Who benefits from Restaurant Week? Restaurants? Diners? The community? It’s Restaurant Week in Champaign. This event now in its fourth year, is sponsored and organized by Champaign Center Partnership. The concept is fairly simple: by developing special menus and offering deals, restaurants in town hope to entice new patrons who will subsequently return to the establishment as part of their typical dining out routine.

The result of any given restaurant week is similar, in my experience, to local food festivals. The idea is to lure in new customers, but in reality, I’m confident that it rarely happens. People will sample or try something at a makeshift food festival stand, but if they are already uncomfortable with that restaurant’s price point, cuisine, or cultivated atmosphere, they’re probably not going out of their way to visit the brick and mortar spot. For example, let’s say I typically choose not to visit Restaurant A because I feel uncomfortable or it’s out of my price range. During Restaurant Week Restaurant A is offering a prix fixe dinner at a discount. I go because it’s cheaper than normal. I’m likely not going to return after restaurant week because the prices have returned to normal and I’ve already determined that it’s generally out of my price range.

I’m certain restaurants realize this, and perhaps that’s the reason we have some seriously lame options this week. So why not take this opportunity to do something interesting? Develop something special for the menu. Test out a new entrée. If we’re operating under the assumption that restaurants aren’t really going to gain a large group of new regular diners, then why not cater to the regulars?

I’ve taken a look at each participating restaurant’s deals. They’re disappointing, and borderline insulting to diners, because the savings are negligible and the selections are from the regular menu. How boring. Only two places are offering things not on the regular menu (Escobar’s and Pekara). I get a sense of condescension, laziness, and complacency among some of the restaurants, their owners, and chefs. I’ve had good meals in this town, yes, but I’ve also had plenty of mediocre ones. It’s time for these eateries to step up their game and serve some well-seasoned, properly cooked, thoughtfully composed, great food. Offer at least one new item for Restaurant Week. If not, then why participate?

Champaign City Partnership is covering the cost of marketing and promotion, so aside from the cost of thinking up a special and accounting for those ingredients, it’s nearly free for member restaurants to participate in the event. However, I think that CCP needs to establish some criteria for participation to ensure a worthwhile event and provide some standards. As far as eaters are concerned, CCP has created a few contests, so Restaurant Week diners have opportunities to win some stuff. Executive Director Erin Lippitz gave me the scoop. Check out our interview below.

But first, here’s the run down on this week’s specials:

Aroma: Free $2 pastry with purchase of drink. Pastries over $2 are 50% off with drink purchase. Free 16 ounce coffee, tea, or lemonade with purchase of meal.  Savings: about $2.

Big Grove Tavern: Prix Fixe menu, $30, includes starter, entrée, dessert. Selections limited. Best value: Meat! Select the chicken liver pate, grilled Faroe Island salmon, dessert of your choice, save about $10. No savings on vegetarian options on prix fixe menu (items individually equal $30).

Café Kopi: Chai latte and cookie for $3.50. Does this really regularly cost more than that?

Farren’s: Burger (no doubles, no specials), fries, soft drink, $10. Savings: $0.25 (hamburger) - $1.75.

Escobar’s: Starter, entrée, dessert, $30. Two courses, $25. BONUS: Entrée options are not on normal menu. Savings: about $5-8, depending on selection.

Pekara Bakery: Breakfast, lunch, and dinner slider sampler (3 sliders, total), $10. Dessert sampler, $10. Sandwiches adapted to be slider sized, crab cake slider not on regular menu. Savings: Unclear, probably $3-$5.

Wedge Bar: $10 mini margarita flight; $10 guacamole sampler; $20 prix fixe menu with margarita, appetizer, and taco or torta dinner. Best deal: None, really. Prix fixe will actually COST you a dollar if you order the chips and salsa or potato wedges and torta, and any margarita except for the Perfect Patron. 

Fat Sandwich Company: 20% off selected sandwiches.

Firehaus: Specialty burger (can sub chicken breast), $8; with beer, $11. Savings: Probably about $5. Decent selection of burgers.

Q Smoke House: Save $.49 on pulled pork burrito, side, and soft drink. All other ‘specials’ are at regular menu price. Don’t waste your time.

Legends: Legends burger with cheese and fries, $5.94; Fish sandwich with fries and cole slaw, $7.99. Savings: $1.39; fish sandwich normally only available on Friday and Saturday.

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Smile Politely: Thanks, Erin, for taking the time to talk with us! Can you tell us a little about the history of restaurant week? What was the impetus?

Erin Lippitz: Restaurant Week is something that many cities all over the country do to bring attention to their dining establishments. For the first Restaurant Week we worked with a company to help us manage and promote the event. We found that there were too many restrictions that really limited the restaurant participation in Center City, so after that we managed the event ourselves and it opened up opportunities for more restaurants to become involved.

This is our 4th annual Center City Restaurant Week taking place January 26th through February 1st. The concept is very simple: we've asked Center City restaurants to present special menus to their guests during this week or offer something from their regular menu at a great price. I'm sure everyone is aware that Center City (Downtown, Midtown, Campustown) has some amazing locally-owned restaurants and cafes. This event is a way to highlight these restaurants and give diners an opportunity to try out restaurants they may never have been to before.

SP: How is this year’s event different from previous years?

Lippitz: This year we opened the event up a bit more and allowed the restaurants to decide their own price points. They no longer have to offer menus that hit a $10, $20 or $30 price tag. This gives our cafes a chance to come on board and offer small combos such as a latte paired up with a pastry for $3 for example.

