Think beyond dinner service to explore event-related initiatives that help boost sales and build community.

Margins in this industry are tight, and, to help boost the bottom line, restaurants need to get creative. Events—participating in and putting them on—are a great way to give guests reason to walk in the door, whether it be for a grandparent’s birthday party, a blind wine tasting, or to support a local charity. On top of the financial benefits, a restaurant participating in event-related initiatives like private dining, special dinners, educational events, local/regional food events, and pop-up dinners—ultimately—is bringing people together, solidifying itself in the minds of customers as a place where community is built and good times are had.

1. Build out the restaurant’s private dining program

To new restaurateurs, it may feel like a relic of the past—with so many new concepts opening one-room locations—but having a space to rent out for private dining can be a big boost to a restaurant’s bottom line. Sure, the whole restaurant of a one-room concept can be rented out for a special occasion, but there is a lot to be said about the power of flexibility in pleasing all customers, from couples coming in for a dinner service, to a corporate client hoping to feed 50 people and the wedding party of 150.

“To someone who’s designing a restaurant, one suggestion I would make is to not underestimate the future needs and desires for having the ability to host private events,” says Scott Shor, operating partner of Edmund’s Oast in Charleston, South Carolina. “Yes, it takes more money, more planning: there’s a million reasons why most restaurants these days are opening just one room, but, if you can have a couple different options, you can have your cake and eat it too.”

Since opening the original restaurant in 2014, Edmund’s Oast has not only expanded its repertoire to include two new locations in Edmund’s Oast Exchange bottle shop and the Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co., but the team has also reinvested in additional spaces within the main restaurant to host more private events. There’s a now-covered outdoor dining space called The Bower with a full outdoor bar, its own bathrooms, and capacity for groups about 100 people. The main dining room can seat 130 people or so, and the restaurant’s newest addition, The Library—which used to be an outdoor patio as well—can seat around 40 people indoors now.

At Ben & Jack’s steakhouse on New York’s 44th Street, revenue from private events brings in about 25 to 30 percent of the restaurant’s total sales a year, estimates Admir Alibasic, executive chef. That is with capacity to close off sections of its larger dining room and rent out two smaller rooms seating around 25 people each. Before, when the restaurant was located on 5th Avenue and had access to six rooms for private dining, 30 to 35 percent of total sales came from private dining events, he estimates.

People typically spend more at private parties, Alibasic says. A $90 to $100 ticket per person in the dining room might be as much as $130 per person at a party. The restaurant also brings in extra revenue with food and beverage minimums, room rentals, and audio-visual charges for conference rooms. “That just adds plus to your sales at the end of the night,” Alibasic says.

Private dining can certainly add a revenue stream, but it also adds heart to the restaurant. “Adding an active private dining room adds to the overall feeling of the restaurant, allowing you to take care of guests in a different way,” says Marci Delozier Haas, director of private dining sales for Union Square Hospitality Group’s (USHG) Gramercy Tavern and Union Square Cafe. “Our philosophy with all of our offerings in private dining is to make it feel like an extension of the dining room, offering the same menu items, hospitality, art, and ambiance. Really, just make it as special and unrepeatable as possible, while hoping that the guests will come back several times over the course of the year,” Haas says.

To those thinking about pursuing or continuing to build a private dining program, Haas suggests getting feedback from regulars and keeping track of the restaurant’s best-selling items that will be easy to execute in large-format. Make sure a legal team is on board to help protect the business and guests when preparing contracts, and, for USHG, an online platform has made all the details easy to manage.

2. Host more specialty dinners

“In the last five years, the events world has seen a particular spike toward innovation,”Haas says of dinners that involve collaborations between other chefs and purveyors.

Piedmont restaurant in Durham, North Carolina dependably hosts specialty dinners for two reasons, says Jamie DeMent, owner. “For Seasons of the Sea, those events were to teach people about eating seafood seasonally,” she says. The series of dinners, which were hosted once per season in 2016, brought in guest chefs to work with Piedmont’s chef and explore each North Carolina fishing season. “That series was very much about education and activism,” DeMent says.

The other reason Piedmont puts on events, such as the winemaker series in summer 2018, is “100 percent to get people in the restaurant,” DeMent says. “Piedmont’s business is very dependent on Duke University, as is much of Durham. So, in the middle of the May, when students leave and professors head out for their summer retreats, Durham gets a whole lot quieter.”

Winemaker dinners are curated based on customer demand—“people like wine, beer, and liquor dinners,” DeMent says—and they help diversify the restaurant’s marketing message, giving the team a reason to send out an email and make a social media post.

DeMent says Piedmont would put on a specialty dinner as often as people would come during the summer, but there has to be a draw—an intriguing guest—to make the event a success. But, most importantly, the dinners need to be fun. “Don’t try to be overly serious,” she says. “Just make good food, make the pairings work, and, if the people that are working in the restaurant are enjoying themselves, then the people who are coming in and eating will feel that.”

“Guests get excited about what a restaurant is excited about,” Haas says about choosing event topics. “Really just go with what you know, be passionate about it, and bring social causes to light that are of interest to you and important to the world.”

3. Cater

“Every little thing helps,” Alibasic of Ben & Jack’s says.“With one catering order a week, you end up paying three kitchen employees.”

USHG’s catering business, Union Square Events, is a massive operation, one of the six pillars of the group’s business. “Essentially, we take all the food, hospitality, ambiance of Union Square Cafe—or whichever restaurant the guest desires—then we can go to the location of their choice,” Haas says.

