Here’s what organizers want you to know about Denver Restaurant Week: The 10-day-long promotion of Denver restaurants offers fixed-priced menus for as little as $25. It’s a celebration of Denver dining and a chance to eat at some of the nicest restaurants in town for a steal, comparatively. It’s a way for local businesses to get a spike during one of the slowest times of the year, and it creates some positive press for our local dining scene.
Now here’s what organizers don’t want you to know about Denver Restaurant Week: Some of the best places to dine out locally don’t actually participate.
Restaurant Week has a reputation for generating reservation-book and dining-room madness for the 10 days (Feb. 21-March 1 this year) that it lasts. Some owners say it can be hard on a business’ bottom line and on employee morale. To make a lower price point work for their business, chefs and owners might have to slash food costs and serve a less representative product, or else they could swallow the cost and hope for a longterm payoff.
For the 16 years that Denver’s signature dining event has been gaining traction and growing to more than 250 participating venues, a quiet but obvious bunch of destinations has opted out altogether.
“I think Restaurant Week is great for the city as a whole, but it’s tough on the individual operator,” said Jeff Osaka, chef and owner of 12 at Madison, Osaka Ramen and Sushi-Rama restaurants in Denver. “Especially when you’re a single store, because you don’t have others to fall back on… We want to offer it, but it doesn’t really offer us a return, or anything at all.”
The main reason Osaka chooses not to participate in Denver Restaurant Week is that it would sacrifice his “guests’ experience,” he said. “Everybody puts lower-priced (ingredients on menus)… and I didn’t really want to compromise. To be able to afford Restaurant Week, I think you have to make a lot of compromises.”
While each of Osaka’s restaurants has a different price point, he said it wouldn’t make sense to sell conveyor-belt sushi or ramen bowls, for example, for a set menu price of $25, $35 or $45 per person.
“Ramen and sushi, they’re too cheap, and then 12 (at Madison) is tough,” Osaka said. At 12 at Madison, the group’s finer dining flagship, a compact dinner menu consists of plates for “grazing,” with starters and mains priced from $9-$20, while desserts cost $9-$12.
“You can probably eat just as cheaply at 12 for any Restaurant Week offer I can give,” he said. “I think we are just as busy, at full prices, and there are regular customers who thank me for not doing Restaurant Week, you know, because they can come in and get a table.”
Some restaurant groups elect to take part at one of their restaurants but not another. Still others say they always participate and have figured out the formula for success.
A sampling of other Denver restaurants not participating in 2020 Restaurant Week: Acorn, Annette, Barolo Grill, Cart-Driver, Dio Mio, Fruition, Hop Alley, Mercantile, Olivia, Q House, Rioja, Sunday Vinyl, Sushi Den, Tavernetta, To The Wind, Uchi and Uncle.
At the new Restaurant Olivia on Downing Street, owners Austin Carson, Heather Morrison and Ty Leon offered similar reasons for not participating in Restaurant Week in their first year of business.
“For us, it’s economic,” Carson said. Since Olivia opened in January, the 35-seat restaurant has been filling steadily as Carson and crew welcome first-time customers and build regulars in what would normally be a slow season. And why would they interrupt that early momentum to fill seats with Restaurant Week diners at a fraction of the ticket cost?
“In a perfect world, you would impress them and wow them and bring them back,” he said. But Carson says that hasn’t been his experience. “Plus, it’s deleterious to staff morale.”
Justin Brunson, who owns Old Major in Lower Highland, didn’t participate in Denver Restaurant Week for years, but he started to in 2017 when the set menu price changed from $52.80 per couple to $25-$45 per head. Now, he said, he and his staff love it.
“It’s awesome to see your restaurant buzzing on a Wednesday night like it’s a Friday or Saturday night,” Brunson said. And it’s not uncommon for Restaurant Week diners to add on to their discounted meal by splurging on more menu items, like a “2 1/2-pound ribeye for the table to share,” he said. “Because they’re saving so much money, they can do that.”
Set menu add-ons, reasonably priced drink pairings, coupons for future visits — these are all ways to ensure Restaurant Week is a success for diners, employees and businesses, according to Emily Biederman, COO of Secret Sauce. Her restaurant group includes Vesta, Steuben’s and Ace Eat Serve, which all participate in Denver Restaurant Week.
Each location offers a different special to fit the business’ and diners’ needs, Biederman said. At Vesta, customers can choose from three or four options for each course, from beef bolognese to roasted red snapper and halva chocolate mousse, all for $35. At Steuben’s, diners get a Maine lobster roll, clam chowder and butterscotch pudding all for $25 — less than the standard cost of the lobster.
“At Steuben’s, we hold on to what is best for the guest most tightly,” Biederman said. “While this is not necessarily great for the bottom line, if it attracts more guests into Steuben’s, who maybe had been wanting to try it, and who hopefully will come back for a burger or mac and cheese, then again, we’re doing it right.
“We want diners to walk out saying, ‘Wow, that was great, and I can’t wait to come back and pay full price,’ ” she added.
Aside from Restaurant Week diners, Biederman has to take care of her staff during what “can be a grind,” she said. To do this, she’ll keep all hands on deck to avoid over-scheduling any employee, she’ll bring in special “family meals” for the team and “other little things to keep morale high.”
Visit Denver, which puts on Restaurant Week each year, even offers a “Restaurant Week Boot Camp” for participating businesses, because “the operations for restaurants really are different for those 10 days,” said Justin Bresler, Visit Denver’s vice president of marketing.
When it comes to business and morale, in the end, he said restaurants “find a way to manage.”
“It really is a chance for restaurants to put their best foot forward,” he said.
After all, back when Restaurant Week first started in Denver 16 years ago, the city was hardly known for its restaurants. But the idea of a week dedicated to restaurants was a way to give a local dining scene its own recognizable brand, one that’s bigger than just Denver, Colorado and the West.
“We believed that when locals bought into the quality of our restaurant scene, it would make it easier for us to sell that reputation around the country and around the world,” Bresler said.
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