We've also expanded our social media presence for this event and made it a bit more interactive this year. Tweet Before You Eat is our Twitter promotion. We're encouraging diners to post photos of their meals on our Twitter accounts (@DTChampaign, @go_Midtown, and @Campustown) using the hashtag #EatCenterCity. Our Facebook promotion, Face Your Food, asks diners to post a photo of their meal along with a short review also using the same hashtag. Every person who participates will be entered to win gift cards to our area restaurants.

SP: How do you go about selecting—curating, if you will—participating restaurants? 

Lippitz:  This event isn't curated. We encourage all restaurants/cafes in Center City to participate. Champaign Center Partnership handles the promotion and marketing of the event so it gives the restaurants incredible exposure during these long winter months when they may need it the most.

SP: I’ve noticed that the list of this year’s participating restaurants is a little short, which strikes me as odd because so many restaurants are already members of the Champaign Center Partnership and CCP is handling the promotion and marketing of the event. Have you observed or experienced hesitancy to participate, or complacency in that restaurants just go about their normal business and aren't concerned with Restaurant Week?

Lippitz: This year's list is a bit short unfortunately. Restaurant Week is open to any and all Center City restaurants that wish to participate but it is free for our members to take part in. Our members pay a yearly fee to be part of our organization and that fee covers promotion for them for events such as this one. This year we did ask non-members to pitch in a bit financially to help offset some of the marketing expense Champaign Center Partnership is incurring. I mean, that's the whole point of being a member; your membership goes directly to help promote your business throughout the year and during our events. We found that many non-members were unable to spend any amount of money on the promotion to be a part of this event. This is a rough time of year for many businesses and extra expenses are closely watched.

Some of our member restaurants also chose not to participate for a variety of reasons. Either they felt they didn't need the extra exposure, didn't want to create a new menu, forgot to return my phone calls and e-mails about the event or just felt that it just wasn't a good fit for them. But we are very thrilled with the restaurants that are involved.

SP: I think it’s fantastic to have an open policy about the price point for each restaurant—it seems like it would allow for places like Kopi, Cream & Flutter,  Aroma, and Pekara to offer a smaller items and à la carte pastries. However, it seems like many of the ‘special menus’ at some of the more traditional sit-down restaurants are not all that special. For example, Big Grove's special is a $30 prix fixe dinner for one, but it's almost exactly the same as their Monday Date Night dinner for two for $50; I might as well go on Monday and spend $50 instead of paying $60 for two prix fixe dinners. (*Editor’s note: Big Grove Tavern did not offer their Monday Date Night dinner special this week.) What's up with that?

Lippitz: It is entirely up to each restaurant to set their own menu and their own price points. I believe Big Grove had a very similar prix fixe menu last year and found success with it so they're doing it again. It's up to each diner to decide when they visit the restaurants and what they order.

SP: What are Champaign Center Partnership’s goals for this year’s Restaurant Week?

Lippitz: Our main goal for Restaurant Week (and any event or program we do) is to bring more awareness to our Center City businesses. We want diners who may not have tried some of these restaurants to get out during the week of January 26th and try something new. And even though our retailers are not directly involved with Restaurant Week, they will also benefit as people come to Center City and explore.

SP: Do you have an estimate of how many people will frequent the restaurants over the course of the week?

Lippitz: We don't have any real way of gauging exactly how many people will frequent our Center City restaurants because of the event. We won't have anyone stationed at the restaurants counting people or asking if they are there because of the event that week. While I would love to be able to get an accurate count, it's just not feasible. But our restaurants do see an increase in traffic over this week. I just had an e-mail today from a Downtown restaurant where the owner told me that they always have a lot of success being a part of this promotion. So I know from comments like that from restaurant owners and also community diners who say that a certain restaurant was packed on a Tuesday night, that this promotion does positively affect the traffic in Center City.

I will also be sending out a survey at the end asking the restaurant owners and managers to give me feedback on the promotion and asking what kind of traffic they noticed.

SP: Do you have any exciting ideas for future Restaurant Weeks?

Lippitz: This was my first experience organizing Restaurant Week as I'm still very new to this job. I'd like to get started with the planning a lot sooner next year and incorporate chef video interviews into the promotion so that we can highlight their menu, how the dish is made and give our audience a bit more background on the establishment. I'd love to be able to partner with a restaurant, or two, and offer a small cooking class throughout the week where participants learn how to make a featured dish. I'd love to make the whole week a bit more interactive.

SP: Putting aside restaurant week for a moment, what are your favorite meals and drinks in Champaign?

Lippitz: Downtown has a few really great sushi places and I have to admit that I could eat sushi every day. I love the cafes and the fact that the managers and owners know me and my preferred drinks because I'm there almost every day. Center City has such an amazing collection of locally-owned restaurants so it's hard pick even a few favorite meals. I frequent all of these restaurants for different reasons: I really like the soup and salad combo at this particular one, or that restaurant has gluten-free bread if I'm in the mood for a sandwich, or this restaurant uses local produce, that one has great tacos. There are so many different reasons why each of our Center City restaurants is unique and should be discovered. So I'll just say I love them all.

SP: Is there anything else you’d like to share with SP readers?

Lippitz: I would encourage your readers to try something new during Restaurant Week and not to just stick with their favorite restaurants or meals. There are some great menus this year. We just added Escobar's on Saturday and they're serving up a prix fixe menu with a hot Caribbean flavor that looks absolutely delicious. I also want to remind your readers to visit our Center City restaurants throughout the year to try new things. We're definitely promoting our restaurants heavily this week but we hope that it reminds our residents of what is here and how unique it is. Our restaurants are locally-owned and many are family run. It's such a great way to support your community.

Photos courtesy of Champaign Center Partnership and Facebook. Headshot taken by Joanna Strauss.