Opinion: Calling for a Change to Restaurant Week

**DISCLAIMER: All opinions and thoughts in this article are entirely my own, and do not reflect the opinions of any organization or restaurant that I am presently or previously affiliated with.**

It’s that time of year again in Philly - the Fall installment of Restaurant Week is here. Dozens of restaurants participate and hundreds of thousands of customers make reservations over the two week period. For those who are not familiar, participating restaurants create three-course menus for lunch and dinner, which are given a discounted rate of $20 per person and $35 per person, respectively. 

On the surface, it sounds as if Restaurant Week is great for restaurants and the people who work in them—and I truly think that, at one time, it was designed to be that way. The original selling point for restaurants was to drive traffic at times of the year when it is needed most; to increase volume for those two weeks in general; and to give new patrons a chance to sample the restaurant’s menu. At the very least, the low price point was meant to encourage adding additional appetizers, buying a bottle of wine or upgrading the meal in some way.

For diners, it is a huge win. Many people pack the two weeks full of reservations at as many restaurants as they can, to have the full Restaurant Week experience. It’s now a time to get together with friends, have that mid-week lunch with colleagues, or have that date night you’ve saved for.

What makes it a double-edged sword, though, is that the menu needs to have a value, for dinner, of at least $55 regular retail. For restaurants at a lower or mid-level price point, this is a great way to showcase some of their higher-end items and drive traffic back to the restaurant for those same dishes and the broader menu. They would be, in essence, attracting the same customers but giving them a curated experience, that could lead for future business.

For higher-end restaurants, however, this can be a detriment to food cost, check average, and overall guest experience. There are some restaurants in the city in which an a la carte entree costs upwards of $50 on its own, not including sides or any other courses. To create a three course menu out of menu items of this caliber literally and figuratively devalues the locations that participate.

In that case, restaurants typically can’t even cover their food cost, let alone labor, during restaurant week. These restaurants also tend to have a slower average pace of service to go with the higher-end dining experience. With the volume that these restaurants tend to experience during Restaurant Week, guests just do not get this superior level of service—no matter how great the staff, management and systems are in each individual case.

The perception, then, is skewed for those who go into a high-end restaurant and have this experience. With a packed restaurant, almost all the same three courses and thousands of covers in one night, a guest’s experience is going to be totally different than going to the same restaurant on a regular evening, ordering off of the regular menu.

As someone who worked in the restaurant industry, I saw the toll it took on the staff, both physically and financially. The hours are longer, the pace is faster, and the check average is cut in half. Employees quite literally work twice as hard, and typically for at least half the pay, as gratuity is calculated off of the discounted total.

I’m not calling for an end to Restaurant Week altogether,  but I propose a tiered approach based on the average check/meal price at each set of restaurants. For lunch, a $20, $25 and $30 three course menu and for dinner, a $35, $45, and $55. This will, at least, level the playing field and really define each concept’s offerings and, ultimately, their target audience. In the end, that could be a true win-win for restaurants and the Philadelphians who love them.