Restaurant Week begins serving in August this time

July 29, 2012
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The third annual Restaurant Week will actually be making a second debut: This year, the 11-day event will be held in August for the first time. The first two events took place in November as a prelude to the International Wine, Beer and Food Festival held annually in DeVos Place.

A highly sought-after convention from the Society of Automotive Engineers was booked for November, forcing the three-day wine, beer and food gala to move from its usual weekend. So Experience Grand Rapids and the Downtown Development Authority, which underwrite Restaurant Week, turned over its time slot to the festival and then picked Aug. 15-25 for its dates.

“When I first brought up the idea of Restaurant Week, the restaurateurs wanted it to be in the summer. Their reason for that is their business is slow in the summer because people are at their cottages and are vacationing, and the restaurants can use a spike in business,” said Doug Small, president of Experience GR, the area’s convention and tourism bureau.

“We wanted the ‘supply chain’ to be full, if you will, and I felt if it didn’t have the demand in the summertime, then Restaurant Week would not survive,” he said.

Selecting November worked: The demand definitely has been there the past two years. Sales from last year’s event totaled $1.25 million, with the 37 downtown restaurants that participated in it capturing from $500,000 to $700,000 of that total. The first event two years ago had 19,128 dinners ordered. Last year the number rose to 25,860, an increase of 35 percent. In the first event, 57 restaurants took part in the promotion. Last November, there were 71.

Small said October was considered for this year’s event, but most participants felt that time would be too close to ArtPrize, which runs from late September to mid-October.

The concern over the potential demand for a summer event could very well be alleviated by the fact that one of the largest conventions ever booked for the city will be held downtown then. The American Quilters Society will bring up to 15,000 quilting enthusiasts to downtown in a few weeks, which should help push the demand for the three-course meals that will be offered for $25.

The convention is expected to be worth $15 million to the local economy; the organization also is booked for August 2013 and 2014.

August also was chosen to feature as many locally grown products as possible. However, the consistent heat and lack of rain has sidelined much of that idea.

“Unfortunately, we’ve got a drought. There isn’t a lot of good produce out there now. But the chefs felt they could really be creative using fresh, local ingredients, and that has always been our push,” said Small.

Two other events taking place downtown during Restaurant Week could also boost sales, especially for the food pubs such as HopCat that will again offer two three-course meals for $25. Blue Cap Entertainment is holding the week-long music festival Rock the Rapids on a parking lot behind Van Andel Arena Aug. 20-25. And the Arena District, a coalition of 18 restaurants, taverns and coffee shops, is presenting the first-ever GR’s Got Talent competition all day Aug. 18 in the Civic Theatre at 30 N. Division Ave.

This will be the second year Restaurant Week is making the two-for-$25 dinners available, and there is a possibility this offering may become a stand-alone event down the road.

“We almost did it this year,” said Small. “A big part of our sell, and flavor of Grand Rapids, are those bistro pubs, if you will, and we didn’t want to exclude them. So we’re looking at doing something with our dining community in the wintertime.”

The Grand Cocktail is a new feature for this year’s event. It’s a contest to determine which restaurant can create the best cocktail made with Bacardi Oakheart Rum and Grey Goose Cherry Noir. Eighteen restaurants have signed up; the winner will be selected by the public and expert judges. Great Lakes Wine and Spirits, which has been with the event all three years, is sponsoring the competition.

“We’ll build up some buzz around it,” said Small.

Other major sponsors are Sysco Grand Rapids, Founders Bank & Trust, Founders Brewing Co., Trinchero Family Estates and Bacardi. 

Sixty-three restaurants are taking part in the event this year, a field that includes eight newcomers. A complete list of participants and menus can be found at RestaurantWeekGR.com.

“My goal has never been the number of restaurants. My goal has been to drive diners, and we’re anticipating to do as well in sales this year as we did last year, with 10 fewer restaurants,” said Small.

A readers survey done by Grand Rapids Magazine, a sister publication of the Business Journal, showed that Restaurant Week is the second most anticipated event, trailing only ArtPrize. That gives Small the confidence the event will do well in its new time slot.

“So we’re thinking the word is out that Restaurant Week is fun and a pretty cool event, and we’re expecting big numbers again this year. I’m very pleased, and our goal is to drive visitors and to top last year,” said Small. “The restaurants are excited about it being in August, and we’re here to stay. We’re done moving around, so our goal is to keep it there.”

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