Restaurants Love Promotion Weeks, But Are These Events Too Numerous?

The timing of Connecticut Restaurant Week couldn't be better for Stephen Rosini, owner of the Black Rose Tavern in Newington.

His 200-seat venue in the middle of town had a "soft opening" for a few weeks, then a grand opening two weeks ago. Now it's part of the statewide restaurant promotion that runs this week through Sunday, with meals at $20.12.

For Rosini and Black Rose, the kinks are out, word is spreading and he's ready for the sort of crowds that should amass in a marketing effort involving more than 100 restaurants.

We'll come back to Black Rose's peanut-butter-and-jelly wings in a bit. Connecticut Restaurant Week, for Rosini, means a jump-start. "We're looking at it as a venue to say 'Hey, we're here, come out and try us,'" said Rosini, who has been in the restaurant business before, in New York, and was until recently working as a corporate tax accountant.

This week's effort, apparently the state's biggest and certainly the broadest, is organized by the Connecticut Restaurant Association, which launched it in 2008 after the recession took hold.

Across the state, heavily in Hartford and surrounding towns, restaurants have come to rely on promotion weeks as a marketing tool, and to a lesser extent a moneymaker in an era when patrons don't automatically flock out to the latest and greatest places the way they did in the booms of the '80s and '90s.

But the number of these sale weeks, dozens of them across the state, is growing to the point where some must make hard choices — and some restaurateurs say it's too much, with the effect diluted.

In the capital city, for example, dining establishments also have Taste of Hartford twice a year, including two weeks this past summer and two weeks last winter, as well as Hartford Restaurant Week in June, all with similar discounts. Seventeen Hartford restaurants are signed on this week, compared with 38 during the city-only promotional weeks in July and August.

That's still enough for lunch and dinner at a different place every day through the week, just in Hartford.

Many use the promotion to push out a new menu or a new location. Some old stalwarts, including Costa del Sol in Hartford's South End, rely on the set-aside weeks to remind people they're still vibrant.

For everyone, it's a chance to bring in diners who wouldn't come if not for the discount.

"The nice part of it is really going after that new guest," said Ken McAvoy, a partner and head chef at the Hartford Restaurant Group, which owns Agave Grill downtown, T.D. Homer's in Southington and six Wood-n-Tap locations, with a seventh to open soon in Wallingford.

McAvoy's pitch: "Come in, try it, let us blow your socks off, and you'll be a Wood-n-Tapper for life."

Nice phrase, Wood-n-Tapper. I told McAvoy I had never heard it. "I just thought of it as I said it," he replied.

He just rolled out a new "homegrown" menu section, with regional offers of higher-end bison, chicken, turkey, pork, and Kobe beef. That's something to promote during the discount week, of course.

For most restaurants, the week does make money by packing in the crowds, even though several owners said their profit margins are squeezed.

"These menus are actually quite costly to us, in the sense that we're offering a $35 meal for $20.12," McAvoy said, emphasizing that he's not cutting corners or paring back portions: The potato pancake appetizer is the full $6.99 version, for example.

Restaurant Week offerings typically include an appetizer, main course and dessert. Drinks, tips and taxes are not included, and of course, some people in a party will order off the regular menu. Some high-end restaurants can't offer a full-course meal for $20.12, and some family places, including TGI Friday's, offer a shared appetizer, two entrees and a shared dessert.

"Perfect for a date night," said Nicole Griffin, executive director of the Connecticut Restaurant Association.

The 102 restaurants that had signed on as of late last week include some of the state's nameplate landmarks, such as Max Downtown and the rest of the Max Group locations, Carbone's in Hartford and Cavey's in Manchester. Such stars as West Street Grill in Litchfield, Metro Bis in Simsbury and Ibiza or Union League Cafe in New Haven are not included.

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