photography by Chris Korbey

Rethinking Restaurant Week

The annual dining promotion raises money for charity. But whom does it really serve?

When KRLD Restaurant Week launched 13 years ago, it looked like a win-win-win: diners would get three-course meals at some of the city’s finest restaurants for $25. Restaurants would fill their tables during the typically slow month of August. And, best of all, the North Texas Food Bank would get a donation skimmed from the price of each meal.

For many, that’s exactly how the annual event has worked. Thousands of meals have been served, and more than $3 million has been raised for charity. This month, about 130 restaurants will participate in the 13th annual KRLD Restaurant Week (it runs from the 16th through the 22nd, though some restaurants choose to extend that period). But lately criticism has bubbled up from those who say the event isn’t all peaches and cream—or, in this case, perhaps Texas peaches and crème fraîche.

Let’s pick a restaurant. Say, Nobu. Betsy Lambert, a 36-year-old education consultant, ate there during last summer’s Restaurant Week. She had the blackened cod and remembers the sleek Japanese-inspired decor. “You just feel like you should be off in Malibu dining with the stars,” she says. “For the food and the atmosphere, it’s just a great chance to see the other side.”

Same restaurant, different diner. Rodrigo Salas, a 36-year-old marketing consultant, says that after his visit to Nobu, he’ll never do Restaurant Week again. The bad began with his reservation. “They said, ‘Oh, Restaurant Week,’” he says, mimicking a dismissive tone. Then, Salas says, he and his wife were seated at a lousy table hidden in a corner. When the Restaurant Week menu arrived, with its three courses for $35 (the current price), it, too, was a letdown: an uninspiring combination of sushi and salad. Salas wound up spending $150 to order from the pricier regular menu, still getting what he considered so-so service.

Without putting too fine a point on it, the problem with Restaurant Week is that it puts bargain eaters in high-end restaurants. One former restaurateur calls Restaurant Week diners “the 10-percenters.” Rather than run up a tab with a $100 bottle of wine, then leave a 20 percent tip, the 10-percenters will order just a glass and leave half the tip, says John Tesar, a former executive chef at the Rosewood Mansion on Turtle Creek and now culinary director for DRG Concepts. “And they definitely back the tax out,” he adds. “You always meet some resistance from the servers. They’re doing the numbers of tables, but they’re making half for that amount of work.”

Then there is the issue of the meal itself. A place like Nobu has a tough time turning a profit on a $28 three-course meal ($7 now goes to charity). The price point presents a dilemma: serve the same food the restaurant is known for or substitute cheaper ingredients and smaller portions and risk tarnishing the brand. Even Stephan Pyles, who helped launch Restaurant Week, says he can’t afford to serve his namesake restaurant’s specialty, a bone-in 21-ounce cowboy rib-eye with red chile onion rings, to Restaurant Week patrons. That one dish sells for $49 on the regular menu, and Pyles says he spends $25 on food cost. Instead, last year, he served beef cheeks. 

Tesar says he had to get creative when he worked at the Mansion. One year he soaked pig tails in brine for a month, then served them with a vinaigrette dolled up with truffles and truffle oil. He says, “It cost me, what, $2 to make.”

Creativity is one option; speed is another. One former restaurateur says, “When you do Restaurant Week, you don’t cook to order. Everything’s on a steam table, and you’re just putting the slop on the plate and shoveling it out.” A waiter at Abacus says the restaurant squeezes in more tables during Restaurant Week, and diners are put on the clock.

There is, of course, another route to take: just don’t do it. Ed Dorman, director of food and beverage at the Hilton Anatole, home to Nana, says his restaurant has participated since year one but can no longer justify doing so. The restaurant barely broke even on Restaurant Week meals—without taking the $7 donation into account, he says. And Dorman says he didn’t see Restaurant Week diners returning to try the normal menu. And his regulars? “A lot of regulars don’t come in during Restaurant Week anymore,” he says. “You’re not getting your normal restaurant experience, perhaps.”

All the consternation over the dining experience is worth it, though, because the bottom line is that money gets raised for two worthy charities. Right? Well, there’s a rub there, too.

No one criticizes the charitable beneficiaries. Among other services, the North Texas Food Bank provides food through a network of 1,146 feeding programs in 13 North Texas counties. Last year, it collected about $426,000 from Restaurant Week. The Lena Pope Home in Fort Worth collects money from restaurants in Tarrant County. It offers educational programs for at-risk children and support for their families. About $93,000 went to that charity in 2009.

But there’s another beneficiary, and this one is no charity.

Thirteen years ago, Marianne Howells, then a saleswoman for KRLD, says she was reading the New York Times over coffee one morning when she spotted an ad for the restaurant week held each year in that city, where the event began in 1992. “I got chills when I saw it,” Howells says. She contacted the CEO at the Food Bank, who knew Stephan Pyles, who wrote letters to his restaurateur friends.

Today Howells oversees the event, whose official name is KRLD Restaurant Week. The station gets more than the goodwill that comes from having its name attached to the event. In addition to the $7 per diner donation to charity, each participating restaurant pays an $895 marketing fee to KRLD. And sponsors chip in thousands more. Last year, about $200,000 was raised from those two sources, Howells says (though Kurt Johnson, the station’s vice president of programming, would not confirm the numbers). About three-quarters of that paid for spots on KRLD and its local CBS affiliates, as well as Howells’ salary. The remainder went for things like direct mailings and posters to advertise the event.

“To me, it just looks like one of the sponsors is profiting from this,” says one restaurant owner. Says a less circumspect former restaurateur, “They squeeze the s— out of the restaurants. This whole thing is really a brilliant idea on KRLD’s part to make a bunch of money.”

Howells agrees that the station makes money from the event. “We’re not a charity,” she says. Getting the word out takes a lot of marketing in a short amount of time, and “no radio station could give that much to any charity,” she says. KRLD does provide the spots at a discounted rate, but when pressed for the size of the discount, Howells says, “We don’t want to get into semantics on the rates for KRLD Restaurant Week.” (Johnson, however, says the station doesn’t discount the spots.)

In fairness, Howells’ numbers suggest that only 28 percent of the total $700,000 raised for Restaurant Week last year went for marketing. That number is not out of line, says Bennett Weiner, chief operating officer of the BBB Wise Giving Alliance, the charity arm of the Better Business Bureau. His group likes to see no more than 35 percent of the money raised be spent on fundraising expenses. But if KRLD and its CBS affiliates are “buying” remnant spots, airtime that would have gone unsold anyway, the marketing cost of Restaurant Week is padded.

One final note: Restaurant Week donations are made on the honor system. Many restaurants choose to back out that $895 marketing fee from what they collect.

Check, please.

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