Chicago Restaurant Week 2016 began on Friday, bringing the usual prix-fixe menus diners have gobbled up for eight years. Chicago's normal snow and sub-zero wind chills for this time of year illustrates a driver for the promotion; winter slows the restaurant business down with fewer Chicagoans venturing out. Restaurant Week specials help fill dining rooms at a traditionally slower time after the holidays. The event ends Feb. 4.
Perceived value dictates participation not only for the consumers who scour through menus looking for deals, but also for restaurant owners. The cost begins with membership in Choose Chicago, the city's tourism arm that organizes CRW, which runs $99 annually. There's another fee for participation after the membership fee at $399, which brings the total cost to about $500. Before February 2013 when Choose Chicago restructured and lowered fees, yearly membership cost $950.
That question of participation is the subject of debate, even with 354 restaurants in the 2016 list, said Darnell Reed, chef/owner of Lincoln Square's Luella's Southern Kitchen, which opened in February 2015. Luella's isn't on the CRW list this year, but Reed said that was in part due to miscommunication. Reed, a former chef at the Conrad Hotels downtown, said he and his colleagues have concerns: "I think sometimes you may worry, would we have captured those people anyway?" Reed said. "Would we have captured these people without participating?"
For some smaller restaurants that struggle, CRW represents a chance to kickstart business. Take Smoked On Rose, the Franklin Park barbecue spot. Their ownership showed interest in participating, even attending a Choose Chicago CRW panel event in the fall. They felt the suburban location handcuffed them. Unfortunately, the business closed on Dec. 31 and they never made it CRW 2016.
"I think sometimes you may worry, would we have captured those people anyway? Would we have captured these people without participating?"
Meanwhile, Jennifer Wisniewski, co-owner of Bread & Wine on Irving Park Road, said CRW pumps up business by 30 percent compared to normal times. They've participated for three years. She's an unapologetic supporter of the program, saying costs are "absolutely worth it" as restaurants make up any losses on upsells and booze.
"What Choose Chicago did, and I try not to use this word often, but it's genius," Wisniewski added. "They've implemented something that actually works. There are other programs like this that you'll sign up for and they don't measure up when it comes to revenue. It doesn't really work, but maybe it would work for GT Fish & Oyster or some other restaurants in River North, but they just don't benefit us."
Speaking of downtown restaurants, Gibsons Restaurant Group, is another CRW's supporter. Co-owner Steve Lombardo III believes that despite competition, the city's culinary scene benefits from each other's successes, and that CRW can be one of the engines that leads to those successes. Lombardo said he annually looks forward to the special menus that allow his chefs to flex their creativity: "Gibsons is a steakhouse, we're not going to be serving French dishes," he said. "Our menus are consistent with who we are and what our restaurants stand for."
Lombardo provides the bone-in filet medallions on Gibsons' temporary menu as an example of creativity. They ran out of the filets over the weekend, as supplies prevent the item from being a regular. Over at Luella's, Reed said he plans on participating in CRW next year, and he'll offer a coursed-out menu with some curveballs for regulars. He's thinking about unveiling a jambalaya next year.
CRW also allows restaurants to educate customers, said Tortoise Club owner Megan Addington, who hopes more guests will visit on weekdays: "They come for CRW and learn about our happy hour, clubhouse Wednesdays, and live jazz and they realize they don't have to wait for a special occasion to come to Tortoise."
Patience is key, said Glunz Tavern's Christopher Donovan who is participating in CRW for the first time. He won't pull any knee-jerk conclusions, saying he needs to see a few years of results before determining if CRW is right for his Tavern. But he's optimistic: "It's an easy way to get your name out there for people really into good food."