Dine Out Lauderdale, Flavor Palm Beach, Bon Appétit Boca … What’s the deal with all these dining promotions?

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Every summer, locals unbuckle their belts for a smorgasbord of dine-out promotions, tantalizing with months of slick deals athigh-end and lower-end restaurants. And in these post-pandemic, inflationary times, such feasts from hospitality promoters and county tourism outfits have only grown bigger.

In South Florida, we have an embarrassment of dine-out riches:

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Flavor Palm Beach(Sept. 1-30), Palm Beach County’s most established promotion, is under new management with 64 eateries— 19 more than in 2021.Downtown Delray Beach Restaurant Month(Sept. 1-30), once a weeklong, August-only promo called Dine Out Downtown Delray, now takes place throughout all of September and touts 59 participating eateries — its most ever.The Palm Beaches Restaurant Month(Aug. 1-31), which ran for 16 days when it debuted in 2020, now went a full month and featured more than 100 hotspots.Bon Appétit Boca (July 1-31), formerly known as Boca Restaurant Month, shifted its dates from September to July and added a twist to its rules: Any Boca eatery may participate, with or without prix-fixe menus.Not to be outdone, Dine Out Lauderdale(Aug. 1-Sept. 30), Broward County’s only dining promotion, is serving57 restaurants with multi-course lunches and dinners, up from 43 in 2021.And Miami Spice(Aug. 1-Sept. 30), considered the gold standard of dine-out deals, hosts a whopping 262 high-end restaurants, including some recently awarded Michelin stars.

With their combined culinary might, they share a common goal: When snowbirds fly the coop and the traditional long, hot summer slowdown begins, dine-out promotions are designed to prop up sluggish restaurant sales.

But ever wonder whether the deals are any good? Why the rules, dates — and even the names — keep changing? Whether eaters leave happy or hungry? If restaurants reap the same benefits as their customers? Or why Palm Beach County needs four dine-out deals while Broward and Miami-Dade counties survive with one apiece?

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And is there even a summertime slump anymore?

Similar goals aside, South Florida’s dining promotions have vastly different philosophies and sources of marketing dollars, all six organizers tell the South Florida Sun Sentinel. And no, they do not agree about the summertime slump.

“For the past couple of years, we haven’t had a slow summer season,” says Stacy Ritter, president and CEO of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention & Visitors Bureau, which programs Dine Out Lauderdale. “It’s not like it was 10 years ago. It’s not dead anymore in August and September.”

The same can’t be said in Palm Beach County, argues Kerri Paizzi, CEO and director of Flavor Palm Beach.

“Yeah, the summer slump is still there. I speak with restaurant owners every day and they’re like, ‘It’s summer. Where is everybody?’ ” she says.

We already feel your eyes glazing over. After all, a deal is a deal, right? Even Paizzi feels similarly.

“I think all these promotions are a little confusing,” she says. “But in the end, who cares who’s running them? Just go eat.”

Yes, go eat. But know that not all dine-out promotions deliver strong value — and some restaurants actually lose money offering them.

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Current dine-out menus reveal a portrait of the pandemic’s lingering toll on local restaurants, as well as the inflation-fueled instability of meat and ingredient costs. Just ask Fort Lauderdale restaurateur Angelo Elia, owner of 10 eateriesincluding Angelo Elia Pizza, Bar & Tapas, which is dishing a $35 prix-fixe for Dine Out Lauderdale.

His three-course dealfor customers includes chicken meatballs with escarole and cannellini beans for appetizer, lasagna rustica for dinner, and tiramisu for dessert.

Partaking in Dine Out Lauderdale for the first time, Elia calls his prix-fixe a “loss leader,” which means an attractive price tag that isn’t profitable.

“At $35, itis not a good deal for me, but it’s a great deal for the guests,” Elia says. “Right now, food costs are astronomically priced. We don’t make much, but I’m glad we make some money.”

Elia eats the cost for one reason: old-fashioned, word-of-mouth advertising, something that’s in meager supply when summer foot traffic plummets.

“I’ll be honest, we’re down in traffic this year compared to last, and it’s because everyone is getting on a plane and going on vacations in Europe,” Elia says. “I’m doing it to bring new faces in, and those new faces tell their friends. That’s the gamble, anyway.”

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Some Broward-area restaurants can’t stomach a $35 prix-fixe deal, Ritter says. But what operators like Elia lose in profit, they may regain in marketing muscle.

