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Restaurant Week an opportunity to bring in new clientele

Chefs Christian Cada and Chad Gauss of City Cafe

Five of Baltimore’s top restaurateurs doled out hundreds of bite-size delicacies to a lunchtime crowd Wednesday as they competed to win the “Appetizer Challenge,” the kickoff event for Baltimore’s sixth annual Summer Restaurant Week.

The contest, held inside Light Street Pavilion at Harborplace, was intended to remind people of the upcoming promotion, where more than 80 restaurants will offer a $35.11 three-course meal from a special dinner menu, with some places also offering $20.11 lunches.

The appetizers —which included bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese from La Tasca and vegetable sushi from Roy’s Hawaiian Fusion — were free to the public, following the same logic that organizers said makes Restaurant Week, which begins Friday and continues through Aug. 14,  so successful.

Step one, lure the customers. Step two, wow them with quality food and great customer service. Step three, watch them return with hungry friends.

“Owners don’t make a ton of money on food sales, but they see it as an opportunity to bring in new clientele to the restaurant,” said Sara Hisamoto, the director of public relations for Visit Baltimore, the city’s marketing organization and a sponsor of Restaurant Week. “… Owners say that August can be a really slow month, but sometimes Restaurant Week can save the summer for them.”

Neil Langermann of Langermann’s restaurant in Canton, agreed.

“We love it because it drives business and showcases what we do,” said Langermann, who offered a scallop appetizer during Wednesday’s competition.

And according to many people who attended Wednesday, it’s an effective strategy. Courtney Harrison, 19, an intern at the Maryland Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, said she’s never dined during the discounted week before, but is now convinced to visit a participating restaurant.

Incentives such as Restaurant Week, which has been replicated in other counties throughout the state, and deals from companies like Groupon and LivingSocial, help restaurants attract new customers even when people’s pockets don’t feel as deep, experts said.

But it’s not exactly the same concept, Hisamoto explained. Coupon sites are a fairly new marketing strategy that has emerged as people limit their luxury spending, whereas Restaurant Week was effective even before the economic downturn, she said, although both incentives aim to stimulate the market by expanding the customer base.

Promotions like Restaurant Week have far-reaching effects on other industries, as well. Mike Evitts, the vice president of communications and research for the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore, another sponsor of Restaurant Week, said growth in the restaurant sector acts like an “economic multiplier.”

A patron who visits the city specifically to try its cuisine might also book a hotel room or buy souvenirs, he explained. Conversely, anyone who comes to Baltimore “for a convention, for other reasons, they’re going to spend money to eat,” he said.

Mount Vernon’s City Café, the winner of Wednesday’s challenge, is taking the incentive a step further by offering a $10 gift card to patrons who dine in during the promotional week, said co-owner Bruce Bodie. At their table, several workers offered to explain their menu to customers who were unfamiliar with their offerings, especially the complex appetizer whipped up in front of them.

“It’s a pan-seared scallop dish with basil-infused asiago cheese, with locally grown tomatoes, creamed corn, and now [Executive Chef Chad Gauss] is drizzling it with a beurre blanc sauce and finally in a truffle oil mist,” Bodie said.

Obviously.

For the third consecutive year, Restaurant Week will benefit The Journey Home — the city’s 10-year plan to end homelessness. Each restaurant pays several hundred dollars to participate in the promotion, Evitts said, and a portion of that fee will go to the program.

Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who announced the Appetizer Challenge’s winners, said the cause receives $10,000 per year from the summer and winter Restaurant Weeks.

One of the contest’s criteria was the best use of locally sourced ingredients, which reflects consumer demands for environment-friendly practices and fresher dishes. But more importantly, favoring local food producers creates a partnership between restaurants and the state’s farming and fishing industries, allowing all parties to increase business, Evitts said.

Mr. Rain’s Fun House, which opened two years ago in the American Visionary Art Museum, won the award for best local ingredient— smoked bison from Gunpowder Farms.

Geof Manthorne, one of the contest judges and a decorator at Charm City Cakes, said he hits Restaurant Week a few times every season because he can go out with friends without breaking the bank. Officials said they’re happy to facilitate those social opportunities while also stimulating business.

“When you’re on a budget, everyone waits for Restaurant Week like Christmas because you get to enjoy the best, you get to enjoy luxury, at a discount price,” Rawlings-Blake said.

Her favorite appetizer?

“Anything wrapped in bacon I automatically have a bias toward,” Rawlings-Blake said.