I’ve been working on expanding my exposure to economics on my social networks, which is how I found a piece from Matt Yglesias against the idea of Restaurant Week. I don’t think he’s entirely right, and here is why…Here is the core issue of Mr. Yglesias’ critique of the Restaurant Week concept:
The problem with Restaurant Week, basically, is that it’s a marketing scheme for drumming up some business from people who don’t normally patronize nice restaurants. And the problem with that is that if you’re running a nice restaurant, the main reason to deliver good food is so that the people who do normally patronize nice restaurants will want to come back to your restaurant. If the customer base is all people who probably won’t come back one way or another, then there’s no point. Consequently, you get what’s not so much a bargain as simply a lower-end experience at a high-end brand.
This is true in some cases. But I would argue that Restaurant Week has value, especially outside of affluent city centers were there is a glut of restaurants to choose from with or without a Restaurant Week. Many of these observations are based on specific value I have derived from Restaurant Weeks in the past. Now, this isn’t intended to be a super hard-hitting piece against Mr. Yglesias. I just happen to see some value to the promotion in specific circumstances.
For example, Restaurant Week in Downtown Detroit last year featured some of the fanciest restaurants in the city. (Yes, we have nice things in Detroit alongside the poverty, crime, and bankruptcy.) My husband and I didn’t participate because even at the promotion pricing, we could get perfectly good food elsewhere, and closer to our residence, which reduced transportation cost. Now, Detroit also does several other restaurant promotions outside of a formal Restaurant Week that I have attended because they are more at my price point. That has introduced me to some wonderful restaurants such as Slows Barbecue, and Traffic Jam & Snug, to wonderful places that are far more in my budget. When you’re new to a city like I was to Detroit like I was in 2012 when the Coast Guard sent me here, these promotions are extremely valuable. They give you good food and a starting point to learning about the restaurant scene in your new city.
Also, recurring Restaurant Weeks tend to have recurring members. It stands to reason that they are deriving some benefit from the experience, otherwise, rationally, they would have no reason to keep participating. It’s true that perhaps this could indicate that consumers normally find the restaurant overvalues its food, and are more willing to spend when prices are lower during Restaurant Week. But for some, it might provide an actual bump in business. This is particularly sensible in areas with regularly high population turnover such as college towns, shore towns (particularly in NJ where they become ghost towns every winter), or areas that have a high number of military residents rotating in and out.
Finally, Restaurant Weeks can help small or new restaurants gain exposure and potentially grow their customer bases. This is particularly true for RW promotions that don’t feature the absolute pinnacle in a given city’s dining. For example, Coach Insignia which is a high-end restaurant at the top of the GM Renaissance Center in Detroit, will see limited lasting benefit from participating in Restaurant Week. Their prices are high for a middle class income, so people will take advantage of the lower priced promotion as a one-off. However, if Slows were to participate (it is getting plenty of promotion via its multiple awards for now), their prices are far friendlier, and they may get some new, lasting customers through the door. If a high quality newcomer enters the scene, the promotion from Restaurant Week and the people who try a place they may have not found otherwise can help them establish at least part of a customer base.
On a lighter note, I also think Mr. Yglesias misunderstands the allure of a good dessert. Yes, a Snicker’s bar isn’t bad. But a good chocolate mousse is (in my humble option) far better, and I can’t get it as easily. I’m not much of a cook, and certainly got good at desserts aside from brownie and cake mixes out of a box – a flaw I’m trying to improve. So for me, a restaurant with pretty good food and very good dessert is a keeper. (Even better – very good food and dessert!) I know I’m far from the only one in that boat, so dessert will remain a major allure for Restaurant Weeks and other promotions.
TLDR: Restaurant Week CAN deliver value to restaurants and patrons when structured and targeted properly and dessert is awesome.