Behind the scenes of Restaurant Week To-Go

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Behind the scenes of Restaurant Week To-Go
The perfect slice of pizza is all about balance.
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By Missy Schrott | mschrott@alextimes.com

Updated Aug. 31: Visit Alexandria is extending Restaurant Week an additional eight days, through Sept. 7. 

Twice a year during Alexandria Restaurant Week, city eateries curate special menus and offer deals in hopes of filling their restaurants with new and returning customers. In the midst of a global pandemic, the event will look a little different this summer.

Starting tomorrow, more than 60 local restaurants will participate in Alexandria Restaurant Week To-Go, a curbside-focused version of the biannual event. From Aug. 21 to 30, participating businesses will offer $49 dinner-for-two specials available for pick up.

Taqueria Picoso’s Restaurant Week menu includes tacos, chips and guacamole and a 16-oz margarita for two. (Photo/Taqueria Picoso)

Restaurant Week is organized by the city’s tourism board, Visit Alexandria, to attract residents and visitors to local restaurants. That goal is critical for the upcoming Restaurant Week, as many local establishments have been struggling to keep their doors open since the novel coronavirus struck the region in March.

When Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide stay-at-home order on March 30, restaurants were forced to either close or switch to pick up and delivery models. Two months later, when the region entered phase one of reopening, they were permitted to reopen for outdoor dining. Now in phase three of reopening, restaurants are allowed to be fully open for indoor and outdoor dining, so long as they adhere to physical distancing guidelines and enhanced cleaning and safety practices.

Despite being allowed to reopen, many restaurants are continuing to struggle, as patrons choose to stay home rather than risk contracting COVID-19 in public spaces.

“I had a friend refer to this as the Olympics for small business owners, because it’s like every possible challenge you could get in a business, without any blueprint, has been thrown our way,” Chelsea Anderson, director of marketing and communications for Homegrown Restaurant Group, said.

When planning for Restaurant Week this year, Visit Alexandria leaders had to balance the need to help struggling businesses with the safety concerns of potential patrons.

Oysters are an option on Whiskey and Oysters’ Restaurant Week menu. (Courtesy Photo)

“As summer Restaurant Week approached, we knew that this was not business as usual,” Tom Kaiden, chief operating officer of Visit Alexandria, said. “We wanted to think creatively about what was going to be a really good experience for customers, what would support the restaurant community and what was sensitive to the safety of the community as well.”

To help develop a plan for the event, Visit Alexandria formed a focus group of several restaurateurs representing a variety of cuisines and price points, Kaiden said. The “kitchen cabinet” provided input on how Restaurant Week should operate this summer.

“I was a big advocate against offering it as a dine-in special,” Anderson, a member of the focus group, said. “I just thought it was socially irresponsible of us to promote an event where we’re trying to get people to sit inside. It just didn’t seem like the right tone.”

The concept of Restaurant Week To-Go emerged out of those conversations. Some restaurants will also offer delivery, and some will have their to-go menus available for dine-in patrons, but the majority are focused on carryout, Kaiden said.

“Consumers right now seem primarily focused on outdoor dining or to-go,” Kaiden said. “Because there’s limited outdoor seating available in many places because of Alexandria’s density, to-go really opened this up to the entire community.”

Visit Alexandria also simplified the menu offerings. In the past, restaurants could choose if they wanted to offer a $35 dinner for one or $35 dinner for two. They could also offer $15 and $22 lunch and brunch specials. This Restaurant Week, menus are limited to $49 dinner-for-two specials, although many restaurants are offering the menus all day.

Pulled pork from Pork Barrel BBQ. The restaurant’s Restaurant Week menu includes a choice of pulled pork, pulled chicken or sliced turkey. (Courtesy Photo)

“We wanted to keep it very simple for everyone because we were presenting a new concept, and we wanted it to work for all different price points,” Kaiden said. “So $49 for two was both simple but really flexible. Some of the high-end restaurants will focus primarily on a couple of entrees, but you have many other restaurants offering multi-course options.”

Many of the participating restaurants’ $49 menus include appetizers, entrées and desserts. Several also include beer, wine or cocktails to go. Kaiden said he’s been impressed with the creativity and value of the menus.

Newly opened Taqueria Picoso’s menu includes chips and guacamole, a make-your-own taco platter and a 16 oz. margarita for two.

“At that price point we’re able to do that, and we figured, why not make it a full experience with drinks and food?” owner Thomas Voskuil said.

Michael’s Little Italy, formerly known as La Trattoria, is offering an appetizer, an 18-inch, New York-style pizza and two desserts. During past Restaurant Weeks, the Italian restaurant offered a three-course meal featuring a seasonal entrée or pasta, owner Michael Strutton said. This year, Strutton is using the to-go format to feature his pizzas.

“We’re kind of new to the pizza market,” Strutton said. “We were already doing pizza before COVID, [but] that’s a big part of what we’re doing now because it’s takeout food. I just want more people to try our pizza. We do have really good reviews on it.”

As restaurants continue to struggle, many owners hope Restaurant Week will provide a much needed boost in sales.

“Something like an influx, during Restaurant Week, of business could make a major difference in a lot of people’s lives,” Strutton said. “We are relying on customers to keep our doors open, keep our families fed and keep the staff working.”

Despite the region reopening, many restaurants are still far from their preCOVID-19 profit margins.

“Things may start opening up again, but things aren’t any different for us than they were in March when this all started,” Anderson said. “Everything is still very uncertain. … The hardest months for restaurants are usually the winter time, and so I think that’s our biggest concern right now, because we’re going to lose patio business.”

Many restaurateurs say that how local businesses do now, in the midst of the pandemic, will determine whether they can remain open in the future.

“If you don’t support us now, we won’t be there when this is all over,” Anderson said.

For more information or to view participating restaurants’ Restaurant Week menus, go to www.AlexandriaRestaurantWeek.com.

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