Restaurant Week adding some side dishes

May 20, 2011
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The second annual Restaurant Week will have a few new wrinkles: First, instead of the “week” lasting 10 days, it will run for 11 days. Second, diners may have two choices at what will hopefully be an even larger array of restaurants than the 57 that took part last November. Third, the marketing of the event may stretch beyond county lines.

Even with those changes, the basic concept for Restaurant Week remains the same.

“We’re trying to create more of a destination appeal. Part of a destination’s appeal is its culinary scene. So that is still part of our objective, as well as, obviously, the economic objective — and that is to get these restaurants some more money and customers,” said Doug Small, president of Experience Grand Rapids, which is underwriting the event again with the Downtown Development Authority.

“We did over 19,000 official Restaurant Week dinners in its inaugural year, and I’ll be disappointed if we don’t get into the 20,000s in the second year. I don’t have an exact number, but I’d say we’ve got to exceed what we’ve done before,” he added.

The exact number of dinners sold was 19,128. Those three-course meals went for $20.10, and the restaurants donated $1 from every dinner sold to the Secchia Institute for Culinary Education at Grand Rapids Community College.

This year, the week will run Nov. 3-13, a total of 11 days, which is fitting for the 2011 event. The hope is to have 75 restaurants offering special meals. “That’s a lot — it’s another 18 restaurants. But we think the success of the first year and the comments from those restaurant owners were that it really fulfilled everything they had anticipated. We think we can do that,” said Small.

The participating restaurants reported selling 30,000 meals during last year’s event: 19,128 that were part of the promotion, and 10,872 that weren’t.

“We’ve worked on ways to bring in new customers with several different promotions in the past. (But) Restaurant Week was the event that really brought in new business for us,” said Kevin Vos, general manager of the Blue Water Grill, after last year’s event.

“Restaurant Week Grand Rapids brought about a 25 percent rise in our business during the 2010 event,” said Garry Boyd, general manager of Stella’s Lounge and The Viceroy.

“It was a huge hit citywide,” added Kelly Stecco, general manger of The Acorn Grille.

“Our restaurant, The Landing, was busy all week,” said Todd Roesler, general manager of the Radisson Grand Rapids Riverfront Hotel.

The event was so successful last year that about half of the restaurant owners thought it should become biannual, with one in November and another in July. But Small felt that a July event would be tough to pull off, as many potential customers are on vacation then or away on the weekends. “So we felt the base of business would not be strong enough to support it in the summer. There may be some merit to doing one in November and maybe one in June, early in the summer,” he said.

Small admitted that he is a bit squeamish about doing two a year with only an inaugural event to base it on. He said a second successful event in November would make him feel more at ease with going to a two-a-year schedule. Still, doubling the weeks would likely mean that restaurant owners would have to take on a larger share of the workload, as the staff at Experience GR isn’t large enough to handle two.

“It’s a lot of work, and it’s not the only thing that we do at our shop,” said Small.

The price for the three-course meals will rise this year to $25. After researching 25 similar events in other cities, Small found that the lowest-priced dinner in those markets last year was $25. He said the new price is still a good deal when you look at some of the restaurants that will participate. But he hopes to have a second option available for diners, and he hopes that offering will bring even more eateries to the Restaurant Week table.

“I would call it the ‘upscale bar scene,’ and maybe their price points aren’t high enough to make sense for a $25 three-course meal. We want them to offer two meals for $25. So we could have a smaller bar that is known for good food, like the Cottage Bar, that could put together a special meal and could serve two for $25,” he said.

“We think that will do two things. We think it will encourage a new wave of diners. We also think it will encourage new restaurants to participate and say, ‘Now I feel more comfortable with offering a price point for two.’ That really makes sense.”

Small told the Business Journal that his organization has enough seed money to go forward, between what Experience GR and the DDA have tossed into the marketing pot at this point and the fees restaurants will pay to be in it.

He also said they were still looking for more sponsors, and he felt they would end up with more this year.

“Most of our major sponsors from the first year enthusiastically came back. And in some cases, (they) proactively came to us and said, ‘We’re in again.’ We’re now in the midst of soliciting the sponsorships,” he said. Sysco Grand Rapids, Valley City Linen, Grey Goose, Joel Gott Wines of California, Founders Brewing Co., Black Star Farms and L. Mawby have signed on as exclusive sponsors.

If sponsorships rise and the marketing budget increases over last year, Small said he would widen the reach of Restaurant Week to try to create a culinary and economic buzz beyond the metro area. “Maybe get into more of a West Michigan type of marketing campaign, and there are two reasons for that. One, because we’ve got higher expectations for the numbers we want to hit. And second, our ultimate mission as an organization is to fill hotel rooms,” he said.

“So if we can combine Restaurant Week with other things that are going on at the same time and entice people to come in from Ludington and spend a weekend in Grand Rapids, then we fulfill a portion of our mission.”

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