Season Opener: A Double-Header

In general Miami Spice heated up late-summer dining

Our October is the rest of the nation's March -- a month of transition, a medium for change, and a means for projection. It may be less scientifically precise than the National Hurricane Center, but what happens in October is frequently a more fundamentally accurate reading of the culinary currents that are headed for Miami.

Depending on which restaurateur or chef to whom you speak, this October's wind patterns were either hurricane strength, the stuff of metaphorical lions, or mere breezes that dribbled in like newborn lambs not yet fat enough to even be considered for the babiest of chops. The latter opinion comes from the folks who, for the most part, experienced a very slow summer and had little success boosting their customer base with Miami Spice Month's double order of August and September. Miami Spice, as most of us will recall, is a program that was launched in 2002 by the Greater Miami Convention & Visitors Bureau (GMCVB), inducing local restaurants to offer prix-fixe, three-course lunches and/or dinners during the month of August. The motivation being, of course, to both lure new customers into restaurants they may not have had the luxury of sampling yet and repay regulars with a good, solid meal deal.

Last year, momentum was slow. Due to a lack of local, pre-event advertising, it seemed that mostly industry insiders -- the salespeople who supply the restaurants' wine programs, for instance, or waitstaff on their nights off -- were the ones who knew about the promotion enough to take advantage. But once word began to spread among the public, less like frozen peanut butter and more like room-temperature marmalade, consumer response was determined sufficient to extend the program into September.

Jeremy Eaton

Location Info

Map

Pacific Time Restaurant

35 NE 40th St.
Miami, FL 33137

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: Midtown/Wynwood/Design District

Ortanique on the Mile

278 Miracle Mile
Coral Gables, FL 33134

Category: Restaurant > Caribbean

Region: South Dade

Tuscan Steak

433 Washington Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > Italian

Region: South Beach

Blue Door at Delano

1685 Collins Ave.
Miami Beach, FL 33139

Category: Restaurant > American

Region: South Beach

Azul Restaurant

500 Brickell Key Dr.
Miami, FL 33131

Category: Restaurant > Contemporary

Region: Central Dade

Ditto summer 2003. This past August saw GMCVB's Miami Spice joining forces with Chef Allen Susser's pet project, Share Our Strength/Taste of the Nation, and bringing key co-sponsors like Wachovia and American Express to the table. So before it even began, the program had received added interest from the restaurant industry as well as achieved fiscal growth, two marks of potential success.

But again initial reaction from the dining public was, in a word, hesitant. The third week of August had already started before aficionado-oriented friends began asking me where to go, at which point I realized, to my chagrin, that I myself had yet to sample a Spice menu. I instantly made reparation and hied off to Pacific Time, where I was seduced by too many new menu items to even consider going for the Spice. On the other hand, however, chef-proprietor Jonathan Eismann certainly reached his summertime goal either way -- he got my business.

A couple of other friends and colleagues had the same good intentions toward Miami Spice, but also wound up on epicurean tangents. Linda Horkitz, executive editor at Onboard Media, went to Ortanique on the Mile for the Spice prix-fixe but "ended up not using the discount," she reports. "The prices were better [à la carte] because we shared an appetizer and didn't have dessert."

Richard Murray of the Treister Murray Agency experienced Miami Spice three times -- sort of. He says, "The ironic thing is, in each of the three instances, we made selections from the regular menu, not the special Miami Spice menu. But Miami Spice did drive us to the restaurant and got us to try out new [ones] we might otherwise not have visited." Likewise, the director of the Miami International Wine Fair, David Bernad, notes that he "ended up ordering items not included in the special menu, which I guess worked to the advantage of the participating restaurant."

Embracing the promotion is the key, says co-chair of the event and Tuscan Steak House general manager Steve Haas. "The staff has to hand out the [Miami Spice] menus willingly. They can't roll their eyes when customers request them."

Not presenting disdain along with the Spice menu is one way, but another is to go out of your way to make the Spice customer comfy. While I was sitting at the bar at Pacific Time, no less than half a dozen would-be patrons inquired about Spice. None of them was treated to the telltale SoBe sneer. Rather, the hosts at the front of the house eagerly explained the deal to each diner, talking it up like pro salespeople.

Nemo owner Myles Chefetz agrees that the returns increase when you respect, or even cater to, the Miami Spice customer. "It is my understanding that certain restaurants created smaller portions of standard menu items to accommodate the lower price point," he notes. "We did not do that at Nemo, which was greatly appreciated by the patrons. We had an even greater response than last year."

The Forge's director of operations, Joseph Day, also saw a goodly amount of traffic: "We had even more people coming into the restaurant [this year] to experience the Spice menu. It is so encouraging to see people come in for Miami Spice who may not have come in otherwise and to see those guests return to the restaurant after the experience. The program over the summer draws a price-conscious crowd to enjoy the very best of Miami's cuisine. The key to Miami Spice is remaining consistent to the program."

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