ago. The biggest increases were recorded by the businesses closest to Monroe Center, which became an unofficial hub for the event, with the Grand Rapids Art Museum at 101 Monroe Center being one of its busiest venues.

“It was exciting to see people getting around, and that’s good for their awareness of what we have to offer downtown. I was excited to see that,” he said. “Down on Ionia, (business) tapered off. But as you got right in the hub of it, they were seeing astronomical sales — especially doing lunches. I know Tre (Cugini on Monroe Center) was busy doing lunch all afternoon. With the outdoor dining and the nice weather, it was just a perfect positioning of the stars, if you will.”

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