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Pandemic forces Restaurant Week changes this year

Around the country, operators and organizers are finding new ways to offer up the important annual promotion.
Photograph: Shutterstock

The Kansas City area has already lost 15% of its restaurants to either temporary or permanent closures amid the pandemic. That makes this year’s Restaurant Week, held to boost sales during a traditionally slow time of year, potentially more important than ever.

That’s according to Derek Klaus, director of communications at Visit KC, the tourism organization that sponsors the annual restaurant-booster event.

“This year, we’re really accentuating that our local restaurants need our support now more than ever,” Klaus said. “We used to amplify the value aspect. Now, it’s getting out and supporting local restaurants at a critical time.”

Around the country, Restaurant Week organizers understand this is a life-or-death moment for independent operators. They’re also realizing their annual promotional events are more critical than ever.

“Historically, they tell us this is one of their strongest weeks of the year,” Klaus said of the Kansas City event, which started earlier this month. “We’re hearing a really positive reception.”

But Restaurant Weeks will look a lot different in 2021 than in previous years, with many dining rooms shuttered because of the coronavirus and many operators struggling to survive.

Most are pivoting to takeout-focused promotions, and many organizers are waiving registration fees.

New York City: Birthplace of Restaurant Week

The first Restaurant Week started as a lunch-only promo in New York City in 1992. The event began as a way to welcome the Democratic National Convention to the city. It launched with 95 participating restaurants, all offering prix-fixe menus.

Last year, more than 360 NYC restaurants participated in the event, all offering set-price meals for lunch and dinner. And now cities large and small around the country host their own Restaurant Weeks.

This year, New York’s event is called “NYC Restaurant Week To Go,” and runs from Jan. 25-31, with an optional weeklong extension the first week of February.

Event organizer NYC & Company waived the fee for restaurants to participate in this pandemic-style Restaurant Week. Previously, the entry fee ran $2,800 for Manhattan restaurants and $1,500 for those in the other boroughs. That price covered both winter and summer restaurant weeks plus annual membership in NYC & Company, along with its marketing clout.

Those savings attracted Paolo Del Gatto, operations manager of Soccarat Paella Bar. He is offering the $20.21 lunch at the restaurant’s two Manhattan locations.  

Soccarat hasn’t participated in a few years, but Del Gatto feels this model “is a good formula. It’s fun and easy to execute,” he says, and can reach a larger clientele. The previous lunch specials of $25 were a draw at the midtown location but not so much further downtown.

Soccarat is offering Paella for One—a dish that is usually prepared to share—along with an appetizer of croquettas. Both these items travel well, Del Gatto says. During the pandemic, the restaurant purchased new to-go containers that better retain heat. Guests can order the prix fixe lunch for pickup or delivery via Uber Eats and Grubhub.

Barbara Sibley, chef-owner of La Palapa in New York City’s Greenwich Village, is a first-time participant in NYC & Company’s restaurant week promotion. In the past, she felt that the typical restaurant week customer gravitates toward pricier midtown spots where a typical two-course lunch can run $50 or more. La Palapa’s more residential downtown location isn’t ideal for business lunches and her menu is always reasonably priced so “deals” are not that compelling, Sibley says.

This year, however, the to-go theme is a good fit and NYC & Company offers additional online promotional support. “Participating is a way to remind people that we’re here and open and ready to serve our guests,” says Sibley.

She is offering a prix fixe menu that can be ordered any time throughout the day, focusing on food that travels well. Included in the $20.21 meal are soup, taquitos, guacamole and dessert—but no sorbet or ice cream, she notes.

Plus, Sibley enjoys the creative challenge of meals-to-go. ”We can get really innovative with the menu this year,” Sibley says. She is also offering a takeout restaurant week menu at her booth in Gotham West, a marketplace/food hall that’s further uptown on Manhattan’s west side.

“These are the places that attract new customers who wouldn’t otherwise come in. But this year, the public really wants to support our restaurants and restaurant week deals help them do that.”  -Greg Casten.

Big changes to Washington, D.C.’s Restaurant Week

In Washington, D.C., the Restaurant Association of Metro Washington on Tuesday postponed its winter restaurant week promotion by one week, so as not to interfere with possible political unrest around Inauguration Day. It is now running from Jan. 25-Feb. 7, and although 25% capacity indoor dining resumes Jan. 22, the Association is sticking with the theme “RW-TO-GO.”

Greg Casten, owner-operator of four seafood-centric restaurants in downtown D.C., is focusing on “food that’s not in your house.” At the Tavern at Ivy City Smokehouse, the $35 three-course dinner menu includes a starter of housemade clam chowder or mixed green salad, an entrée choice of grilled salmon, grilled branzino or a half rack of heritage pork ribs, and a dessert of banana bread with vanilla ice cream.

Tony & Joe’s Seafood Place, another D.C. restaurant in Casten’s Fish & Fire Food Group, is featuring a lobster dinner for $55. It includes an appetizer of clam chowder or salad, a whole steamed lobster and the “chef’s dessert of the day.” A three-course lunch is also available at Tony & Joe’s for $22, with more casual entree choices such as shrimp tacos and a crab cake sandwich.

“All these menus are simple enough not to tax our inventory or our staff,” says Casten. His restaurants are offering curbside pickup, limited delivery and in some cases, outdoor dining.

Casten has participated in RAMW’s restaurant weeks in previous years and found that eateries on the higher end get a bigger bump in traffic. “These are the places that attract new customers who wouldn’t otherwise come in,” he says, “but this year, the public really wants to support our restaurants and restaurant week deals help them do that.”

Attracting new restaurants

Kansas City’s Restaurant Week has traditionally charged operators $200-$300 to participate, Klaus said. But that fee has been waived this year, with the costs underwritten by two area foundations.

Klaus said he has seen dozens of new, first-time participants, including a large number of restaurants owned by women and minorities.

“We collaborated with multi-cultural chambers of commerce and business organizations to cast a wider net,” he said. “January is traditionally a slower period for our restaurants. Add to that a pandemic and it takes on a whole other light.”

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