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Restaurant Weeks aim to spur sales during January slowdown

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This post is by Restaurant SmartBrief contributor Janet Forgrieve.

Eateries have taken down the Christmas tinsel and swept up the New Year’s Eve confetti.  Now, many are gearing up for the next big event — Restaurant Week. While a growing number of markets around the country have adopted restaurant weeks to boost traffic at different times of the year, the post-holiday slowdown in January and February has proved a popular time for many to host deals designed to attract new customers with fixed-price multi-course meals.

Like many other restaurant trends, the concept of Restaurant Week began in New York City. The city’s eateries participated in the first week, a lunch-only event, in 1992. Since then, the promotion has proven a tourist draw and has been expanded to a twice-yearly event, with 2011’s first week beginning Jan. 24. Last year, participating eateries anxious to boost traffic in a down economy extended the winter promotion through the end of February.

Each community’s restaurant week takes on the flavor of that community and its climate, including Virginia Beach, Va., and the 13.5-mile-long barrier island of Amelia Island, Fla., whose populations swell with tourists seeking warmth, sunshine and seafood during the winter months.

Some cities are getting more creative in their restaurant week promotions, including Atlantic City, N.J., where local chefs are taking turns teaching weekly healthy cooking classes at area Boys & Girls Clubs in the weeks leading up to the Feb. 27 start of restaurant week. “We’re helping the community and getting the word out about what’s to come,” Atlantic City Convention and Visitors Authority marketing partnership manager Doreen Prinzo told the Press of Atlantic City this week.

In markets where restaurant weeks have proven successful, organizers typically see participation grow each year, but not every restaurant community embraces the idea of potentially filling each table nightly with lower-paying patrons who may not represent repeat business. In Myrtle Beach, S.C., only about a dozen eateries have signed on to participate in the city’s second restaurant week event.  And in every market, some restaurants tend to fare better than others — pricier places book up first as consumers seek out fine dining experiences that otherwise might not fit into their budgets.

As food prices continue to rise, the fixed prices become even more attractive, especially in cities like Denver, where organizers set the $52.80-for-two price six years ago and haven’t raised it.  In other markets, guests will see prices go up a bit this year. Organizers of the event in Ohio’s Miami Valley raised the price by $5 this year, saying member eateries couldn’t continue to serve three-course meals for $20.11 in the face of rising overhead, and that they were threatening to drop out of the event that had been attracting a growing number of participants each year.

“With the price being a little higher, Restaurant Week will still be a fantastic deal, and the restaurants will be able to better showcase what they do,” Miami Valley Restaurant Association Executive Director Amy Zahora told the Dayton Daily News late last year.

Have you participated in a Restaurant Week promotion in your community? Was it a success?