Way Back Machine: Who Invented Restaurant Week and Why

Now that Restaurant Month Week has become firmly entrenched in Dallas–and dozens of other cities–it’s insightful to review how the annual CheapEatsFest came to be. While I long thought that Jim White invented it back in the early ’90s while he was the host of KRLD‘s Restaurant Show. Tim Zagat (yes, that Tim Zagat, the founder of Zagat Survey) says he invented it. In 1992.

Zagat writes in this post in Atlantic Magazine that he and restaurateur Joe Baum invented Restaurant Week as a “four-day event … created as a goodwill gesture to the 15,000 reporters coming to cover that year’s Democratic National Convention.”

“Frankly, we thought it would be a short-term money loser but have long-term PR benefit for New York and the restaurant industry. Now, almost 20 years later, restaurant weeks have become a tradition in city after city because they appeal to both customers and restaurants. In short: they are a win-win.”

Zagat goes on to write:

There’s little doubt that many restaurants are struggling in the aftermath of the recession. We know from surveying hundreds of thousands of customers that they are eating out less and generally being far more price-sensitive in choosing where and what to eat. They’re also cutting back on things like appetizers, desserts, and alcohol: those fancy bottles of wine sold at juicy markups are largely things of the past…
On the other hand, bargain prix fixe menus are always a lure for customers, especially now. They mean you can walk in and out of a restaurant with dignity, at a price that you know in advance is acceptable. Of course, once in the door, patrons very often go à la carte, add an extra dessert, or celebrate by buying wine with their meal. The amount actually spent is thus usually far more than the prix fixe price, especially since drinks, coffee, and tip are all extra.

So, if the affordable prix fixe menu is such a draw, Zagat asks then answers, why isn’t it offered all year?

The reason, at least on an individual basis, is that no restaurant wants to look like it’s discounting—i.e. having problems. The Restaurant Week program eliminates this issue, by putting all restaurants into the same boat and then smartly growing business through advertising and the help of sponsors such as American Express and Coca-Cola.

There you have it. But, honestly, I still like the idea that Jim White invented it in Dallas.

A couple of years ago, I asked Jim to retell the history of RW in Dallas for the Hatch. Never one to shy away from a good inquiry, Jim wrote this:

Marianne Howells with KRLD noticed an ad for a restaurant week promotion in the New York Times in late 1996.  It was tied to lunch, and the price was “$19.96” ($19.97 the next  year and so on), with a portion going to charity.  Marianne discussed this with me and we brainstormed the viability for Dallas.  I was hosting “The KRLD Restaurant Show with Jim White” on 1080 AM.  We decided that DINNER was a better fit for Dallas diners.  We discussed the beneficiary, and I suggested the North Texas Food Bank.  Marianne was agreeable.  Jan Pruitt was thrilled.  And, 13 years later, the “rest is history”, as they say.

Stephan Pyles was a BIG help in getting Restaurant Week going.  He recruited a couple dozen chef pals to join the first year.  We had to do some cajoling to convince the restaurants it was not a discount deal.  It got easier year after  year (less arm twisting).  Now, restaurants can’t wait to get involved, and over 90 (out of 130 involved) will extend the promotion to 2 weeks (several will take it for 3, and I’m convinced some may do it ALL year–only kidding).  It’s very good for business on a hot August night.  Otherwise empty restaurants, and bored servers, are busy (and making money).

Over 85,000 meals were served last year.  The goal is over 100,000 this year.  Early on, the Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth was added as a second beneficiary so that the folks in Tarrant County would have more allegiance to the project.  I hope this helps.  I wrote a piece for my “Dinner Club” blog this week with more colorful details, which might give you additional insight.  Thanks for your support of restaurant week.  BTW, it’s now a registered trademark:  KRLD Restaurant Week.    I think it’s a cultural phenomenon now.

Always the Patron Saint of Restaurants, White continued:

Please just remind people that if they make a reservation, PLEASE call the restaurant if they can’t make it.