How Restaurant Week Really Works

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All this week, Mintwood Place chef Cedric Maupillier will show up an hour earlier to work and leave an hour later. He’s also reinforced the troops: an additional cook, server, food runner, and busser. This is not a week for kitchen rookies. This is the week to bring in the people who’ve already proven themselves.

In other words, it’s Restaurant Week.

More than 250 restaurants are offering three-course lunches for $20.14 and dinners for $35.14 through Aug. 17 as part of the biannual Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington promotion. Whether that’s actually a good deal for diners has been, well, chewed over more times than a well-done steak. But behind the scenes at the restaurants, the far-from-normal week can be good business. Places that would normally have no wait midweek in August are suddenly fully booked. Which means many change their service pace, their reservation practices, and occasionally even their food in order to adapt to the mad rush of diners.

There are pretty much two reasons why restaurants participate in Restaurant Week. First, it can provide a much-needed infusion of cash in another otherwise slow month. And second, it’s a way to convert new diners into regulars. (Whether that works is a matter of debate.)

“It helps pay the bills. It helps pay the rent. It helps pay the salaries,” says Jeff Buben, who owns Vidalia, Bistro Bis, and Woodward Table. “If I were to put an ad in the paper I don’t know what kind of response I might get…I don’t know any other promotion out there for restaurants that we can be involved with two times a year that brings that much volume immediately to a restaurant.” At Vidalia, which is particularly popular during Restaurant Week, the number of customers doubles for those seven days.

Restaurant Week participation reached an all-time high this summer with 262 places involved. When the promotion launched in 2001 as a way to help restaurants bounce back after 9/11, that number was less than 50. “Restaurant Week used to focus more around fine dining,” Buben notes. “Now any restaurant can participate. Now you have to fight to get yourself ahead of the pack.”

It’s not free for restaurants to officially participate. First, they have to be RAMW members, which can cost between $200 and $2,000 a year depending on gross annual sales. Then, there’s a $500 Restaurant Week fee, which goes primarily toward marketing and ads (including in Washington City Paper). For the first time this summer, RAMW also bought ads on Metrorail and Metrobuses to gain exposure for the week.

Dino’s Grotto owner Dean Gold says Restaurant Week used to be the reason he was a member of the association. But as more restaurants have joined Restaurant Week in recent years, Gold didn’t feel the promotion was the boon it once was. He stopped participating after last summer because his former restaurant, Dino, started losing money on the promotion. “Which wouldn’t have been so bad if I could have said two months later, ‘Wow, I’ve got 20 new regular customers,’” Gold says. “But I didn’t feel like I got any new regular customers.” Now, he’s got a “We Don’t Need No Stinking Restaurant Week” menu with tastes of 10 dishes—rather than three courses from the full menu—for $35. “We know going in what we’re going to be producing,” he says. “It takes so much pressure off the kitchen, and it allows us to produce better food.”

Gold also believes the high volume of Restaurant Week can cause service to suffer. “It’s like a week of Saturdays,” he says. “It’s hard to go from one level of business to another.”

That’s partly why The Red Hen also doesn’t participate in Restaurant Week. “I don’t think it necessarily shows a restaurant in its best light,” says co-owner Sebastian Zutant. “I have to assume quality of food in certain places gets compromised because it’s impossible to keep up.”

Some restaurants, like Mintwood Place, do bring in extra staff to deal with the influx of diners. “There’s no break from 5:30 to 10:30 or 11, it’s nonstop,” Maupillier says. “The door opens, it’s a bit like—I imagine—the line at Rose’s Luxury on the weekends.” That means the staff needs to seat the restaurant faster, produce the food faster, and clear the tables faster. “We need to be very busy to turn a profit,” Maupillier says. He says his profit margins aren’t bigger during Restaurant Week than any other week. For him, rather, the primary goal is to attract a new clientele.

It’s not uncommon for restaurants to overbook on Restaurant Week as well. “You have to,” Gold says. “What we found is a higher percentage of no-shows and a very low percentage of walk-in business.” He used to overbook the restaurant by 12 percent, but rarely got hurt by it. “No matter how high you predicted the no-show rate, it exceeded it,” he says. Part of the problem is that people hoard reservations for Restaurant Week and forget to cancel the ones they don’t plan to use.

Passion Food Hospitality partner and chef Jeff Tunks, whose restaurants include Acadiana, PassionFish, DC Coast, and others, says his restaurants also overbook in later time slots during Restaurant Week—something they don’t do otherwise. “We’ve done it enough times now that we’ve got it down to a science,” he says. But a rainstorm can cause a hiccup at Acadiana or PassionFish, where they count on seating the patio.

Meanwhile, Passion Food Hospitality managers and chefs are prohibited from taking vacation during Restaurant Week. And the prep work begins long before the week’s diners arrive. When I called Tunks last week, his staff has already begun prepping desserts. “Nobody ever comes in and gets a pastry per person” in other weeks, he says, “so when you’re doing 400 or 500 people a day, that’s 400 or 500 desserts a day when you normally would only serve 50 or 60.”

Tunks offers almost all the entrees from the regular menu (with a few upcharges) but limits the appetizers and desserts to dishes that will be easier for the kitchen to prepare. He annually budgets for the promotion with a slightly higher food cost percentage in January and August because of the hit the restaurants take with the deal. “We look at it as marketing money,” he says.

But if they’re not using an upcharge, it should be no surprise that many restaurants leave their most expensive dishes off the Restaurant Week menu. “Are you going to get rack of lamb for $35? No, you’re not. That’s not possible,” Buben says. “You try to put down a menu that’s a promotional menu that gives the flavor of the restaurant.”

In order to make the numbers work, others reduce their portion sizes. Mintwood Place’s Maupillier says that’s the only way for him to maintain the same level of quality and ingredients in his entrees but also stay profitable. “I prefer reducing my portion size and not upcharging so I can serve a piece of dorade or I can serve a bit more elaborate food,” he says.

Others may make compromises to the ingredients themselves. Gold noticed one purveyor, whom he didn’t feel comfortable naming, sent out an email to chefs last week promoting primarily inexpensive cuts of meat. Normally, he says that same list includes wagyu beef, lamb, and other specialty products mixed in with the conventional stuff. Gold also suggests keeping an eye out for menus that normally list wild Alaskan salmon or meat from local farms swapping in farm-raised and nonpedigree proteins.

In most cases, the Restaurant Week math more accurately works out to Free Dessert Week. But occasionally, it’s not even that. Depending on what you order, there are places where you’ll actually pay more during Restaurant Week than you would ordering a la carte.

RAMW somewhat vets restaurants’ menus when they’re submitted for the Restaurant Week website. “We definitely look at and screen all the menus,” RAMW President Kathy Hollinger says. “If we feel that it’s not the right balance or that it’s not necessarily a deal, then we absolutely work with the restaurant to make sure that the offering is a good competitive offering…If a steakhouse isn’t offering steak, and they only want to offer chicken for Restaurant Week, we absolutely want to make sure that they’re offering what they’re well known for.”

And yes: That steakhouse situation really happened. Hollinger, who wouldn’t name the restaurant involved, says it ultimately chose not to participate.

Eatery tips? Food pursuits? Send suggestions to [email protected].

Photo of Mintwood Place during Restaurant Week by Darrow Montgomery