Walk into an Atlantic County restaurant during March — particularly on a weekday — and most will have more empty tables than full ones.
Walk into an Atlantic County restaurant that is participating in Atlantic City Restaurant Week, however, and you may have a hard time getting a table.
The Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority hoped for just that when it launched Restaurant Week five years ago. Offering three-course meals from March 3 to 9 this year at a discount — $15.13 for lunch, $33.13 for dinner — 79 restaurants hope to have one of the most lucrative off-season weeks of the year.
“It has become the signature event of the winter season,” said Jeff Vasser, president of the ACCVA. “The restaurants that participate tell me it’s one of the best, if not the best, weeks of the year for them. Even places like The Palm say it’s one of the best weeks of the year. Even though The Palm might be offering food for a fraction of what they normally do, they make it up on wine and liquor and people ordering off the regular menu that may want something different or extra. Some people might look at the Restaurant Week menu but say, ‘Oh, I really like the Gigi salad,’ and order that, too.”
Palm General Manager Paul Sandler said the power of Restaurant Week goes beyond immediate financial gain.
“I look at it as a marketing week,” said Sandler, whose restaurant offers the prix-fixe menu every day except Saturday. “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.”
Restaurant Week is not a new dining concept. The biggest cities in the United States — New York, Philadelphia, Chicago, Baltimore and Las Vegas — all have restaurant weeks to boost revenue for local restaurants while driving tourism.
Vasser said he had wanted a restaurant week in Atlantic City since coming here 11 years ago.
“I was involved in New York City’s Restaurant Week, and my thinking was to one day bring it here,” he said. “I had lunch with (Revel executive director of public relations and former ACCVA vice president of marketing) Maureen Siman at Knife & Fork one day, and I told her, ‘We finally have enough restaurants for Restaurant Week. There’s a critical mass. Let’s do it.’ And it just developed from there.”
Siman said the idea came from Doreen Prinzo, the ACCVA’s marketing partnership manager, and eventually received Vasser’s blessing.
“She was doing some research on partner programs and saw so many destinations doing Restaurant Week and said, ‘What do you think?’ I said, ‘Let’s figure it out.’ And we worked on it for a full year before we announced we were going to do it. Doreen has really been the backbone of the whole concept here.”
Prinzo, who wouldn’t take credit for the idea, did take credit for doing most of the research, talking to other cities, learning the positives and negatives, acquiring and compiling forms, and putting together a committee of area restaurateurs to help formulate the concept and lure other restaurants to participate.
In the first year, 81 restaurants participated. The lowest number in the past five years was 75.
“Some people open, some people close and some restaurants just felt they don’t benefit from it enough,” Prinzo said. “But it has been really successful. We probably have more restaurants than most cities, including places like Baltimore, but maybe not Philadelphia and New York. It’s just a great off-season event timed perfectly between convention periods. It’s slow this time of year, and restaurants can really use the business.”
Restaurant Week is mostly designed for an upscale dining experience, which limits the number of restaurants that participate.
“Some restaurants initially joined that were lower-end restaurants, and they just realized they weren’t reaping the benefits,” Prinzo said. “They might already have a $20 menu for three courses, so a $33 menu just doesn’t make sense. It took them a year or two to understand that.”
To participate, restaurants usually become members of the ACCVA, which costs $302 per year and provides inclusion in everything from the visitors guide to maps. Members then pay $200 to participate in Restaurant Week and receive marketing, all mentions and menus on the website, reservation links, promotional flyers to present with checks to promote Restaurant Week before the event, signage for the restaurant and paper for printed menus. Nonmembers pay $550 to participate in Restaurant Week.
Restaurant Week will cost the ACCVA about $100,000 this year, because a state grant that helped start the promotion has expired.
“The ultimate goal is to make Restaurant Week sustain itself through more participants and sponsors,” Vasser said.
But the $100,000 looks like money well spent.
According to ACCVA Media Relations Manager Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, about 10,000 reservations were made last year, meaning that about 30,000 people dined during Restaurant Week, not counting walk-ins.
Table survey cards reported 93 percent of people would return to those restaurants; more than 73 percent of responders said they dine one to two times during Restaurant Week; more than 23 percent dine three or four times during Restaurant Week; 34 percent travel to Atlantic City specifically for Restaurant Week; and 48 percent were parties of more than two people.
Siman said it didn’t take long to convince Revel’s marquee restaurants, such as Central Michel Richard, Mussel Bar by Robert Wiedmaier, American Cut by Iron Chef Marc Forgione, Amada and Village Whiskey by Iron Chef Jose Garces, Azure by Alain Allegretti and Lugo Caffe, to participate for the first time this year.
“Doreen came in to present to the partners, and it was a no-brainer,” she said. “This is a marquee event.”
It will also be the first year Kelsey and Kim Jackson are taking part in Restaurant Week. The owners of Kelsey & Kim’s on Melrose Avenue in Atlantic City, and the new Kelsey’s on Kentucky Avenue, thought it was time to get involved.
