A $6 surcharge for bread? Why restaurant-week promotions may be a bad deal.

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When it comes to dining out, I love a good deal as much as anyone else. Which means I’ve always anticipated Restaurant Week, that promotion in my hometown of New York City where hundreds of establishments offer multi-course meals at a discount.

But in recent years, I’ve noticed the math hasn’t always added up to my advantage. In one case, I visited a restaurant and realized my three-course dinner would cost less if I ordered the items a la carte. “So, why don’t you do that?” the server suggested when I pointed out the absurdity of the situation.

Sure enough, I didn’t opt for the “deal” and instead picked my way through the menu like a regular-paying customer. But the episode stuck with me as a telling example of how what once seemed like a smart idea — a way for customers to explore dining spots without having to dig as deep into their pockets while also giving restaurants an opportunity to gain new business — has perhaps played itself out.

Of course, if you look at how New York’s Restaurant Week has grown you might think otherwise.  What began as a one-time promotion in 1992 with a mere 94 participating establishments has become an ongoing marketing extravaganza. There are now two separate such weeks in the city — one in the winter (currently running, in fact), another in the summer. And the timeframe for each promotion is not a “week” but more like half a month. Participation has also soared to 600-plus establishments, which offer prix-fixe meals from $30 to $60.

When a skeptical colleague heard me talking about this, he joked, ‘What about Tuscaloosa?’ Sure enough, the Alabama city launched its promotion last year.

Perhaps the most significant development is that the New York event has spawned dozens,  if not hundreds, of copycats across the country — not only in big cities such as Chicago and Los Angeles, but also, well, just about everywhere. When a skeptical colleague heard me talking about this, he joked, “What about Tuscaloosa?” Sure enough, the Alabama city launched its promotion last year.

Granted, each place puts its own spin on the event. In Chicago, they’ve added a big one-night food festival, dubbed the First Bites Bash, as a kickoff to the event. In Los Angeles, they’ve featured dining deals for as little as $15. And in Tuscaloosa, they’re simply looking to take pride in a homegrown restaurant scene that promotion organizers say goes far beyond barbecue and other Southern staples.

The message was heard loud and clear during the Tuscaloosa event’s first edition, says Kelsey Rush, president of Visit Tuscaloosa, the tourism board that’s behind the newly established Restaurant Week. Rush said one place was so busy with a fish special they ran during the promotion, they had to reach out to their supplier twice during the week to get more of the catch.

“We had great success stories,” Rush said of the overall response to the citywide event.

Maybe that’s true. And yet, I still cast a somewhat skeptical eye, if not on Tuscaloosa’s event itself then on the broader state of restaurant weeks.

The value equation

Begin with the value equation: As any restaurant-industry consultant or expert will tell you, eateries always operate on tight margins, which makes it hard for them to offer deals in the best of times. Now, with rising food and labor costs, it’s harder than ever.

That means the only way a lot of these restaurant-week bargains can work is for the operator to trim costs — say, by offering smaller portion sizes or using cheaper cuts of meat. But in the end, that doesn’t exactly make for a satisfying meal, says Allen Salkin, a veteran food journalist who has done his fair share of restaurant-week dining across the country.

“You want to pay less for better, not less for less,” he told me.

Or they can go another route and try to entice diners to pay for extras — certainly, a cocktail or a glass of wine, but also for add-on foods. I even spotted New York restaurants that had a surcharge for bread. One example: Gotham, an acclaimed Manhattan dining destination, levies a $6 fee for its “housemade bread” with “cultured butter.” (The restaurant didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.)

‘You want to pay less for better, not less for less.’

— Food journalist Allen Salkin

My frustrations go beyond the bargain aspect (or lack thereof). What used to make restaurant-week promotions special was that they were limited in how long they ran, limited in how many restaurants participated in it and, yes, limited in how many places offered them.

I suppose it’s unfair to begrudge other metro areas from joining the club, especially if it helps bring in customers to their restaurants (the promotions are often timed during slower dining seasons, such as the post-holiday January period). But I also wonder if those places could come up with something unique rather than jumping on the bandwagon.

It’s not just me who sees the issue. “It’s the same-old, same-old,” said Florida-based marketing consultant Craig Agranoff of the restaurant-week dilemma. He believes it will come back to bite restaurants in the end.

“The saturation can lead to diner skepticism and fatigue,” he added.

I’d also make the argument that restaurant weeks, despite their potential low-cost allure for customers, often miss the point of what the dining experience is about. A meal isn’t about gaming the system financially. It’s about the pleasure of good food — and perhaps good company — in a convivial setting.

It’s why some restaurateurs told me they’re giving up on the whole idea of this promotion. Jack Logue, a veteran New York City chef, has participated in the Big Apple Restaurant Week with previous establishments, but hasn’t done so with his current one, the Lambs Club, located in the theater district.

A meal isn’t about gaming the system financially. It’s about the pleasure of good food — and perhaps good company — in a convivial setting.

Logue told me he’d rather offer a special that doesn’t box him in on price and allows him to show his contemporary American restaurant to its best advantage. So he’s now doing a pre-theater menu, priced at $85 (two courses) or $95 (three courses), that features quality fare (seared scallops, anyone?) and that he hopes speaks to his culinary passion. Oh, and he doesn’t charge for bread, either.  

The goal, Logue said, is “to give the guests a better experience.”

Not that venues participating in restaurant weeks are actively seeking to give customers a bad experience. In theory, it’s just the opposite: Part of the idea behind the promotion is to have those newcomers be enticed to come back when the deal isn’t in place. And the formula can work.

Jay Kumar, the proprietor of Lore, an Indian restaurant in Brooklyn’s Park Slope neighborhood in New York, participates in the city’s Restaurant Week and said he sees about 13% of those newcomers return, a respectable figure in his books. He also said he takes pains to deliver a meal that will satisfy the customer but not ignore his need to make a living.

The problem, Kumar added, is that too many restaurant owners “don’t think of the math before they do anything.” So they end up with restaurant-week menus that don’t work for them or their diners.

Hearing Kumar talk, I thought I shouldn’t give up completely on the restaurant-week idea. I mean, I do like to eat out — and I do like to save money. (Who doesn’t?) But if I continue down this path, I’ll make doubly sure to pick places where the value and the quality look to align.

And maybe I’ll plan a visit to Tuscaloosa during its next Restaurant Week and see what the fuss is all about. I just hope they don’t run out of fish.

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