But, even though it can be a potential boost in business, Alibasic warns, “if you’re not balancing out the right way, it could end up costing you more money.” Make sure the restaurant has a profitable plan of action.

4. Add educational events to the restaurant’s repertoire 

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a rise in client demand for experiences, rather than just a seated dinner,” Haas of USHG says. “Guests want to be dazzled and informed.”

“There is a certain category of customer that is hungry for knowledge,” says Shor of Edmund’s Oast. Most of the group’s public events—including educational events like weekly blind wine tastings or Saturday Somm School classes, as well as music-geared events like a Champagne and Jazz night—are held at the Edmund’s Oast Exchange bottle shop across the road from the main restaurant. This space was added in 2017 as a fun way to keep the restaurant’s community interested and customers involved. “It’s an exciting part of the business to grow,” Shor says. “I think events are certainly a driving force of our business, and, not only is it a way to keep things profitable, but it’s also a way to keep things relevant, moving forward, and on people’s minds.”

The key to the Exchange’s success is Sarah O’Kelley, the general manager at the Exchange and a certified sommelier who is education-minded and thrives on building customer relationships based on knowledge and sharing her passion.

Be warned, however, it can be difficult to know how many events is the right amount to keep a community engaged. “Event overkill is a thing,” Shor says. “It’s just trying it all, seeing what works, and dropping what doesn’t.” But giving an idea time to catch on is important, too.

5. Participate and/or host charity events

The chef at Piedmont in Durham is encouraged to be an active part of the Triangle—Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, North Carolina—community. “We’ll participate in anything anyone asks us to do,” DeMent says. “We want to be good stewards to our community.”

USHG partners with charities putting on events throughout the year, but hosts a major destination as well, the Autumn Harvest Dinner, which partners with No Kid Hungry and acts as a homecoming of sorts, bringing in other chefs and alumni of the group. “It’s all for a great cause: Danny’s favorite day of the year,” Haas says of CEO Danny Meyer.

Sometimes participation in these events will inspire new customers to come to the restaurant and sometimes it doesn’t. “You never know,” DeMent says. But it’s worth it to give back to the community, even if all one earns that day is a “good guy card.”

6. Attend national food-centric events

Having traveled for festivals most of his career, Steve McHugh, chef/owner of Cured at Pearl in San Antonio, Texas, continues to make the rounds at food-centric national fests like the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival as an ambassador for Cured. “I remember how important and informative those trips were as a young cook, and I still enjoy going to them,” McHugh says. “It’s always so great to connect with fellow chefs, past colleagues, and passionate diners that are excited enough to attend a food festival.”

Fests also help spread the word about the restaurant. “We have a lot of guests visiting San Antonio mention to us that they have seen or spent time with Chef McHugh in another city at a festival or event,” says Robert Rodriguez, Cured general manager.“He’s such a personable chef, that many people make these lasting relationships and stay in touch. When they’re in San Antonio, whether for business or for fun, they come visit the restaurant. I think it can also maybe even move San Antonio up on people’s list of places to visit.”

“You need to get out of your own backyard,” McHugh says. “I make sure that I bring my managers with me when I travel, and rotate making sure everyone has a chance to go and experience the events. Even with the large upfront cost, it’s important to get out to your guests and help them understand what you’re trying to do, so it pays off big time in the long run.”

7. Host pop-up dinners

A huge category that has only been growing in the name of collaboration and community-building is pop-up dinners and events. More-established restaurants are bringing in innovators from across the country and their own backyards to excite customers and learn something new.

“At both the Exchange and Brewing Co., we love to work with talented food and beverage people from outside the company,” Shor from Edmund’s Oast says. The Brewing Co. has a standing pop-up on Tuesdays, as that is the day the business is closed during the week.

“It started to bug us that this space was just sitting here totally unused on Tuesdays, so we invited an Eater Young Gun, award-winning, James-Beard–nominated chef in town who has a company called Short Grain to take over on Tuesdays,” Shor says.

This gave Short Grain’s Shuai and Corrie Wang the opportunity to practice in a brick and mortar—something their business is working toward—and Edmund’s Oast the opportunity to keep the space active and bring in new guests.

“It’s been very successful for them and great for us,” Shor says. “We enjoy being a partner and working with them, letting them showcase, and it brings in some additional people that maybe follow them, but were not familiar with us.” It’s very synergistic. Edmund’s Oast also hosts collaborative dinners with chefs from far and wide, as well as bartenders.

Marketing a Private Event Space

Experts weigh in on strategy.

Edmund’s Oast Crispy Pork Hock

Finding the right way to market one’s private dining space can be tricky. “That’s a funny thing,” Scott Shor at Edmund’s Oast says, “we don’t really go out of our way to market.” Instead of paid advertising, the restaurant group relies on its reputation as a dining destination, which is built from the restaurant, bottle shop, brewery, and all the events those spaces host. Edmund’s Oast also naturally benefits from its location in tourist-heavy Charleston. Word of mouth is key, and Shor’s goal is for repeat business.

“When we get a corporate client in, if we nail it and they’re very happy, they’re going to come back for more,” he says.

Ben & Jack’s in New York City takes a different approach: “It’s outreach, that’s the No. 1 thing,” Admir Alibasic says.“If you just open up the space and expect people to start calling and emailing for private parties, that’s going to take a while.”

Marketing to corporate clients and through Facebook is a must, he says. “You have to utilize those outlets. Everything helps, from email blasts to a text message based system, social media.”Alibasic alsosuggests looking into marketing through Google, so the restaurant pops to the top when someone searches “private dining.” “That’s a big boost,” he says.

Events, Feature