Monday, August 11, 2008
Dallas’ Restaurant Week: Beneficial or beastly?
Annual charity event fills empty tables during August doldrums, but for the restaurants, it's a mixed blessing.
For a certain set of diners (hint: they pinch their pennies), Dallas’ annual Restaurant Week is the pinnacle of the year.
Restaurant Week info
At this annual charity eat-a-thon, which begins on August 11, diners get a three-course meal – appetizer, entrée, and dessert – for $35, with proceeds benefiting the North Texas Food Bank.
Demand has grown sufficiently over the years that the initial "Restaurant Week" has expanded to three weeks, plus an additional preview weekend that started on August 8. Participating restaurants – approximately 120 this year – are deluged with reservations and their dining rooms quickly fill. It all seems "win-win."
What restaurants won’t come out and say on the record is that many of them secretly loathe the whole thing. To grouse publicly is to appear uncharitable; but for many participants, it's become a necessary evil, despite the toll it takes on staff and the bottom line.
"The way I see it, we dread it every year," says Anthony Alvarez, owner of Hattie’s in Bishop Arts, laughing as he says it. "Once we get into it, I think it's great, I do like the cause. It's spending money on something we really do believe in. But anything out of the norm, it’s 'Oh God, here we go again.' We just want to make sure our regular guests who are not participating are able to get in and enjoy their evening."
Service staffers especially grit their teeth through meals for diners who often come with high expectations and low tips.
"I’ve worked at several different restaurants including III Forks and Cool River Café, and at those places, you don't get a big return," says Leon Davis, currently manager at Kenny's Wood Fired Grill. "A lot of the people who come during that week are people that aren't typically going to put that restaurant into their rotation because of the price point. I’ve seen it from the waiter perspective; the staff in general at a place like that doesn't look forward to it. It’s different for us at Kenny’s because the price point is pretty much our average price anyway, so we just pull things off our menu."
Kenny's is typical of the kind of restaurant that reaps the biggest rewards. These usually fall into two categories: mid-priced restaurants and places trying to carve out a name for themselves such as Bolla, the Italian restaurant at the recently remodeled Stoneleigh Hotel.
"For a new restaurant, it helps bring people in," says F&B manager Audrey Petross. "After the list was announced, we saw a spike in reservations and we’re sold out the first week."
In an environment in which restaurants have been dropping like flies, it can be intoxicating to see lots of reservations on the books. Capital Grille at Crescent Court already has 189 reservations for tonight -- unheard of for a Monday night. Go Fish in Addison, which holds 65 total, has 50 guaranteed seats every night this week. Grill on the Alley had reservations for 220 last Saturday vs. its usual 150. Trece in Travis Walk already has 186 down for Saturday, a 40% increase over a regular Saturday night. Even Grand Met at the DFW Airport, which usually welcomes more drop-ins than reservations, has at least 20 on the books every night this week.
Who does not benefit are high-end places with an already-established customer base -- inevitably the places Restaurant Week diners want to try, says Brian Smith, a bartender-manager at Popolos Café.
"Restaurant Week doesn’t hurt us [at Popolos] because the average price for a 3-course meal here is $35 anyway,” he says. "It’s a different thing for someplace like Abacus, where they have to do a whole entire separate Restaurant Week menu. I have friends who work at places like that, and they HATE it. For them, it’s a loss of money."
But for a certain caliber restaurant, to not-participate puts them at risk of receiving negative publicity. This year, for example, the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek came on board July 28, two weeks after the list was initially announced.
The thing to keep in mind is that restaurants at that level are being hit on for freebies every day, says Jeff Bradford, a manager at Steve Fields' Steak in Plano.
"You look at Bob's, they're not doing it," he says. "They get five to six requests a day -- every day, it's, 'Can we get a $100 gift certificate?' 'We'd like a giveaway for our fund-raiser.' It's hard not to feel that, if you don't do it, you're missing the boat."
It's also hard to say no when you know that dining rooms can often be dead in the heat of summer.
"August is one of the slowest months," says restaurateur Rick Stein, who was forced to shutter his namesake steakhouse in July. "Something like Restaurant Week may not be hugely profitable but it’s enough to keep you afloat."
To keep costs down, restaurants: limit the number of seats dedicated to Restaurant Week; serve smaller portions – a 6-ounce chop instead of an 8-ounce; or substitute a less expensive cut. Some such as The Grape ditch the regular menu altogether; by focusing on a special Restaurant Week menu, they can simplify operations.
"We're definitely going to have a full week," says manager Benjamin Burt. "We're even renting tables to add additional seating."
On the flip side is a place like Chamberlain's Steak, where chef Richard Chamberlain uses the week as an excuse to experiment with dishes like Kobe beef with spicy tomato jam.
"With restaurants closing this year and the sagging economy, it's hard to deal with the decline you see in the summer, especially for steakhouses," says Chamberlain's manager John Richardson. "A big steak with a heavy red wine when it's 110 degrees outside is not the right combination. August is busy mainly because of Restaurant Week."
And secretly, everyone hopes against hope that it'll all be worth it -- that the Restaurant Week diner won't be a one-time customer.
"We try to think of it as an advertisement, a promotion for people who couldn’t check us out otherwise, and hope they return for a special occasion," says John Sarvarian, manager at St. Martin's Wine Bistro. "Sometimes they do."