“We have a brand new restaurant that opened in December, so we joined the ACCVA and thought it would be great exposure for the new restaurant as well as our other one,” Kim Jackson said.
Kelsey & Kim’s will offer a Restaurant Week menu for lunch only, she said. Kelsey’s will offer its Restaurant Week menu for dinner only. “It’s not really about making money but getting the word out about what we do. I think any time you can join forces with any type of group advertising and marketing plan, it’s very beneficial.”
Restaurant Week has continued to evolve. Gift certificates go on sale every November to ensure early sales. Restaurant owners and managers are encouraged to make menus diverse, with enough selections to entice people. Some restaurants, such as Capriccio inside Resorts Casino Hotel, offer more than five entree choices. And Red Room Cafe in Ventnor takes it a step further, allowing diners to pick any appetizer, any entree and any dessert off its regular menu for the set price.
“A lot of people come back because of our overwhelming selection,” said Capriccio chef Steve Klawitter. “Instead of two or three items, we have a bigger menu. I think we give them enough choices to lure them in.”
A major evolution is A Taste of Restaurant Week, which will be held Tuesday at Atlantic City Country Club in Northfield. Originally launched at The Pool at Harrah’s as a media event, A Taste of Restaurant Week is now a paid, open-to-the-public event that features about 15 restaurants participating in Restaurant Week offering samples of food for $35, with 100 percent of the proceeds benefiting the Community FoodBank of New Jersey, Southern Branch, The Alcove Center for Grieving Children & Families and the ACCVA Foundation.
“It went from being a media event into a charity event that sells out every year,” Vasser said. “There are only 300 tickets, and they sell out quickly. It starts a good buzz for what people can expect all week.”
The ACCVA also made its website more informative and easier to navigate, he said.
“It was also important to get the chefs and owners to get their menus out there as early as possible to educate people what they are offering so people can make decisions and reservations,” Vasser said. “We also made it very easy for diners to see which restaurants are offering lunch, dinner or both, and which nights they were offering it. It’s understandable that some restaurants don’t want to participate on Saturday night. But we want to make sure diners understand that and don’t walk into a restaurant without being properly informed.”
But the evolution must continue. Vasser and his staff are aiming to get more Atlantic County restaurants involved beyond Atlantic City and Downbeach.
“There are some who wonder if it will work for them,” Vasser said. “And the ones that participate already do amazing. The Sugar Hill Inn in Mays Landing and Touch of Italy in Egg Harbor Township do incredible.”
Restaurant Week is so successful for the Sugar Hill Inn that owner Larry Boylan hires live musicians all five nights he participates.
“Lunch and dinner are so busy they’re like Saturday nights for me every night of Restaurant Week,” he said. “So I want people to feel what it’s like here on a Saturday night, so we have music every night. I want to see them come in for Restaurant Week and say, ‘Wow, this place is great. I am coming back in two weeks.’ And I hear that every night of Restaurant Week.”
In fact, the ACCVA predicts restaurants that do not get involved suffer even more than they would on a normal winter week.
“I would like to think they would lose business that week because someone who might be going to a place like Cafe 2825, which does not participate, might go to another upscale restaurant because they can get a meal for $33. I don’t know why places like that don’t join. Maybe they just don’t need the incremental business.”
The ACCVA is also looking for resorts to offer more Restaurant Week packages.
“We want to grow the city as a destination, and if there are hotel and Restaurant Week packages, that helps the growth and takes Restaurant Week to the next level and makes people do more than eat at a restaurant. They will do other things while they are here, too.”
Resorts Vice President of Hotel Operations Mark Sachais said he already sees incremental business from Restaurant Week.
“I think there is,” Sachais said. “It has definitely built a lot of momentum over the years and absolutely exposes restaurants to people who might not normally be coming to the city and eat, especially in March. The value is amazing. And I can’t quantify it numerically, but some of the people that come to restaurants here for Restaurant Week may not be a big gambler, but they go down to the floor and gamble a little or maybe stop at a bar. So there are benefits there, too.”
Boylan said he believes the future of Restaurant Week will depend on value. He pointed out that other local towns such as Somers Point, Wildwood and Cape May all have their own restaurant weeks, and people need to feel like Atlantic City Restaurant Week is special.
“People look at the menus and compare, and that’s why I have lobster ravioli and steak and stuffed flounder,” he said. “If you don’t give them good value, they will not come. They say, ‘Hey, I will just wait for another Restaurant Week.’ And when I see one restaurant give great value, that motivates me to give more value. Restaurateurs just have to realize they have to drop their drawers on the percentages one week, and that can lead to your reservations filling up for the rest of the year.”
Restaurant Week goes beyond dollars and cents, Vasser said.
“I love the fact that when you consider all the things we do — family shows at Boardwalk Hall, concerts, you name it — Restaurant Week is the one thing that the entire community really embraces and loves,” he said.
Contact Scott Cronick