Since 2007, Dine Out Lauderdale’s promotion has been funded by tourism development taxes, a 6 percent fee paid by tourists who book Broward hotels and AirBnbs. In turn, that money is used to boost Dine Out deals on social media and to hire influencers to hype participating restaurants “who don’t have the time or dollars to market themselves,” she says.

“Our success is in part measured by the number of restaurants who sign up,” Ritter says. “If they’re happy, we consider it a success.”

These days, Dine Out Lauderdale doesn’t go far enough, which is why Ritter intends to overhaul the promotion in 2023. Often excluded are smaller mom-and-pop businesses and chains, usually west of Interstate 95, that don’t keep dinner hours or can’t accommodate three-course meals.

“This program has been the same for a really long time, and it gets stale,” she says. “Right now, there’s an ice cream shop in Lauderhill that makes Caribbean flavors, but they can’t participate in Dine Out because they can’t do a prix-fixe. Anyone should be able to participate.”

Bon Appétit Boca faced a similar quandary before the launch of its dine-out promotion, which ended July 31. A shortage of restaurants, grappling with higher food costs and shrinking staff, weren’t especially eager to offer multi-course dinners at a bargain.

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So the fourth annual promotion changed the rules: Let the restaurants set their own prices.

Forcing restaurants to serve only prix-fixes “were stopping restaurants from wanting to participate,” says Amber Pollitt, a member of the Greater Boca Raton Chamber of Commerce’s tourism committee, which programs Bon Appétit.

The revamp mostly worked. Nineteen restaurants participated, including Max’s Grille, a veteran American bistro in Mizner Park. Pollitt, who also manages marketing for Max’s, reported a 22 percent jump in July 2022 sales compared with July 2021. She credits the 288 customers who ordered Bon Appétit’s prix-fixe for the sales bump.

At Max’s Grille’s, an order of chopped salad ($15 a la carte) and Atlantic salmon ($32) comes to $47 each person — while the Bon Appétit deal charged $49 per couple for a two-course appetizer and entrée. If diners splurged on créme brulee pie for dessert ($10 Bon Appétit upcharge; $14 a la carte) they saved more money. (All prices exclude tax and tip.)

But not all Bon Appétit deals were alike. A three-course Bon Appétit deal at Morton’s The Steakhouse, for example, charges more than a la carte: $65 per person with an optional $6 upcharge for Morton’s hot chocolate cake, or $71. A cost comparison for the same items a la carte comes to: $12 for Caesar salad, $31 for a Chicken Christopher entrée (plus $12 for a loaded baked potato side) and $13 for Morton’s hot chocolate cake. Total: $68.

And some Bon Appétit deals weren’t prix-fixes at all, but rather happy-hour specials. Gastropub Tap 42 Boca, for example, offered the same Monday-only, half-off deal for its Prohibition hamburger that it has regularly offered.

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“Maybe [restaurants] subtracted one course, maybe they added an extra dessert,” Pollitt says. “We wanted restaurants to drive in whichever groups of people they wanted at the price they felt comfortable.”

Moved from August to September, Downtown Delray Beach Restaurant Month also let restaurants set their own prices. The move was necessary, says Downtown Development Authority (DDA) executive director Laura Simon, especially given a less-than-optimistic forecast: summertime restaurant sales are expected to be 35% to 45% down, she says.

“Our hotels hit 100 percent occupancy last summer because a lot of people chose to stay home, but it’s a different summer now, and we have more concerns,” says Simon, whose dine-out deal funds itself through $100,000 in DDA program sponsorships.

The 2021 promotion racked up 13,533 pageviews on the DDA website, and participating restaurants every year got perks such as paid TV commercial airtime, printed marketing materials and social-media ads, she says.

“People are looking for added value, for big discounts, and to experience an unusual event like a specialty chef dinner,” Simon says. “We’re not trying to compete with Palm Beaches Restaurant Month or Flavor Palm Beach. We’re complementary. These are the times restaurants need the most support.”

An analysis of Delray’s promotion reveals that, depending on the restaurant, customers sometimes pay more for their prix-fixe. The luxe Avalon Steak and Seafood on Atlantic Avenue has a $65-per-person, three-course deal that includes a pork banh mi appetizer ($19 a la carte), a 7-ounce NY strip (normally $48 for a 14-ounce portion, so $24) and a flourless chocolate torte (regularly $12). Total a la carte price: $55.

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“While it might not be less expensive for the prix-fixe, it’s about the value of the event itself,” Simon says. “It’s about the service. Food costs are expensive, so we can’t restrict [restaurants]. Some can’t give a deep discount based on what their restaurant offerings are.”

