Acut above the rest: Restaurants pull out all the stops to entice special-occasion guests

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Like its signature steaks, the atmosphere is sizzling at Fogo de Chao on a Saturday night in Chicago. Guests are eating heartily, as Gauchos — southern Brazilian cowboys — wearing red scarves and traditional trousers scurry from table to table displaying skewers of juicy cuts of meat.

Fogo de Chao, an upscale Brazilian steakhouse with eight units in the United States and four in Brazil, is not your typical dining experience. And that's what makes it perfect for special occasions, according to the company.

"A lot of it has to do with the authentic product," explained Kandace Ladis, director of marketing for the Dallas-based company. "The chefs are trained in Brazil as young men. Their presentation is all part of the experience. They cook the meat individually and bring it out to the customer. They talk to the customers, interact with the customers. They ask how [the customers] like the meats cooked. Their ultimate goal is a happy, satisfied customer. The experience is so special."

Fogo de Chao, which earned the No. 1 spot on Citysearch for special-occasion dining in Atlanta last year, may be a unique concept, but it has characteristics of other successful special-occasion dining spots around the country. The fun, interactive environment draws guests for milestones, such as birthdays and graduations, as well as executive functions. A higher price point — around $30 for lunch and $50 for dinner — sets the restaurant apart as an upscale steakhouse and a celebration destination. It also charges slightly more for holidays, such as Mother's Day and Father's Day.

Dining today is about the total experience, observed Kyle Agha, who owns New Town Bistro and Bar, an upscale-casual restaurant in Winston-Salem, N.C.

"There's so much competition these days," he said. "People want to be entertained more than they want to eat. They look for more today."

Agha's business has increased since he began giving out free birthday and anniversary entrées to members of its VIP Club four years ago. He also rewards special guests who bring large groups with a free appetizer.

Luring guests for special occasions has multiple benefits, Agha said.

"They are in a little better mood, and I want to be the one they come to spend [the occasion] with," he said. In addition, it's a way to forge a long-term relationship with the guest.

"I'm looking at the lifetime value of the customer, not just the one-time shot," he said. "I'm banking [on the fact that] they are going to like me and come back."

His special-occasion marketing strategy has yielded higher dividends than advertising, he said.

"If I did an ad on TV, it's a shotgun approach," he said. His marketing campaign "is more like a rifle. It is more targeted."

His method works because he can track how many people the special guests bring, what they spend and what he discounts.

He said he doesn't offer much discounting on holidays, such as Mother's Day, but he might give a coupon to be redeemed within 30 days, in the hope of keeping the restaurant at the top of guests' minds.

Salty's, a three-unit, upscale-casual seafood-grill restaurant in Seattle, also believes in the long-term potential sparked by a special occasion. The company "amps up" its year-round Sunday brunch for Mother's Day and other holidays, said Bonnie David, manager partner of Salty's on Alki Beach. This year each dining mother received a bouquet of tulips.

"We have such a great reputation in Seattle," David said. "It's not whether they want to come here; it's increasing the frequency. While someone may come for Mother's Day, we want them to know we'll cater to them at any point in time, whether it's a family dinner or a holiday. We want them to know we are here for all their needs."

The price goes up for brunch on these occasions — shifting from $34.95 up to $39.95 — but people are willing to pay for a better experience. This year the Mother's Day brunch booked up in only 48 hours, she said.

Holidays offer a great opportunity for restaurants to charge 50 percent to 75 percent more on the price, said Brandon O'Dell, an independent restaurant consultant based in Wichita, Kan. Operators also have an opportunity to upsell its Champagne, wine or other merchandise. But restaurants can't rely solely on special occasions to attract customers.

"Some places think, 'We'll be busy and charge more,' " he said. "You don't earn a lot of the respect of your guests that way. [If] you don't offer them a value for their dollar, you won't earn repeat business."

David acknowledges that holidays, such as Mother's Day, Father's Day and Easter, have become a bigger deal for Salty's. There is a friendly competition between the stores to come up with new and fun ideas, she said. This upcoming Father's Day, for example, the stores will give away golf balls and tees to dining dads. Also, each child will be able to nominate his or her father for a barbecue giveaway.

"Valentine's Day, Christmas, all these holidays — we put a lot of emphasis into making it into the best holiday for everyone so it's a tradition and you'll come back year after year," David said.

Salty's also kicks things up a notch for lesser-known events, such as the arrival of the famous Cooper River wild salmon from Alaska in late spring. People were willing to pay $40 a pound, David said.

"If we hadn't made it such a big deal, they probably wouldn't have cared," she said.