“Oh, I have a list!” says Erin Kaufman of Warwick, when she hears that the Providence Restaurant Weeks promotion will be back for its 17th year this July. “I always have this running tally of restaurants I want to try. My goal is to get to a new one every month, but it doesn’t always work. So when Restaurant Weeks gets here, it’s like I’ve been given a permission slip to go nuts,” she says.
Lucky for Kaufman, Providence Restaurant Weeks is back this month. The initiative, created by the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau (PWCVB), runs twice a year – in January and July – from the 9th to the 22nd. The annual promotion is a celebration of all things culinary throughout (and sometimes beyond) the capital city. Participating restaurants offer diners a special menu at promotional prices for lunch or dinner, plus other deals on cocktails, family meals, specialty products, and more. In January, for example, Providence Oyster Bar in Providence and East Greenwich offered a three-course lunch for $23.95 or dinner for $39.95, while Ten Prime Steak and Sushi in Providence offered a buy-one, get-one free filet mignon special. Restaurant Weeks is the darling project of the PWCVB, increasing traffic to and buzz about the pride of Providence: its culinary prowess.
Providence isn’t the only city to hold the biannual promotion, nor was it the first. The concept was introduced in 1992 by restaurateur Joe Baum and Tim Zagat, co-founder of the iconic Zagat Survey, as a way to boost business during the Democratic National Convention held in New York City that year. The event was an instant success, drawing attention from visitors, but also from locals empowered to try otherwise-out-of-their-price-range establishments. The participating restaurants offered fixed-price lunch and dinner menus for $19.92, allowing diners to enjoy a multi-course meal at a fraction of the usual cost.
The concept caught on, and news of it swiftly spread to other cities, who instituted their own versions. It is now a lynch pin promotion for convention and visitors authorities, and even spurred a graduate thesis dissertation by a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in 2016 entitled “Investigating How Restaurant Week’s Price Promotion Affects Diners’ Online Perceptions.” Restaurant Week was a brilliant concept, it surmised, because the lower price point made diners perceive a restaurant more positively. What’s more, a positive Restaurant Week experience is likely to result in a repeat visit to the restaurant, even if another price reduction is not offered.
It was marketing gold, and the PWCVB knew it back in 2006. President and CEO Kristen Adamo recalls that first discussion. “My then-boss handed me some polling that showed Providence second to last in ranking of culinary cities in New England,” she recalls. Adamo, an enthusiastic fan of the local culinary scene, convened with State Senator Joshua Miller (D-28) and the city to execute the concept. “It was planned to take place between holidays and other event-heavy times such as graduations, so restaurants were eager to participate,” Miller recalls.
The PWCVB made it the centerpiece of its wildly successful and ongoing effort to transform Providence into a culinary destination. “A few years after that initial meeting, the readers of Travel + Leisure voted Providence ‘Best Food City’ in the United States,” Adamo says. “That turnaround happened because we had exceptional food talent and because the PWCVB and the Cicilline administration worked hand-in-hand to develop a culinary brand and strategy for the city. Providence Restaurant Weeks was the first step in the development of that brand.”
That first year, July 2006, 40 restaurants signed up to participate. The idea was similar to that first one in New York: offer a three-course menu at a reduced price. Over the years, Restaurant Week became Restaurant Weeks, to allow restaurants and diners alike a bit more time to take it all in. “A big goal of Restaurant Weeks is to help the restaurants and the restaurant staff during times that aren’t typically as busy,” says Christine Walsh Phillips, senior director of community and public affairs at the PWCVB.
Ellen Gracyalny, owner of Gracie’s restaurant (and Ellie’s Bakery) in Providence, was the first to sign on as a participating restaurant. “We were thrilled when Restaurant Week started in Providence in 2006. It gave us the opportunity to showcase all we do to a broader audience that was unfamiliar with Gracie’s,” she says.
“We have pivoted over the years to allow more restaurants to participate by letting them set up their own special offers,” explains Phillips. Gracyalny appreciates the added freedom. “We decided to offer our five-course tasting menu at a reduced price for the entire month of July,” she says. “The tasting menu experience is a three-hour journey, like going to the theater, so it gives people more time to plan instead of being limited to a two-week time span,” she says.
This year, that flexibility in the way establishments interpret Restaurant Weeks continues to expand. Marcelino’s Boutique Bar in the Omni Providence Hotel is best known for their mixology. “I wanted to be the first cocktail bar in Restaurant Weeks,” says owner Marcelino Abou Ali. The 70-seat space offers an upscale bar program featuring unique, hand-crafted drinks and is becoming particularly well-known for its espresso martinis. “For Restaurant Weeks we can offer specials on drinks and aperitifs and digestifs. People can start here, go to dinner, and end the evening here. It’s a way for them to extend the Restaurant Weeks experience,” he says.
Not that Restaurant Weeks is a hard sell. “It’s a great promotion for our city and industry,” says Nicole Christie, general manager of Hemenway’s restaurant in Providence, also a long-time participant. “It helps generate extra foot traffic and excitement in the city because it has a strong following with guests who look forward to this time every year to try out a new place. Hemenway’s is excited to continue to participate,” she says.
Even Hemenway’s chef, Max Peterson, gets into the groove. “We have a great following of loyal guests, so it gives chef Max the opportunity to try out some new items for them,” Christie explains. And then there are new guests – a key target in the promotion – who otherwise might not have experienced Hemenway’s. “We love first-time guests! We are excited to welcome someone who has never been to the restaurant before.”
There are sometimes unexpected benefits along the way. “We noticed that during January Restaurant Weeks, there was an uptick in college students dining out,” Adamo says, speculating that the more affordable offerings were encouraging younger audiences. And some restaurants get downright strategic when it comes to appealing to a specific crowd. “The menu is designed to increase value and get a younger, 30- to 40-year-old budget-conscious guest to come in,” says CAV restaurant co-owner John Moubayed. Gracyalny, too, was delighted to learn that Gracie’s was attracting new fans. “We noticed that 80 percent of the guests were coming from Massachusetts and Boston,” she says of their Restaurant Weeks patrons. Restaurant owner Carlo Carlozzi of Circe restaurant in Providence and East Greenwich, noticed a significant bump in profits from the promotion. “We saw a revenue increase of 17 percent,” he says of the January event.
But it’s still the local diner, like Kaufman, who benefits most. “It’s exciting,” she says. “I might not necessarily like sushi, but if a great sushi restaurant is participating, I’ll go, just to see. Even if I don’t go back, I can speak more about the city’s restaurants. I feel like it makes me a more responsible and educated diner,” she says with a laugh. “Plus, you know…yum!”
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