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With Discount Dining, Who Wins?

Why Restaurant Week works for the industry

Champagne tastes on a beer budget? If so, maybe you were one of the thousands of diners who flocked to Boston-area restaurants for $22 lunches and $33 dinners over the past couple of weeks. But if the imprecisely named Restaurant Week (it runs for two weeks, twice a year) is so good for business, why not continue it year-round?

“While often during Restaurant Week businesses find themselves busier than usual, they might not be bringing in the same level of revenue as usual,” says James Stamas, dean of the School of Hospitality Administration. “The restaurants that reap the greatest benefit from the Restaurant Week promotion are those that provide diners with the same high quality of service that they would for guests under normal circumstances.”

It certainly appears to be working for most. The event, organized by the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau for the seventh consecutive year, boasted a Boston-record 160 restaurants, and 16 of those have extended their Restaurant Week menus beyond the original 12-day promotion.

Some establishments can afford to serve the same caliber of dishes at reduced prices in order to expand their customer base. But others, while happy for the extra business, are forced to skimp on the good stuff. And chowhound.com users are on to them.

“Restaurants often try to get by as cheaply as possible, and you find a lot of salmon dishes, plus chicken and pork here and there,” writes one diner.

“It has been my experience that few chefs ‘go all out’ for the $33 Restaurant Week price tag,” writes another. “At best, most seem to try and give a good presentation using relatively lower priced ingredients. Lots of chicken.”

But it’s not just about food. Stamas says the entry mentioning presentation hits the nail on the head. “It is critical,” he says, “for restaurants to remain focused on hospitality and service to achieve the goal of attracting repeat customers.”

Peter Szende, an SHA assistant professor of hospitality administration, says customers are also attracted by the prestige aspect of the experience. “Besides exploring new restaurant brands, many consumers are looking for higher-order needs,” he says. “Participating establishments help them upgrade to a restaurant segment where they normally do not belong. This will enhance their self-esteem, and they can earn social recognition as well.”

In the best-case scenario, a diner’s menu options will be akin to those on the restaurant’s regular menu, but at a lower price. But if the worst-case scenario is drinking beer in a stylish champagne setting but at a reasonable price, no wonder it’s hard to get a reservation.

Edward A. Brown can be reached at ebrown@bu.edu.