HOW HIGH? The taller the heel, the cheaper the drinks at Chicago's JBar.
PRICEY MARGARITA: The $69 version at N9NE Steakhouse is perfect for bragging rights.
BY DEGREES: R. J. Grunt's pegs soup prices to the mercury during the winter.
BELT ONE OUT: Dressed a tad less formally, servers at Max's Opera Cafes put on a show.
TA-DA: Savino Recine performs front-and back-of-the-house magic.
SMELL THE COFFEE: Guests ease into their day at restaurants' PJ brunches.
YOU ARE THERE: Spectators can build up appetites, too.
OUTSIDE THE BOX: Alinea and others challenge the senses.
OUCH: Chili lovers flock to East Coast Grill's Hell Nights.
"You gotta get a gimmick/If you wanna get ahead," savvy advice dispensed by a stripper in the musical, "Gypsy," carries meanings far beyond a burlesque stage. For most restaurants, up against competitors every day, it could be a mantra. Gimmicks and fun promotions can help turn a sleepy Monday night into a winner, or bring publicity to an obscure location. They can convert occasional customers into regulars and give potential guests a reason to try out a new place. They can also rejuvenate a staff bogged down by the same old, same old.
Where to start? We've pulled together a few ideas that caught our eye. We hope they'll inspire you to invent your own great gimmick.
Pricing promotions, straightforward as they may seem, can be tricky. Sometimes they're designed to induce new business; other times they're strictly stunts. R.J. Grunt's, the original Lettuce Entertain You Enterprises concept, seems to be serving both masters with its wintertime Souper Good Deal, in which all soups of the day are priced according to the temperature outside at 11:30 that morning. So if the Windy City thermometer reads 2 degrees, soup is 2 cents. Soup must be ordered with a meal.
Chispa Restaurant & Bar in Coral Gables, FL, located next to a luxury car dealer and across from an upscale mixed-use office/retail complex, invented the Quickie Meal specifically to pull in lunch business from nearby employees. The bar-only special includes value-priced salads and sandwich plates and fast service at prices below other restaurants in the tony neighborhood. In the first four months after the menu debuted, Chispa's bar lunch business tripled.
Sharp operators find ways to use their existing client base to fill seats during less busy times. One way to do this is by promoting "toss-up Tuesdays" (or Mondays or Wednesdays—whatever is the slowest day). It may seem risky, but Quantified Marketing Group's Aaron Allen suggests servers offer to flip a coin for the food tab, which will give guests a 50-50 chance of having their food bill paid by the restaurant. "This attracts your guests' attention much more than a 'buy one, get one free' promotion," Allen says. The payoff: Just like visitors to Las Vegas all believe they will wind up winners, guests usually run up higher checks if they think there is a chance they will win the toss.
Happily, discounting is not the only way to attract attention, as evidenced by the $69 margarita at N9NE Steakhouse in Las Vegas. Anyone who orders one buys bragging rights for having sampled a concoction of rare components: Herradura Seleccion Suprema Tequila, which typically-sells for $60 a shot; Grand Marnier 150; and Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal.
Folks looking for a value on comfort food on Sunday nights in West Hollywood congregate at Dominick's, a classic Italian eatery, where a $15 three-course Sunday Supper rules. Guests can wash it down with $2 Moretti beers and $10 bottles of Dago Red, a 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon grown and bottled for the restaurant in Monterey County.
The JBar in The James, a hip Chicago hotel, takes pity on footwear fashion slaves by deducting $1 from the price of a cocktail for every inch of the heels they're wearing. The Stiletto promo runs on Wednesday nights.
Good ways to build buzz and bond with guests are offering cooking classes, featuring visiting chefs and scheduling other events designed to raise a restaurant's stature in the food community.
This past summer, Chicago's Osteria Via Stato hosted a farmer's market on its patio every Saturday, with cooking demonstrations, wine tasting's and recipe handouts.
Norman Van Aken's Norman's on Sunset launched Cooking and Cocktails classes on Saturday nights. One night a month, 14 students join chef de cuisine Craig Petrella to prepare three courses featuring seasonal and signature dishes from the Hollywood restaurant's repertoire. Petrella discusses the components of a harmonized menu, pairing dishes with cocktails, wines, beers and other beverages. Tuition is $45.
Andina, one of the country's premier Peruvian restaurants, burnished its image by inviting Jorge Luis Ossio Guiulfo to run the kitchen for a few months last year. Not a household name here, Guiulfo is regarded as one of Lima, Peru's, top chefs. Guiulfo brought not only his culinary celebrity; he also reinvigorated the Portland, OR, restaurant's menu by introducing some of his own dishes and techniques.
