Make Your Restaurant Week an Economic Catalyst
Cooking from Scratch – Success Stories and Lessons Learned from Explore Millburn-Short Hills' First Restaurant Week
By Steve Grillo
Executive Director, Explore Millburn-Short Hills
June 21, 2023
One of the great pleasures in life is eating and drinking with family and friends. A strong dining scene (combined with public art, walkable streets, and streetscape design) can draw shoppers to Downtown districts and promote overall economic development in communities. To leverage our exciting restaurant scene and draw foot traffic to our five-district Special Improvement District (SID), Explore Millburn-Short Hill (Explore) enlisted over 40 restaurants to host “Restaurant Week” at the end of March.
The event was a smashing success and brought hundreds of new customers to the streets of Millburn-Short Hills. Participants ranged from more formal establishments to casual dining eateries. While some restaurants offered traditional prix fixe menus, others offered free, exclusive appetizers or desserts, or other creative offers. Explore made a few key decisions that played a role in the success of the event, and we suggest that other communities who are planning a similar event consider these lessons:
Create a Critical Partnership with a Charity – Explore partnered with Opportunity Project, a local non-profit organization that supports individuals with brain injuries. Since March is Brain Injury Awareness Month, we offered Opportunity Project the ability to fundraise directly through restaurant sales and donations, and develop an employment program for their clients. As a result, Opportunity Project raised over $6,000 from donations, and six restaurants engaged with them on various volunteer and employment opportunities for their members. Jack’s Lobster Shack, for example, committed to creating a line of branded apparel and donated a portion of the proceeds. At least two others are working to hire staff from the organization on an ongoing basis. Having a partner who brought so much goodwill to the event elevated Restaurant Week’s meaning and created a true feeling of community benefit.
Event Committee of Leaders – Explore cultivated a small group of influential restaurant owners to serve as the event committee. While they played an important role in providing guidance and advice, the real value was their buy-in. When we approached restaurants about participating and they asked about who else was committed, mentioning some of the most popular spots in town made recruiting easy. Fear of missing out -FOMO- can be a powerful tool!
Timing Based on Local Theater Schedule – The Paper Mill Playhouse is one of the main economic drivers for Millburn. When planning for Restaurant Week, our committee suggested that it be scheduled between show runs when they experience a week or two of lower foot traffic. This meant a boost for business during a typically slower period and provided a better ability to handle larger crowds brought in by the event. We encourage other SIDs to think globally and consider strategic timing to match their participants’ needs and limitations.
Invested in Influencers and Significant Press – Explore had been keen to develop an “Instagramable” event, and this was the time. One of the major goals of Restaurant Week was to expand our social media followers by leveraging beautiful photos of food and drink and tagging numerous restaurants. We also contracted with local and regional food influencers and publications, including Edible New Jersey. Over the course of the event, we gained 300 new Instagram followers, which was invaluable to the growth of our social media reach.
Explore also learned some valuable lessons from the first-year experience to make the event more inclusive and effective in the future.
Create a Searchable Web Interface – Attendees want to search for restaurant specials and promos before deciding where to dine. While our website had comprehensive information, much of the content was incorporated into images for each restaurant rather than text. Make sure that your event web interface is easy to navigate and searchable by specific keywords.
Don’t Rely Solely on Digital Media – We received some criticism from older customers who did not know how to follow Explore’s promotions on social media or navigate our landing page. This was a valuable lesson in deviating from our standard methods to be more inclusive in how we distribute information to different audiences.
Make Sure that Restaurants Have Printed Promotions In-Store – Websites and QR codes only work if people know how to look for them and use them. Some participating restaurants did not have easily accessible information about their promotions, so customers did not take advantage of them. This was a missed opportunity, and Explore will work with restaurants to also prepare printed materials in the future.
Address Language Barriers for Certain Restaurants – The food scene is often the most ethnically diverse in a community’s business sector. Some promotions and opportunities were “lost in translation” with a few of our ethnic restaurants. Explore will work with local volunteer translators to ensure that restaurant owners and staff understand the goals of the event to participate fully.
Push for Creativity and Value – Not all promotions are created equal. While some restaurants went above and beyond, some offers had low perceived value or were so specific that appeal was limited. Going forward, we will work with restaurant owners to develop unique and creative promotions that both make a statement for them and enhance the overall event experience. We may create some baseline parameters and offer categories, and thus not as open-ended in terms of offers.
Restaurant Week in Millburn-Short Hills was a great experience, and we are looking forward to 2024’s event to expand on our successes and implement the lessons we have learned. We hope that our fellow Downtown New Jersey members will do the same. Cheers from Explore Millburn-Short Hills.
Explore Millburn-Short Hills is the 501(c)3 non-profit organization established to support and promote the businesses throughout the five areas of the Special Improvement District that was established in 2020. The purpose of a Special Improvement District (SID) is to promote, grow, and support local businesses, property owners, residents, and visitors. The mission of the organization – also known as a District Management Corporation – is to encourage the economic, cultural, and social vitality of Millburn-Short Hills through increased marketing and visibility, improved and renewed infrastructure, and local business development and engagement.