The story behind Restaurant Week, a pleasant marketing surprise

Sep 11, 2017

Most businesses think in one way: how can I get a bigger piece of the pie?

By doing so, they overlook an alternative question that might offer better answers: how can I grow the size of the pie?

That’s the genius behind Restaurant Week, which is a major biannual event here in Philadelphia.

Of course, Restaurant Week is a misnomer, since it lasts more than seven days.

The concept itself began 25 years ago in New York City, but the initial purpose was different.

“The original four-day event was created as a goodwill gesture to the 15,000 reporters coming to cover that year’s Democratic National Convention,” Tim Zagat, who co-developed the concept, wrote in The Atlantic. “Frankly, we thought it would be a short-term money loser but have long-term PR benefit for New York and the restaurant industry.”

To their surprise, it actually boosted business. It not only enticed visitors, but the fixed prices also encouraged locals to try places they normally wouldn’t.

Word spread. In 2003, during a brainstorming meeting hosted by Philly’s Center City District, a national restaurateur proposed doing it here.

“The goal was to drive business to the restaurants, to position Center City as the regional destination for fine dining, and to give the smaller restaurants a platform for visibility,” Michelle Shannon, Vice President of Marketing and Communications for CCD, told us.

Screenshot of homepage for Oyster House restaurant, one of the original Restaurant Week participants. CCD’s surveys show that 78% of participants promote the event on Facebook, 68% on their website and 63% on Instagram.

More than 40 restaurants participated that first year. It was successful enough to spur a second week in the winter and inspire a phenomenally popular summertime promotion: Center City Sips.

The numbers today speak for themselves: 120+ participating restaurants, 95% of whom say it’s a success, with most reporting it boosts business by at least 25%.

Long story short: Restaurant Week’s a great example of how businesses can boost their bottom lines by promoting a whole category of products or services, not just their own.

This article was written by Lee Procida. It first appeared in our weekly newsletter, Long Story Short.

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