NEW YORK While Restaurant Week is undoubtedly a treat for diners here, many operators cherish the promotion as much, if not more, than their customers do.
At a time when the industry is struggling, Restaurant Week is helping to fill many dining rooms around town with customers taking advantage of three-course meals for $24.07 at lunch and $35 at dinner.
Phil Suarez, co-owner of Culinary Concepts Inc. with partner Jean-Georges Vongerichten, described the promotion as "win-win" for restaurants and customers, who come in for the prix-fixe deal, but may end up ordering other items as well.
“Our customers love it, and we always try to give them bang for the buck," he said. "And even though Restaurant Week attracts a lot of folks who go for the less expensive fare, many times they’ll see items that attract them and they go for it. It isn’t a huge percentage, but they will go for that glass of wine or appetizer or something on the regular menu. That’s what’s great about the whole idea.”
Designed as a marketing program by NYC & Co., the city's tourism and hospitality board, Restaurant Week began in 1992 with just 42 participating restaurants. Today that number has increased to 260, with more restaurants clamoring to be involved, which is harder to do than it seems.
Tracy Nieporent, director of marketing at Myriad Restaurant Group, owner-operator of such high-end restaurants as Nobu, Tribeca Grill and Corton, said the selection process is highly selective. Nieporent serves on the board overseeing the inner-workings of the promotion. Other board members include restaurateurs Steve Hanson and Danny Meyer and Zagat Survey co-founder Tim Zagat.
Nieporent noted that restaurants must be members of NYC & Co. to participate in the promotion. The board provides oversight and works with NYC & Co. to determine the best restaurant lineup from the list of potential participants.
"This year we have the greatest number of participants that we’ve had for many years. There’s been very little attrition," he said. "Quite often, a lot of restaurants knock on your door and try to be a part of it. And you want to be as supportive as you can to as many restaurants as you can, but you also have to make sure the program has as much credibility as possible.”
Restaurant Week is held twice a year, once in the winter and once in the summer, both during what are perceived as slow periods for the industry. Suarez said restaurateurs get better every year at planning for the event, selecting menu items that will entice customers but won't hurt margins.
“We’re all smart enough to choose items that are cost productive,” Suarez noted. “We certainly are not going to offer 8-pound lobsters, but at the same time it’s also pretty interesting in that chefs have to be creative, especially if you're a three- or four-star restaurant."
He added: "It’s a challenge but a fun challenge because even though you’re charging less, you’re not offering lesser fare. If anything, you’re trying harder to make it work.”
And some restaurants are unable to participate in the program simply because the numbers just don’t add up, Nieporent said. Even though Tribeca Grill and Nobu both participate in the event, Myriad's newest restaurant, Corton, does not.
“Corton, unfortunately, can’t serve a dinner for $35,” he said. “The price points just aren’t there.”
In order to put Restaurant Week on, Nieporent said NYC & Co. plans for the event at least four months out. Suarez, whose Nougatine at Jean Georges restaurant participates, noted that participating restaurants usually work two months in advance on menu planning.
“Chefs go to tasting meetings, [conduct] cost-control procedures,” he said. “It’s all about taste and making sure you offer an across-the-board menu. There are three courses so you’ve got to uphold standards."
Restaurant Week, which was popular before the recession, is even more important now, Suarez said.
“I would imagine that for those people who had more money before and are in a little trouble now, this helps them to still be able to dine out and that’s terrific," he said. "Restaurant Week has become real important, a New York happening. People so look forward to it.”