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January 22, 2014

Theme Nights Chase Away The Slow Night Blues

OystersWhether it’s a three-course dinner featuring lobster or a dinner with a guest chef, restaurants are increasingly turning to unique themes to bring in customers during the off-nights of the week.

Tuesday, we’re looking at you.

Finding a theme that’s a match for the restaurant and its clientele – whether it’s a one-off, or a weekly special - can be a fun, creative process. Take the ever-popular restaurant week, which began in New York in 1992, and quickly spread to large and small cities across the country.

The restaurants agree to a fixed price menu for two, say $50.14 (the 14 is for 2014) that runs during January and often again in August. Despite some criticism of the event, which is stressful for the wait staff and might be expensive for a restaurant, it does get people in the door. Whether or not they return may depend on finding some other theme nights to draw them back in. Here then are some ideas for you, including some things to remember as you plan:

    1. The best themes are built around one-of-a-kind happenings - something customers can look forward to that won’t play havoc with the restaurant’s bottom line.

Some examples:

During the short white truffle season, restaurants nationwide often host a prix-fixe yearly white truffle menu in the fall and a black truffle menu in the winter. Because of the scarcity of the truffles, the cost, and the exclusiveness of the event, foodies flock to be part of it – at any price.

Likewise there’s a certain joyous frenzy that surrounds the release each November of the Beaujolais Nouveau. Last November Thomas Keller’s Bouchon in Beverly Hills featured a three-course prix-fixe menu pairing the wine with a garlic sausage in brioche and red wine-braised beef cheeks, sweets and cheese. The fruity red wine is known for its easy pairings with everything from cheese to seafood to beef, all found in the Performance Foodservice portfolio. No Beaujolais, no problem.

Wine tastings, especially of a particular varietal are always popular – and it doesn’t have to be some upscale pairings. Danny Meyer, well-known New York restaurateur and wine expert, teaches a seminar at the Aspen Food & Wine Classic every year, where he pairs wines with an odd assortment of products, from bacon to hot dogs to tacos. Easy, doable, and fun for any restaurant.


    2. Find a participatory theme.

In North Carolina, a restaurant invites its customers to come in and schuck oysters during oyster season. Likewise, a pizza emporium might let the kids have a lesson in rolling their own dough on a particular night, while they wait for their meal.


    3. Build an event around a holiday.

There’s a certain amount of excitement surrounding the Chinese New Year – a perfect time to offer a prix fixe menu with a certain percentage off for those who were born in this year’s Year of the Horse (1906, 1918, 1930, 1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014). And, if you get someone in the door who was born in 1906, dinner’s on us.

Or, how about a cherry theme on President’s Day, with a prix-fixe menu based around George’s favorite fruit?


    4. While trivia game nights have become the province of bars everywhere, they’re a good way to bring in clientele for Happy Hour. There are restaurants that sponsor a trivia night in their dining rooms, but that brings us to a final tip:

Don’t plan a theme night that may annoy the regular clientele. The bread-and-butter clients have certain expectations when they return to a restaurant time and again. A regular who stumbles in to a raucous trivia night at a usually quiet restaurant might hesitate to come back, much as he or she would think twice about entering if their favorite Chinese restaurant suddenly began serving Italian food.


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