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Restaurant Week is important for the city

by Michael J. Solender

January 6, 2014

It’s back: The twice annual, 10+ day, misnamed event, Charlotte Restaurant Week - also known as Queen’s Feast - begins Friday, Jan. 17 and runs through Sunday, Jan. 26. This time around, 117 area restaurants will participate, offering three (or more) courses for $30 less tax and tip.

In concept, restaurant week is meant to be a win/win for diners and restaurants alike. Diners take the opportunity to scope out the vibe and food at a new place, while restaurants get to fill empty seats, test and train their staff with heavier-than-normal traffic, and build clientele - at least, that's what they hope to do.

Last summer, about 130,000 patrons supped at 111 participating restaurants during restaurant week. This increase in patronage had an economic impact on the area of an estimated $6 million. Those employed in the service sector saw a welcome infusion of cash, and the growth and recurrence of this event can only be a positive for our community...right?

Hold on – "Mediocre food, rushed and poor service, and worst of all, rubbing elbows with the hoi-polloi, is ruining our city’s dining scene,” say some self-appointed local tastemakers. “Save your money and boycott this aberration of pristine dining we expect and deserve, lest you’re destined to eat with - (quelle horreur!!) - The Cracker Barrel People.”

Will some diners have bad experiences during Queens Feast, wait too long for their promised reservation, be served food that is sub-par and/or be met with surly service? Undoubtedly. But these negative experiences likely are no more or less than is the norm at the same establishments 350 other nights per year.

Certainly everyone is entitled to their opinion, and the haters are gonna hate, but please consider the following:

Criticism 1: “Too crowded, poor service.”

The French Laundry, Spago, Babbo, and countless other big-name, world-class restaurants are packed every single night – they never have empty tables, yet the diners rave and beat a path to their doors. Why? Because their staffs are trained in how to treat guests, their food is impeccable, and their vibes are welcoming.

Restaurants are first and foremost businesses, and if we want them to be there for us during the off hours, they better deliver when it is crowded as well. I’m not comparing Charlotte restaurants to those listed above, but any restaurant needs to be able to execute and deliver – particularly when over capacity – if it is to succeed. We should want this turn-out for our restaurants, as a rising tide lifts all boats. If they can’t cut it during Queens Feast then maybe they ought not to be around. Vote with your feet, and the savviest of operators will thrive – which is all the better for the rest of us.

Criticism 2: “Mediocre food.”

Typical food margins in restaurants hover between 18-23 percent. Liquor margins are much greater. In a best-case situation, Queens Feast participating restaurants see a gross profit of about $6.50 on your $30 meal; And in reality it is actually much less during restaurant week, given the special pricing offered during the event. Remember, these are businesses, and the owners, chefs and staff members work for the same reason you work – to make money. Their goal during restaurant week is to build clientele by offering patrons a sense of what their menus look and taste like, while hoping that your party will buy some drinks and some supplemental fully priced appetizers.

Don't get me wrong - none of this is an excuse for poor quality food. Again, the savvy will survive, and the smarter restaurateur will choose menu options for the fixed courses that represent their style and taste and can be executed with precision. For those that don’t/can't cut it, may I suggest you don’t come back.

Criticism 3: “Dining with The Cracker Barrel People.”

“The masses are assess” argument is tired and carries an elitism and snobbery that is wrong on many levels. We heard the critics the first, second, third, and fourth time they sounded off. If they haven’t been to Queens Feast in recent years, and/or haven't been to all 117 participating restaurants, their arguments aren’t valid.

Cracker Barrel is unpretentious, and is not trying to be something they are not. They are not trendy or fancy, nor do they attempt to appeal to the “fine dining” clientele. But they don't need to. Those who want a great breakfast with homemade biscuits, pancakes, or waffles anytime of the day will, without a doubt, get a substantial and tasty meal at Cracker Barrel for less than $10. If enjoying that experience every once in a while makes me a Troglodyte, then so be it.

(Full disclosure: I used to do project work for Cracker Barrel’s corporate office. They take their relationship with their customers very seriously and everything they do tries to live up to their mission of “pleasing people.”)

Often people find what they are looking for in life, which means the same critics from years past likely will find similar things to criticize as before. And that’s OK with me. I say, quit bitching already, don't show, and leave room for the rest of us. The restaurants participating in Queens Feast and the number of patrons continues to grow annually, which means someone is doing something right.

For those on both ends of the dining experience, calibrate your expectations and check out the feast, determined to enjoy yourself. I’ll bet you’ll do just that.

More information on Restaurant Week/ Queens Feast

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