just one rib

Denver Restaurant Week - matt selby

Thursday, February 23, 2012

As winter lingers with it’s bitter cold and sporadic 50 degree days, and folks begin to dream of spring, baseball, shorts and flip flops, all slightly just around the corner, Denver restaurateurs are gearing up for the huge spike in late winter/ early spring sales called Restaurant Week. Or as it’s known by it’s unofficial name, Restaurant Half Month. Most Chefs have created and solidified their menus, floor managers have completed the dizzying task of scheduling staff, and confirmed the two weeks of reservations. Veteran cooks busy themselves with getting the newer cooks prepared. Servers take deep breaths and try to chill a bit before the onslaught.  For me personally, the first day of Restaurant Weeks, I kiss my wife and kids, and lovingly tell them, “See you in a couple weeks”. The first night is chaotic, scary, and full of nervous energy. Did we order enough food? Have we spaced our reservations properly? Do we have enough staff? Are we truly ready for Sunday through Thursday to be just as busy, if not busier, than Friday and Saturday? Are our RW menus up to par with the regular menu, yet streamlined to maintain current cook times? And oh lord, there is nothing worse than the terror of waking from a restaurant nightmare at 4 in the morning, just before the crush, questioning whether or not we stocked up on plates and glassware.  The answer to all of these questions? Truth be told? You can do all the planning, strategizing, positioning, and research you want, only to have the answers revealed, good, bad, or otherwise as the weeks unfold. Only thing you have control over is your emotions, actions and thoughts. 

Much has been said and made of RW. The media has its opinions and angles, Chefs and restaurateurs are divided down the middle…they love it or hate it. The organizers, Visit Denver, obviously have their own agenda, and while jumping Restaurant Week from 1 week to 2 has rubbed some the wrong way, I firmly believe that they have the restaurants’ best interest in mind, along with the interests of this great state. To bring it all full circle, Denver diners have their views, which, in this social media age can either make or break a restaurant through Twitter, Facebook, and all the other electronic review methods.  Speaking of social media, it’s fun to check in on other Chefs in town to see how they are holding up through their posts. All this being said, let me tell you what I think of RW(s). I absolutely love it.

Visit Denver launched the first Denver Restaurant Week in 2004. The goal was to elevate the reputation of Denver dining beyond the perceived “meat and potatoes” rank.  The Visit Denver brass were astute enough to see the benefits reaped by other cities that hosted a Restaurant Week, cities like New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle. They were also keen enough to know that any city’s best tourists, tour guides, and metropolitan visitors all reside in the suburbs, outskirts, and downtown hub of any particular city.  How do you promote the rich dining culture of Denver? Hit the locals. How do you create incentive for them to yell from a mountaintop how good our restaurants are?  Three courses for 2 guests at the Mile High price of $52.80, that’s how.  Since 2004, DRW has grown in guests, participating restaurants, and media attention. As of 2010, Travel and Leisure readers named DRW 13th best in the nation, up from 23rd in 2004. One could even say that Visit Denver was ahead of it’s time in that as the economy slowed, and recession set in, DRW grew because of tighter household budgets, staycations, and cash strapped diners begging, searching, and craving a great deal on fine dining.

While Vesta has been a DRW participant since day one, I must admit that our first time in 2004 was a disaster. And having spoken with other restaurateurs, and even the Visit Denver organizers, sounds like it was disastrous for everyone. None of us had any clue as to what we were getting ourselves into, let alone a clue as how to handle ordering, reservations, staff and guests. There was no real playbook, no local guru to help us along.  We did the best we could, learned our lessons, and got better year-by-year.  While we were able to take those lessons to Steuben’s for our first participation in 2007, we quickly realized that the Steuben’s menu of budget minded regional American classics was well below the check average of $52.80…unless we offered the Maine Lobster roll with fries, along with a cup of New England Style Clam Chowder, a beer and dessert (this year it is our house made pudding, it has been other items in the past). Regardless, we saw the value of playing ball with Visit Denver, and in the spirit of giving back to the dining community in any way we can, we added Steuben’s to the growing list of participating Denver restaurants. By 2012, I’m confident in saying that Vesta and Steuben’s take immense pride in our participation, execution and guest focus during Restaurant Week. This year I sat on a DRW advisory board facilitated by Eat Denver and Visit Denver, and I was asked by a new participant what the secret to our Restaurant Week success was. I answered his question with this question…”why would you change your everyday hospitality philosophy for Restaurant Week, and why change your high level of standards for any two weeks?” You don’t. Sure, you look for ways to streamline, leverage costs, and keep the family glued together, but ultimately, your goal is to provide the same level of hospitality you do through the year, and make damn sure that you treat every guest, new and regular,  so well that they can’t wait to come back for more, regardless of the price.  You see, I look at DRW as a challenge. A challenge in the spirit of which it was created, to elevate the reputation of Denver dining and hospitality.

As Denver Restaurant Week draws near, I have some advice, praise and compliments to mention. First the advice to my brothers and sisters in the industry: stay strong, stay positive and kick some ass. Take care of yourself, take care of your staff…buy em’ a round, bring in some healthy snacks for the night, bring in a masseuse, and reward them for staying energetic and positive. Most important of all, take care of your guests. Give them a reason to come back again and again.  Bring them into your family.  Now a plea to Denver diners.  Understand that we are overwhelmed. Some of us are new to this, and some of us pros make mistakes. Know that it kills us, breaks our hearts, when we do make mistakes. Not because of the bottom line, but because we truly measure success by how many happy guests walk out of our doors.  Tip well and celebrate with us just how far Denver dining has come.  Above all else, when mistakes are made, speak up…give us the opportunity, right then and there, to make things right and exceed your expectations. Don’t take those missteps to the social media graveyard where mistakes go to die, never to be corrected. Save social media posts for praise, insight, and positive word of mouth.  And finally the praise…my compliments to the big hearted Denver restaurants, the Denver diners who make it all worth while, and above all else, Visit Denver for cooking up a plan that has far exceeded anyone’s expectations both locally and nationally.

Restaurant week will be from February 25 - March 9.

Check out the Steuben's Menu below.