Houston Restaurant Weeks came to a close on Monday, September 1. The total amount of money raised from the approximately 165 participating restaurants has not been announced yet, but we spoke with a few restaurant general managers/owners about their experience during HRW this year to get some feedback from the restaurant-side in terms of customer traffic, work load in the kitchen, profits for the restaurant and if they would consider participating next year.
Kata Robata (a frequent participant), Radical Eats (newcomer to HRW) and Eleven:Eleven (a second-year participant) provided us with some similar comments about the restaurant's experience, and some strikingly different opinions from the general managers/owners.
Kata Robata has participated in HRW for about five years. General manager Blake Lewis says that Kata Robata is already busy during August, so adding HRW traffic definitely can clog things up in the restaurant. Lewis says about 980 customers dined on the restaurant weeks menu at Kata this year.
"We did a few hundred less than we did the year before," Lewis says. "I just think that there were so many more restaurants doing it this year that that might have been the reason why we didn't see as many as we have in the previous years. We just get guests that wouldn't normally come to Kata because they are afraid of the menu or just think it's too expensive, or whatever have you. We get a lot of first-timers here during restaurant weeks which we are obviously happy about. But a lot of them don't always return just because they end up not appreciating what we do here."
Unlike the format for HRW, Kata Robata doesn't typically course its meals; food is served tapas-style and family-style instead. Kata Robata also uses two kitchens, rather than one like most restaurants, so when the tickets for HRW meals start rolling in, things get a little more hectic than usual. And four weeks of this was a strain on the kitchen staff.
"We have done it the last five or four years; it's getting more difficult as busy as we are," Lewis says. "It put a lot of strain on the kitchens. Obviously we are a little bit different set up than most restaurants with two different kitchens and it has just become very stressful on the staff trying to keep the pace in trying to course things out because we don't normally course things because of the style that we normally do during our regular business -- we are tapas and more family-style, and everybody shares. For restaurant weeks we try to course it out for guests -- it's very difficult for the team."
Because Kata Robata serves products such as toro and uni, food costs are a bit more expensive for them compared to other restaurants. According to Lewis, during HRW, Kata doesn't make much money off of the menus.
"We are spinning our wheels to be honest with you. We do it to be a part of the community and we do it to help out. We understand that for every $7 how many people that does feed, so with that being said, we are happy to participate to try to feed the people of Houston," Lewis says. "It is a positive thing for us. We look forward to the opportunity to bring new guests in and we are very confident in what we serve on a daily basis that we know if a new guest comes in we feel that it's usually a high percentage that they come back. We open our doors for restaurant week in that spirit hoping that we can attract new people and keep them coming back."
Radical Eats owner Staci Davis says she decided to join the lineup of restaurants because it benefits the Houston Food Bank and at the same time it's a creative and fun opportunity that gives her restaurant publicity. She says she will definitely participate next year as it was a great experience for her and her staff. She also commends Cleverley Stone, the founder and chair of Houston Restaurant Weeks, for all that she does with the fundraising event for the Houston Food Bank.
"Houston Restaurant Weeks was very good to us," Davis says. "The only fault that I would say with us was that we weren't ready for the onslaught of people. Next year I am definitely going to gear up, I am going to get ready. It was my first year, so we were kind of like whoa! We actually learned a lot about ourselves as a restaurant and what we can handle and how we can improve our service and our ticket times. For us it was definitely a learning experience and it wasn't like they tried to warn me -- they did."
One change Davis says she will make next year is to offer more items already on the regular menus, or dishes that have been served as specials in the past. Her lunch and dinner menus for HRW included all new items.
"I offered squash blossoms and the farmers told me squash blossoms would be available the whole month and then they got like a summer burn, and they burned, and then at the end of August they were like, 'We have squash blossoms now,' and I was like, 'It's over,'" she says. "We had some issues there too with nature. You can't really import squash blossoms from China."
Davis says she received a lot of mixed feedback, but her restaurant was packed throughout the four week-event. Davis says the customer traffic increased by about 20 percent. Next year, she promises that the restaurant will be much better at HRW.
"Trial by fire! The best kind of trial," Davis says.
During the 2013 Houston Restaurant Weeks, Eleven:Eleven was in a similar situation as Radical Eats, as it was the restaurant's first time participating. After being open for just 45 days, the Montrose restaurant decided to take part in Houston Restaurant Weeks. It is only serving dinner now, but last year, Eleven:Eleven served lunch and dinner.
General manager Joe Welborn says the team (front of house and kitchen staff) are much more solidified now and the craziness that comes with restaurant weeks was actually a lot easier. The restaurant sold approximately 520 HRW meals this year.
"I was projecting probably somewhere around 25 percent I would have thought was restaurant weeks [customers]," Welborn says, "but we were probably more around that 37-38 percent of restaurant weeks total out of all of our guests in the restaurant."
Unlike most restaurants, Eleven:Eleven offered three savory courses as opposed to an appetizer, entree and dessert. The dinner menu featured a first course with three options, a second course with two salads and two soups to choose from, and a third course with three entrees. The restaurant also offered several add-ons to the menu which increased the profits with each HRW meal sold. Contrary to what most restaurant's experience during HRW, Eleven:Eleven definitely maintained its average or earned more than that.
"I talk to a lot of other owner operators about PPA (per person average) going down and then hurting during restaurant weeks, but we really focused on the extra things that you could add on to restaurant weeks to really make it an amazing experience," Welborn explains. "Like our raw bar, and all of the oyster selections that we have, [and] the great pastries from chef. So on top of restaurant weeks we saw the guests ordering great bottles of wine, ordering beverage pairings; all total I think with my two separate beverage pairings, I sold probably at least 25-30 percent of the guests total in restaurant weeks. They are getting beverage pairings, they are getting oysters before their meal. The front of the house really focuses on it's a great value -- restaurant week is a fantastic value and you're at a new restaurant, but if you add on a couple of the extra things that we do like great oysters, a nice dessert, [then] your PPA and sales do nothing but go up."
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Welborn made it a goal this year to improve and not let Houston Restaurant Weeks get the best of his restaurant. He suggests first-year restaurants taking part in HRW make sure the front of house and the kitchen staff are both on the same page, and to not make an overly ambitious menu.
"I think definitely focusing your menu, for a new restaurant specifically after our year one and making it through that pain," Welborn says. "I think definitely spending some time in your kitchen and making sure not only is it a great value and great quality menu for your guests, but it has to be something that you execute and get out of the kitchen and understand you might have 30 tickets on your board and all of those have three courses on them."
All-in-all, Houston restaurants are happy and excited to participate in benefiting the Houston Food Bank. August is typically one of the slowest months for restaurants, so not only does the four-week event increase traffic to the establishments, it raises a huge amount of money for our city's food bank.
"It's Christmas in August," Welborn says. "Effectively she [Stone] has taken the slowest month of the year for all of us and we're raising millions of dollars for the food bank and turning our slowest month into one of our top three months of the year, so I don't know why anybody wouldn't participate."