Dining out has evolved into a form of entertainment in and of itself, but some operations go that one better by providing actual entertainment to keep guests happy. The key seems to be figuring out exactly what appeals to the audience.
Dexter's, a trio of wine bars and cafes in the Orlando area, tried chess and backgammon evenings, Corvette clubs, longer happy hours and singles clubs without much success. But when one of the locations started running a series of short, art-house style independent films on Monday nights, a buzz started and business soared 25 percent. The films are managed by Cafeshorts, which provides the service for about a dozen restaurants in the area. The series of shorts is broken up by 12-minute table service periods. Foreign Cinema in San Francisco screens subtitled films indoors and on its large outdoor patio, which has been repeatedly named one of the hippest al fresco dining spaces in the city.
Max's, which runs 13 locations in the San Francisco Bay area, has designated three of them Opera Cafes. There, the wait staff breaks into bits from operas, a feat that has won them a loyal following.
Savino Recine, owner and chef of the Washington, DCarea Primi Piatti and Finemondo, shows off his chops as a mentalist and master illusionist tableside on Saturday nights at the former restaurant. At Finemondo, rotating magicians do the same. To mark this past Halloween, both locations featured candlelit dining rooms and magical performances in a dark, eerie atmosphere with a $39 three-course tasting menu.
You might think your guests want to get away from television, but you might be wrong. Casual restaurants that cater to families and sports fans are finding television—not just in the background, but at the table—a natural amenity to keep their audiences happy. The clubhouse rooms in the 120-plus units of Columbus-based Damon's Grill, engineered to appeal to a broad cross-section of potential customers, air sports, cartoons and CNN on big screens. Tabletop speakers allow customers to choose what to hear. And guests can challenge other parties with digital interactive trivia games.
And while you might not have the budget (or space) to duplicate it, the famous wine tower at Charlie Palmer's Aureole in the Mandalay Bay Resort makes for an impressive and riveting attraction, complete with acrobatic female "stewards" retrieving requested vintages. Even in an over-the-top destination like Las Vegas, the display makes a statement—something many more modest restaurants can do in their own way.
Just for Fun
A ton of gimmicks can only be classified as "just for fun" ideas.
Since college students started wearing pajamas to class, all bets are off when it comes to dress codes. Nightclubs feature "wear your undies" nights, in which boxers and teddies prevail, and at least one operator has found success inviting guests and staff to show up for weekend brunch in their jammies. Andy Husbands, who owns Boston eateries Tremont 647 and Sister Sorel, has done the PJ promo for four years as a way to make those in the neighborhood feel comfortable. In truth, says director of operations Joy Richard, the whole staff works in their nightclothes, but only a small number of guests let it all hang out. The most important thing is that they get out of bed for the popular meal.
B.E.D. (Beverage, entertaining, dining), Nikki Beach Worldwide, Supperclub SF and others skip the sleep attire and go straight to the bed, offering beds as an alternative to the ho-hum chairs and tables option in their dining rooms. Guests can eat sitting up or lying down. The concept presents some logistical challenges when it comes to serving (without spilling) and turnover (people tend to linger when they're that comfortable). So far, these concepts only seem to be viable on the coasts.
Chef Robert Gadsby, known for an avant garde approach to American cuisine, defied the culinary police recently with several "outlaw dinners" at his two Noe restaurants in Houston and Los Angeles and at 676 Restaurant & Bar in Chicago. Gadsby presented $95 seven-course meals laced with taboo tastes like morels, absinthe, foie gras and hemp, along with dishes prepared sous vide style.
The European-style Caffe Primo debuted in Los Angeles recently with a series of dollar days designed to draw attention to the newcomer. Espresso shots, gelato and smoothies were offered for $1, and on the fourth day, anyone-who showed up with a banana in hand didn't need the dollar. The cafè provided a free Sunset Split (a variation on the banana split) to those customers bearing fruit.
The Anaheim White House in southern California has taken "haute cuisine" to a new level. Chef Bruno Serato has combined his culinary talents and his love of fashion into a selection of novel menu items inspired by fashion. They include Gaultier Maine Lobster, Ferre Halibut and Prada Rack of New Zealand Lamb, the latter designed to resemble a purse. Serato started with a few items that paid homage to his favorite designers, but expanded it after getting enthusiastic feedback from guests about the presentations.
Tie-ins to popular events and products offer natural promotional opportunities for restaurants. Restaurant chains have long been associated with movies, video games and toys. At the independent level, local teams and charities often provide a magnet for special meals.
Nite Moon Cafè, located at the celebrity hangout Golden Bridge yoga studio in Los Angeles, sells food compatible with the yoga lifestyle. That means vegetarian fare such as mung bean and vegetable stew, organic coffees, yogi tea lattes and smoothies.
