By Donna Cornelius
While COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll on the food and beverage industry, one of Birmingham’s tastiest events isn’t just surviving but thriving.
Birmingham Restaurant Week set records in the fall and provided much-needed support not only for the city’s restaurants, bars and food trucks but also for the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. BRW organizers are working hard to make the winter version of the event, set for Jan. 14-31 with Spire as its title sponsor, equally strong.
Birmingham Restaurant Week is an opportunity for food and drink lovers who want to experience new taste adventures or revisit favorite spots to choose special two- and three-course breakfast, lunch and dinner prix-fixe menus ranging from $5 to $50 per person.
BRW has adapted to COVID-19 concerns and restrictions by adding to-go and curbside pickup options to traditional dine-in experiences, which will be limited with health precautions in mind. Many participating restaurants are preparing to expand their outdoor and patio seating with high-powered heating, cabana tents and other innovations designed to keep guests safe – and warm.
BRW’s slogan, “For the Love of Local,” is particularly apt during these times.
“Spire is once again excited to partner with Birmingham Restaurant Week in supporting our local restaurants,” said Joe Hampton, president of Spire Alabama, Gulf Coast and Mississippi. “As we enter into the winter months, these local restaurants need our support more than ever. With plenty of curbside and to-go options available, this winter’s event will be a great example of how we can continue to move forward and get through this – together.”
Alabama’s $9 billion leisure and hospitality industry has been hit hard during the pandemic, accounting for more than 40% of all jobs lost since March, according to the state Department of Labor. About 75% of Alabama’s 8,620 eating and drinking establishments are independently owned, and those restaurants are far more vulnerable to potential closure because of lost business during the pandemic, analysts reported in a study published in National Restaurant Week.
Because of the negative effects that COVID-19 had on the restaurant industry, BRW 2020, held Aug. 14-31, stepped up its efforts so that participants saw meaningful results. Post-event surveys showed a 54% average increase in sales for participants compared to recent non-BRW weeks.
With almost 60 participants, BRW 2020 came up with a whole new recipe for to-go and curbside pickup options. Only locally owned businesses were allowed to participate, as nearly 65% of the revenue from local independent restaurants recirculates in the local economy compared to about 30% for chain restaurants.
Other new additions included family-style meal options, cocktail kits and to-go alcohol, which were some of the biggest hits of last summer’s event. Dining in still was an option for some restaurants and bars, with mandates for socially distanced tables, limited capacities and masks to ensure safety for guests and employees.
For the first time, BRW extended the normal 10-day event to 18 days, offering more time for patrons to participate and more opportunity for businesses to make sales.
BRW Boosted Sales for Restaurants
Matt Viscaino, owner of Tortugas Pizza, which participated in BRW for the first time last year, said the pizzeria had a 125% increase in sales during BRW compared to a previous non-BRW week. He also said that, when comparing the restaurant’s sales during the period it was participating in BRW 2020 to its sales from the same time period in 2019, he saw a 141% increase.
“This has been an incredible experience, and I am so thrilled we joined up this year,” Viscaino said. “Our sales have been incredible, and I could barely keep our cheesecake stocked. I made more cheesecake in the two weeks of BRW 2020 than I did all summer.”
Al Rabiee, owner of Vino in Mountain Brook’s English Village, said the event “gives us the opportunity to get our name out to the community even more and to continue to serve our guests, through curbside service or dine-in.”
“Restaurants need help more than ever right now, and Restaurant Week provides that,” Rabiee said. “Because of COVID-19, we have added heavy duty heaters on our 95% enclosed patio along with a medically graded filtration system for inside seating. Aside from distanced tables, we are making sure that all of our inside seatings are airy and sanitized.”
Among the BRW offerings at Vino will be favorites such as the Grouper Farfalle Bowl, Pork Scallopini, Capellini Vino and apple fritters along with the new Peppermint Mocha Tito’s White Russian.
The list of BRW 2021–Winter Edition participants thus far includes: 5 Point Public House, Ash, Ashley Mac’s at the Pizitz, Avondale Burger Co., Basil Pizza & Bar, Bay Leaf Modern Indian Cuisine & Bar, Birmingham Candy Company, Blueroot, Bobby Carl’s Table, Chez Lulu, Crestline Bagel Co., Dreamland Bar-B-Que, Edolyn’s Pies, El ZunZun, Eli’s Jerusalem Grill, Farrelly’s Southern Bar and Kitchen, Filter Coffee Parlor, J Wings at the Pizitz, JuicedUp Essentials and Kamali Creole Kitchen.
Also participating are La Tía Paisa Taco Shop, Lou’s Pub & Package Store, Michael’s Restaurant, MO:MO, Piper & Leaf Tea Co., Porky’s Pride Smokehouse, Ocean, Ono Poke at the Pizitz, Ovenbird, Pho Pho Vietnamese, Rojo, Roots & Revelry, Silver Kati, Slice Pizza and Brewhouse in Lakeview and Vestavia, Sol y Luna Restaurant, Spring Street Bar & Grill, Taj India, The Fig Tree, The Gardens Cafe by Kathy G., The Louis Bar, The Lumbar, The Standard, The Yard, Tortugas Pizza–Birmingham, Tostadas, Tropicaleo, Unos Tacos, Vino & Gallery Bar, and the WOED Experience (Ways of Eating & Drinking.)
More establishments may be added as the event nears.
Helping Food Banks Help the Hungry
Giving back to the community has always been an essential part of BRW, with more than $75,000 raised for local nonprofits in the event’s 11 years of existence. After BRW 2020, organizers donated $2,500 to the Community Food Bank of Central Alabama. The food bank each month feeds more than 80,000 people at risk of hunger and supplies food to 250 food banks, shelters and children’s programs in 12 counties in Central Alabama.
“Right now, donations are very important from the community because we’ve almost doubled the amount of food that is going out into the 12-county Central Alabama region this year,” said Brett Meredith, the food bank’s CEO. “We have gone from about 1.1 million pounds a month to roughly 2.2 million pounds a month right now, so that makes such a difference.”
BRW sponsors in addition to Spire include Tito’s Handmade Vodka, Birmingham Bud, Red Diamond, Fox 6 WBRC, Coca-Cola, Birmingham Mountain Radio, Bham Now, the Birmingham Times and the Birmingham City Council.
For more information about BRW and the Winter Edition, visit bhamrestaurantweek.com. Follow the event on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram (@bhamrestweek). The official event hashtag is #BhamRestWeek.