A Restaurateur’s Perspective on the “Excessive Opportunism” of Restaurant Week
Ask just about anyone in the restaurant industry about Restaurant Week, and you're likely to hear a groan. The promotion often means kitchen and wait staff are stressed and frantic as their dining rooms become overcrowded. Meanwhile, some restaurant workers and owners refer to it as Amateur Week, because of the novice diners who come out in droves. And for patrons? Restaurant Week isn't always much of a deal. (We did the math on that yesterday.)
Cashion's Eat Place in Adams Morgan is one place that has adamantly refused to participate in Restaurant Week. Y&H asked general manager and co-owner Justin Abad to share his objections from an industry point of view:
Nothing works restaurant proprietors and diners into a frenzy quite like Restaurant Week—the former planning for the coming hordes, the latter scouring the food reviews, compiling epic lists of new places to try.
It all started in 1992, in New York City. Restaurants there came together to offer a uniformly-priced, prix fixe lunch for $19.92. The idea was to highlight the city’s culinary gems and to open up even the swankiest establishments to a broader range of diners. And diners responded with alacrity: Restaurant Week boomed, soon becoming a biannual event and spreading to other towns.
The promotion took on an added importance after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The economy was shaky. The hospitality industry was in trouble. People were staying home. Restaurant Week helped remind us that it wasn’t just OK but necessary to get back out there—to come together, sharing a meal and good conversation, telling stories over a bottle of wine. Remember: ours is an industry based on celebration, revelry, and kinship. Restaurant Week has probably saved not a few struggling restaurants from closing for good.
Today, though, things are different. Restaurant Week has become more centered on excessive opportunism by both proprietor and diner. It only vaguely resembles what it started off as. And frankly, we should all be a little ashamed of what it is today.
Before continuing, let me say plainly that the following does not apply to all operations or diners that participate in Restaurant Week, but I believe those few are the exception rather than the rule. I know several proprietors who still participate in Restaurant Week because they believe in the very principle that it was founded on- hospitality. And I have plenty of friends that love Restaurant Week because they see it for what was meant to be—a chance to explore the ever-changing culinary landscape.
However, in too many cases Restaurant Week is not about showcasing the kitchen’s best stuff, but rather getting as many butts in seats as possible. Forget about the commitment to seat guests at their reserved times. Forget about treating them as guests, even. Guests have become "customers," and the restaurant wants to get as many of them through the door as it can for as cheaply as possible.
A great number of places overbook their restaurants on purpose. Let’s say you typically try to seat 100 people in your 50-seat restaurant. During Restaurant Week, you try to seat 150 diners in that same time frame. You just went from turning your tables twice to three times in a night. Forget lingering over coffee or dessert. Next!
What sort of experience is this? Your server is harried because he’s attending to twice as many customers as he would normally, or he’s annoyed because the boss told him to dispense with the niceties—the, you know, hospitality—and keep things moving. And you’re displeased because the food, frankly, kind of sucks, and you can’t get your water refilled to save your life.
Fact is, many restaurants bring in lower quality ingredients during Restaurant Week in order to maintain their normal margins on a discounted menu. As a Restaurant Week diner, have you ever asked yourself, “This place usually has ‘x’ on the menu for $30 alone. Now they’re giving me ‘x’ PLUS two more courses for $35. How is that possible???”
The muse, founder, mentor, and namesake of our establishment, Ann Cashion, called it “Restaurant Economics 101.” There are only two ways to make the above possible: decrease the cost of goods by purchasing cheaper ingredients, or make up the cost of goods with sheer volume. It’s that simple. There’s no magic trick. Decrease your cost or increase your volume.
As a neighborhood gathering place, our foundation was built on hospitality and rooted in farm-to-table dining before it was a popular culture term. So for us at Cashion’s Eat Place engaging in any of the practices above just doesn’t make sense. And there’s a growing list of establishments that feel the exact same way.
But let’s be frank here: diners are not completely innocent. Many of you have wildly unrealistic expectations of what Restaurant Week means, and what participating restaurants owe you and are able to offer at a set price. “Why isn’t the foie gras on the Restaurant Week menu?,” you protest. “What do you mean I can’t order the ribeye?”
No one is innocent in the ongoing drama that has become Restaurant Week. And if anything is ever to change about it, then we’ll need to start with more honest communication between proprietors and diners.
For the most part, Restaurant Week is no longer rooted in reminding people of the importance of sharing, imbibing, and laughing with those we care about the most. It isn’t about showing people what my place is “really about.” It definitely isn’t driven by the desire to show people our brand of hospitality or culinary excellence.
Unfortunately, it’s none of those things anymore. It’s butts in seats. Plainly put: it’s opportunism at its worst.