An ArtPrize for foodies

December 20, 2010
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Now that the first Restaurant Week has turned out to be an economic feast, Experience Grand Rapids President Doug Small soon will begin making plans for the second event.

Small and a group of restaurant owners, whom he considers his event advisors, are likely to get together in mid-January to rehash the November experience and toss around some strategies for next year.

“We sent them a survey and asked them some different questions pertaining to how it went, and we’ll cover that at that meeting. And then we’ll talk about next year. Do we want to change a lot?

“If you ask me today, I’d say one year does not make a success. Sustainability is what it’s about for us as an organization,” said Small.

“I’d personally like to see us go another year with the exact same format that we had this year. But we tweaked a few things, based on our conversations we had with the restaurants, so I’m willing to have a very, very open mind on it at this next meeting,” he added.

Even before the first event began, a few restaurant owners told the Business Journal and Experience GR that they’d like to have two Restaurant Weeks next year, adding a summer event to one in November, which this year ran Nov. 4-13.

“Am I open to doing that? Yes, it’s come out of my own mouth a few times. But I wasn’t thinking about doing that as soon as the second year,” said Small.

This year’s premiere event took six months to put together, and Small said it would have taken even longer if he hadn’t hired Sally Littlefair Zarafonetis to do much of the heavy lifting, and if the Downtown Development Authority hadn’t provided $25,000 in seed money. So two Restaurant Weeks in one year might be a bit much for Experience GR to pull off, even though the bureau has what appears to be a successful model to follow.

“There are a lot of things that would have to be worked out before we can commit to that. If you ask me today, I’d say I’m not willing to do two in my second year. But it’s on our future list, that’s for sure,” said Small.

Fifty-seven restaurants participated in the event, a number that easily exceeded Small’s expectation of 40. He had thought that the 10-day promotion would reach $500,000 in sales, but the final sales tally came closer to $1.2 million. Most restaurants reported double-digit sales increases during Restaurant Week, when three-course meals were offered for $20.10.

“Even before Restaurant Week kicked off, I was hearing reports of sold-out bookings at some of the fine-dining establishments. All of a sudden, the buzz about Restaurant Week was everywhere — in the news, on social media and on the street,” said Small.

“It felt like ArtPrize for foodies, and stayed that way during the entire 10 days. It was thrilling, to say the least.”

The bureau reported that the restaurants had nearly 30,000 bookings. More than 19,100 of the featured three-course meals were ordered. The restaurants served another 10,000 meals from their regular menus during the event. Experience GR said the average diner spent roughly $40 at each setting.

Kevin Vos, general manager of the Blue Water Grill, told the bureau that Restaurant Week brought new customers into his business. Garry Boyd, who manages Stella’s Lounge and The Viceroy, said sales rose by 25 percent during the promotion. Benjamin Fris, manager of Graydon’s Crossings, said a lot of people ordered from the regular, higher-priced menu, even though it was the event that brought them into his restaurant.

“It was a huge hit citywide,” said Kelly Stecco, general manager of The Acorn Grille. “As a sponsor of the event in its first year, we think that it hit a home run, based on our customer reports,” said Sysco Grand Rapids Regional Director of Sales Eric Gruener.

The Business Journal asked Small if there was anything he would have done differently now that he has had a month to review the event. It took him a while to come up with an answer because the event went so well.

“I never thought, in my wildest dreams, that the first year would produce that many dinners. So if I did anything different, maybe I would extend it a little bit longer,” he said.

“Our mission is to book hotel rooms, and is there a way that we can use Restaurant Week to make it a little bit more instantaneous and can we do something with hotel packaging around it?”

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