Why Some Restaurants Hate Restaurant Week

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Restaurant Week deals promise increased foot traffic during what’s normally a slow time of year, as well as ample exposure to new customers. Could Restaurant Week promotions also be bad for business?

Every year at around this time, it’s peak season for Restaurant Week, when restaurants in cities ranging from Atlantic City to Toledo offer special set-course pricing deals for lunch and dinner. California‘s Orange County Restaurant Week, for example, stretches through March 2, with restaurants rolling out special menus and flat $20 lunches and $30 to $40 dinners.

More than 100 restaurants are participating. And yet, they’re not necessarily joining in to turn a profit this week, as an OC Register article pointed out:

“We’re not going to do this for free, but we’re not making anything on it, either,” said Cathy Pavlos, chef-owner of Lucca in Irvine. “The whole point is to show the public what we can do.

“It’s show time.”

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For some restaurants, though, the prospect of drawing in new customers isn’t enough to justify participating in Restaurant Week promotions. To play along, restaurants typically must pay fees to local tourism bureaus. For Restaurant Weeks in places such as Atlantic City and Ocean County, fees run around $500. In Denver, restaurants fork over $350 to $450, plus an additional $660 if they want to be included in advertising.

According to the Denver Post, the fees are but one of many reasons several of the city’s top restaurants aren’t bothering with a Restaurant Week deal this year. Johnny Ballen, a co-owner of The Squeaky Bean, told the paper that he is skeptical that cheap Restaurant Week deals boost business in the long run. “They say it’s all about getting people out to restaurants to try them, but I don’t really think it creates return business,” he said.

In fact, some restaurant owners think that Restaurant Week crowds can annoy their best customers. “Quite honestly, we lost money last year,” Frank Bonanno told the Denver Post, explaining that two of his restaurants would not be participating in Denver’s 2013 Restaurant Week. “And I think our regulars appreciate that we’re not doing it.”

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Alex Seidel, named one of the nation’s Best New Chefs by Food & Wine in 2010, said that his restaurant in Denver’s trendy Lower Downtown area, Fruition, hasn’t bothered with Restaurant Week in the six years it’s been open:

“If I am going to welcome a couple that has never dined at Fruition, why would I want to change who I am as a chef by serving something that I would not be proud to serve the other 50 weeks throughout the year?” Seidel said via e-mail.

“Another reason is the physical and mental toll that is taken on by our team,” he wrote. “Can we be inspired by serving the same three-course meal over and over and over? Our servers are professionals that enjoy talking about food, the ingredients, the techniques; that is the satisfaction that we get from our hard work.”

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Based on how widespread Restaurant Week participation is in cities around the country, most restaurant owners and managers obviously feel differently. Even if they’re not making money, even if chefs and employees are uninspired and sorta dread the week, and even if the promotions attract customers who aren’t going to come back, most restaurants seem to think that Restaurant Weeks are worthwhile. “I look at it as a marketing week,” Paul Sandler, manager of the Palm in Atlantic City, told the Press of Atlantic City:

“I don’t correlate a big week as strictly dollars and cents. It’s about exposing people to the restaurant who may not know what we’re all about, or maybe reminding some customers who haven’t been here in a while.”