When The Palm Beaches Restaurant Month began in 2020, the county’s tourism outfit partnered with Delray Beach and Boca Raton so all three promotions could share the same restaurants.

“We knew we wanted to add discounts along with prix-fixes,” says Heather Andrews, Discover the Palm Beaches’ vice president of community engagement. “Like having Buy-One-Get-Ones, or opening it up to fast-casual places instead of fine-dining. It creates a little more variety.”

Like Dine Out Lauderdale, The Palm Beaches Restaurant Month pays for itself with hotel bed taxes, she says. Restaurants also pay $175 apiece to participate, which is waived if they belong to the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association, a Tallahassee trade group.

In sharing deals, Palm Beaches Restaurant Month avoids overlapping its dates with other Palm Beach promotions. That gives diners savings from July through September — when restaurants struggle most, she says.

“We want to shine a spotlight on every promotion. Boca is July. We have August. Delray has September. It’s basically telling diners, ‘Visit us any time during the summer and you’ll find a great deal,’ ” Andrews says. “Some folks think Miami has got the hot scene. We beg to differ. We’ve got James Beard-winning chefs and celebrities, too.”

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Paizzi, the hospitality marketing executive, bought Flavor Palm Beach in October from its founder, Briana Beaty. She’s no Flavor rookie, though, having used the promotion back when she handled marketing for The Capital Grille in Palm Beach Gardens. Paizzi says she’s enlisted 60 restaurants for September’s campaign, 15 more than in 2021, after Flavor returned from a yearlong pandemic pause.

Flavor does charge restaurants to partake in its dine-out program, Paizzi says. (She declined to say how much.) In exchange, restaurants earn up to 10 social-media posts, radio and TV ads and influencer visits. She says she funnels some participation fees back to Palm Beach-area nonprofits.

Paizzi measures the success rate based on Flavor’s website traffic and “how many Flavor menus were sold,” she says.

“We each run our [dine-out] programs slightly differently, but we all have the same goal: Let’s get the diners a deal and let’s help restaurants survive,” Paizzi says. “For restaurants to survive during COVID is impressive in itself. Now it’s our job to keep them in business.”

As South Florida’s oldest and most popular dine-out promotion, Miami Spice is a stout publicity juggernaut, flush with grants, bed taxes and sponsorships from the likes of Formula 1 and FIFA World Cup. And Rolando Aedo, chief operating officer for Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, does not shy away from touting its greatness.

“I will say this proudly, and Stacy [Ritter] in Lauderdale will agree, that local dine-out programs were inspired by Miami Spice. Imitation is the best form of flattery,” Aedo says.

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Created after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks to boost local tourism, Miami Spice patterned itself after a popular New York City dine-out program. Two decades on, it continues in full force, catering to higher-end eateries with multi-course prix-fixes.

The program even keeps a dedicated Spice Team of employees, an internal “sales and marketing machine” who analyze menus and make sure the restaurants stick to prix-fixe deals, he says. They even email general managers and show them customer complaints.

These days, Miami-Dade — like Broward — suffers no summer lull in tourism, Aedo says.

“We get almost as much foot traffic in summer as we do in the winter,” he says. “The demographic makeup is different,” but local and U.S. travelers flood the county during its October-April high season.

International travelers from South America and Eastern Europe are a bulwark that keep restaurants humming all summer, Aedo says.

So if Miami-Dade eateries see no dip in summer traffic, what is the purpose of Miami Spice? Answer: Customers gain new experiences and restaurants gain new customers.

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“Those white-tablecloth places can be intimidating to some, and by lowering prices, it brings our own residents in and demystifies the velvet-rope experience of a high-end restaurant,” he says.

Katherine Agurcia Limosani, of Hollywood, paid $28 for her lunch prix-fixe at Sexy Fish, an uber-trendy Brickell seafood restaurant. It included kimchi fried rice, steamed sea bass and prawn gyoza. A server let her order a fourth dish, salmon tataki, in place of dessert.

Although servers tried upselling her with cocktails, it was “a hard sell at noon on a Monday,” she says. A la carte, the kimchi fried rice alone costs $17.

“I would have had a very hard time paying regular prices for them,” Limosani says. “It’s highly unlikely that I would have gone otherwise.”

What’s more, she gained a high-end experience without busting her wallet, she says.

And isn’t that the point of all six dine-out promotions, bargain or no bargain?

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So, just go eat.

 

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