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Fretting Charleston-area restaurateurs hope Restaurant Week deals will lure more customers

SNOB Eggplant

Gilled eggplant at SNOB by Russ Moore on Wednesday July 27, 2016. File/Grace Beahm/Staff

Restaurant Week South Carolina, which begins today, will no doubt drain depleted staffs and disappoint patrons who expect luxury at a cut-rate price: Those scenarios are fixtures of the semi-annual prix-fixe promotion.

But in a departure from previous editions of the event, this Restaurant Week could also have significant bearing on the local hospitality industry’s immediate future.

South Carolina restaurant owners in a recent survey rated “return of tourism” and “increased consumer confidence” as two of the top three remedies they require to weather the pandemic, according to researchers at the College of Charleston and Lander University in Greenwood. Their findings were published in the February 2021 issue of the International Journal of Hospitality Management.

The 53 restaurateurs polled, including 32 from the Charleston area, ranked those factors above rent relief, government subsidies, an extension of PPP benefits and the lifting of travel restrictions. (Enactment of the CARES Act was the other condition they rated highly.)

As the authors acknowledge, the study had several limitations: It was conducted over a five-week window that coincided with the reopening of on-premise dining across the state, so respondents were potentially distracted and still relatively bewildered by the intricacies of pandemic operations.

Still, the research team led by Michael G. Brizek felt comfortable concluding that their data, while incomplete, “should help other restaurant operators navigate through the maze of issues to survive and, perhaps, even prosper moving forward.”

They suggest the concerns raised by owners in written and verbal interviews point to lessons that “U.S. restaurants can learn from past restaurant operators’ successful crisis strategies.” Specifically, they cite the 2003 outbreak of SARS in Hong Kong.

Faced with a 90 percent decline in customer traffic, Hong Kong restaurant owners discovered “revenue optimization strategies should be implemented to increase patrons’ perceived value,” such as “discounts or other forms of promotion to entice customers to dine.”

Cheap prices alone didn’t put restaurants back in the black, researchers from The Chinese University of Hong Kong reported in a 2006 study of the crisis, also published by the International Journal of Hospitality Management. They issued “anti-SARS menus,” featuring items with herbs rumored to boost the immune system, donated portions of their profits to SARS-related causes and introduced dedicated chopsticks for each dish so diners wouldn’t dip their personal utensils into shared bowls.

Yet the restaurants that were most successful in luring back wary customers were those with “cost reduction and revenue enhancement strategies,” such as charging less for noodles.

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Restaurant Week menus don’t always amount to impressive bargains. For example, a meal of she crab soup, shrimp-and-grits and key lime pie costs $48 at Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, except during Restaurant Week, when it costs $45. During Restaurant Week, it costs $45 for a Caesar salad, cheeseburger and crème brulee at Anson that would otherwise be priced at $31.

Details aside, though, patrons believe they’re getting a good deal. Or, alternately, they appreciate there’s only so much value that cash-strapped restaurants can offer at this point in the pandemic and are willing to settle for a couple of bucks off.

In other words, Restaurant Week South Carolina couldn’t come at a more opportune time.

At least that’s how sponsors, including the South Carolina Restaurant and Lodging Association and Explore Charleston, see it. Some other localities that host Restaurant Weeks in January, a notoriously slow month for restaurants, have postponed their events:

Charleston (W.Va.) Restaurant Week this week announced its members would offer their reduced-price three-course menus “when we can provide a positive experience for our community in a safe environment.”

In the Chicago suburb of Geneva, Ill., the Chamber of Commerce is asking diners who would usually participate in the promotion to instead post pictures of their to-go meals on social media to qualify for a gift card drawing.

Takeout is a component of this installment of Restaurant Week South Carolina, which runs from Jan. 7-17, even though the event website shows just 11 restaurants offering the option.

For instance, a spokeswoman for Hall Management Group, which includes SNOB and High Cotton, confirms that “Restaurant Week is available to-go at all HMG properties, including Halls locations: Guests may place orders by calling each restaurant and picking up curbside.”

“We wanted to offer Charleston Restaurant Week deals on delicious food to those wishing to avoid dining in right now,” says Jonathan Kish of Queen Street Hospitality, another company making their menu available to takeout customers.

Nearly 50 Charleston-area restaurants are participating in Restaurant Week. For more information, including menus, go to restaurantweeksouthcarolina.com.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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