The annual Tour de France inspired several restaurants to plan menus around the legs of the cycling race. Brasserie Jo, with locations in Chicago and Boston, menued daily specials charting the racers' progress during the three-week event. And Sandrine's Bistro in Cambridge, MA, sold $10 cheese plates, with a glass of white wine, featuring products from Alsace, Provence and other regions in France traversed by the cyclists. The plates sold out every night.
Anniversaries and holidays inspire many promotions and packages. Aside from the obvious holidays, such as Christmas, Easter and Mother's Day, and the obvious anniversaries—such as your own restaurant's years in business—there are endless possibilities for the creative operator.
Dino, a rustic Italian place in Washington, DC, helped taxpayers drown their sorrows during tax season this year (and made it more palatable) by offering a third off of wines priced over $50 during the month before tax day for anyone spending at least $20 on dinner. Dino's also offered a BBB Happy Hour Friday during the season, offering tasting's of Barolo, Brunello or Barbaresco wines (which typically retail for more than $75 a bottle) paired with an antipasti plate.
In honor of the centennial of the famous San Francisco earthquake, the city's One Market created a week-long earthquake-inspired menu and cocktails priced at $19.06 for lunch and $29.06 for dinner. Highlights included "Smokey" White Bean Soup (inspired by the fire that followed the quake), Rocky Milk "Shake" and a "Trembling" Martini. Guests all received emergency preparedness tip cards from the American Red Cross.
Suzanne Tracht, chef at Jar in Los Angeles, planned a Passover dinner and service for the first night of the holiday this year. Instead of the traditional Seder menu, she presented a four-course meal merging her family's traditional dishes with the flavors and style of Jar's modern chop house menu: Auntie's Chopped Liver, Lemongrass Consomme with Matzoh Balls and Shiitake Mushrooms and Pot Roast with Roasted Carrots and Caramelized Onions, followed by Flourless Chocolate Cake, Coconut Sorbet and Macaroons. Officiated by a rabbi, the $90 meal included wines.
For Mother's Day, Cleveland chef Marlin Kaplin of One Walnut sponsored a recipe contest. Each week in May, one of the recipes was showcased on the menu and website, along with a family photo, and winners received a gift certificate for a three-course meal for four during the week their recipe was featured.
Appealing to the senses—and we don't mean just smell or taste—is definitely one way to make an impression.
In Cambridge, MA, East Coast Grill presents Hell Night, a three-day gathering three times a year to celebrate "pure atomic cuisine," basically hot-hot-hot stuff. Fans make reservations weeks in advance for the meal, which consists of a menu with bomb icons to indicate the amount of spice one can expect. Chefs wear gas masks in the kitchen; milk is available, at $10 a glass, to cool the over-stimulated palate, as is something called "the antidote," which brings with it humiliation from the staff. A number of restaurants, most prominently the critically celebrated Alinea in Chicago, are getting a lot of press out of their science-tech-inspired menus. The food doesn't look like anything conventional, and the presentation is decidedly artsy: at Homaro Cantu's Moto, also in Chicago, maki rolls are wrapped in edible soy paper that has been printed with an ink jet printer with vegetable images of sushi. The goal is to break the paradigm of the standard restaurant meal, to make diners think about the experience instead of sleep-walking through it.
Aromatherapy is used everywhere, why not restaurants? In France, experiments showed that releasing the odor of lavender causes customers to linger and spend more—an average of 15 minutes longer and $5 more.
Some people will try anything, even foods, to look their best; Afterglo, a Miami Beach restaurant, is counting on "beauty cuisine," defined and trademarked by owner Tim Hogle as foods containing high enzyme content, an abundance of beautifying elements (silicon, sulfur, iron, zinc and manganese), a high syntropy value and a full color spectrum. The signature appetizer, the Beauty Pill, is a homemade sockeye salmon sausage with fresh turmeric, huzhang, fennel, apple, walnuts, garlic, dill, parsley, green onion and curry powder, served with broccoli and mango coulis.
Another Miami Beach restaurant capitalizes on the beautiful people atmosphere of South Beach with a menu thought to be aphrodisiac. Tantra, named for the philosophy of stimulating all five senses, menus a plate of Pacific oysters, jumbo shrimp, calamari salad, grilled eel, lobster wontons, a stone crab claw and a spicy roll of sushi tuna and wakame seaweed with wasabi kiwi sorbet.
Finally, a recent trend is to serve meals in total darkness, designed to heighten the remaining senses. Usually they are staffed by partly sighted or blind waiters. We're not sure about this one, and neither are those who have experienced it first-hand.