Themed dinners help restaurants and staff have fun, make money

In the film "Big Night," a restaurant owned by two Italian immigrant brothers in America prepares for its last attempt at survival. Their "big night" comes when a famous jazz musician is invited to a feast at the restaurant, with the hope that his fame will spread the word about the magnificent food and inspire overnight success for the failing restaurant.

Here in Traverse City, the film "Big Night" is used as a "themed dinner" to inspire diners to spread the word about the good food and good fun happening at Trattoria Stella restaurant. Many other northern Michigan restaurants follow suit offering a wide variety of themes aimed at inspiring diners to spend money throughout the long winter months.

Yes, the restaurant's bottom line takes its place at the core of these events, but it's not the real driving force. Two other factors seem to have equal standing here: fun and a desire to boost employees' winter paychecks. Some restaurants like to host one or two per season, others go for it weekly.

"We have a huge amount of fun presenting the Big Night dinner," says Paul Danielson, owner of Stella, "because it provides us the opportunity to prepare such visual food, like roast suckling pig. It's nice for guests and it gives us a chance to show off, but it's also a way for me to employ 30 people on a Sunday afternoon in February instead of just ten."

The event is also a boon to the Traverse City Film Festival as Danielson and wife, Amanda, donate proceeds to the festival. The next event at Stella is its 5th annual Winter Beer Dinner with Joe Short of Short's Brewery.

Rob Giffer of Hanna Bistro, echoes Danielson's sentiment, stating that themed dinners are not only fun for guests, but fun for the staff because it provides them with something new and interesting to talk about. Hanna hosted a "Cigar Dinner" last November with plans for a second in April.

"I had staff showing up early, rearranging things, trying to figure out the best way to throw this party," Giffer said. "They were excited. Plus, the special menu provides new challenges for the kitchen staff."

Hanna also offers a Beaujolais Nouveau wine dinner and hopes to have an olive oil and vinegar inspired dinner in conjunction with Fustini's Oil and Vinegar shop in downtown Traverse City.

On Old Mission Peninsula, Doug Kosch's Boathouse is an enthusiastic supporter of themed dinners. Every Friday night throughout the winter, the Boathouse features a seven-course wine dinner, priced to entice, at just $55.

"We've found this to be a great way to fill the restaurant in winter time," Kosch said. "Last year, I saw people returning three or four times per season, instead of once or twice."

Kosch describes the atmosphere as "a party" where the servers get involved with the winemakers when they make their presentation and the chef comes out and explains each course. Patrons are placed at tables with other diners they do not know. At the sorbet course, everyone is encouraged to change tables.

"At my place, themed dinners do two things. First, they generate enthusiasm amongst the diners and staff and, second, they create interest in your place. I have a great staff and want to make sure they enjoy their work and make a good living working for me."

Of special note this winter at the Boathouse is the African Safari Wild Game Dinner in February and the Frank Sinatra Dinner Show, set for early March, featuring a Frank Sinatra look-alike who will croon to diners.

Another variation on the themed dinner is Amical restaurant's long-standing Cookbook Series. For one week each month during the winter season, Amical features recipes from a cookbook. This season's series kicked off in November with Spanish cuisine from Santa Fe's "El Farol" restaurant cookbook.

In their 11th season for the series, owner Dave Denison says it is a successful formula because restaurant patrons have come to look forward to it – even planning their winter activities around it, and it provides the servers and cooks a little extra bump in their income.

"Overall, we will do 30 percent to 40 percent better that week," Denison says. "But I'm not so sure the extra sales fall to my bottom line."

Denison reasons that the series is a big investment of time and money, starting with the selection of cookbooks – hundreds of possibilities – to the chef's selection of recipes, the purchasing of special ingredients, and the selection of complimentary wines. Then each month Denison must offer a special schooling session for the servers where half of the menu is prepared for everyone to sample and information is shared regarding the cookbook.

"Basically, it keeps my wait staff happy, keeps energy in the place, and pleases my patrons," Denison concludes.

As the snowflakes fly and the market and economy as a whole are still down, it will be interesting to see if themed dinners can continue to entice diners out this winter. Most restaurateurs think they will help.

Perhaps Denison put it best when he said as a business you can either circle the wagons, hunker down and wake up next June, hoping to still be in business, or you can go out and fight for business. BN