In Business : How to keep them coming? Restaurant owners describe their tactics
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Keeping a restaurant open throughout the year can be a challenge on Martha's Vineyard. By the time the leaves have fallen, the population of the Island has dwindled to a fifth of what it was in the summer. The chill of ocean winds can persuade people to huddle in their houses after work and discourage them from social and dining excursions. Also, some Islanders have worked and saved all summer and are on a tight budget to survive the off-season.
Speaking with an unscientifically selected few restaurant owner/general managers, a reporter tried to answer the question, why bother? and what to do to keep people coming in their doors.
The Wharf, in downtown Edgartown, has been in business since 1933. Primarily a seafood restaurant, its more notable dishes include the Fried Shrimp Po'Boy and the Fish and Chips. The Wharf also has a large selection of wine and beer and a specialty drink menu that changes seasonally. In the winter, The Wharf runs specials such as half-price hot wings in the pub during NFL games, and they have midweek entertainment, such as Stump Trivia with Dan Cassidy.
"The one reason we definitely remain open is when you sign a year-round liquor license you have to stay open for eleven months out of the year in Edgartown," Will Coogan, general manager of The Wharf, explained. "Also, my restaurant's a little smaller than the other ones in town, so you just can't pack everybody in during the summertime and then close your doors; you've got to keep going.
"Monetarily, it's a tough business when the majority of what you do revolves around two months of the year, so you have to figure out ways to keep people interested and keep people coming in, even when it's February, and it's not a vacation like the summertime.
"It's an interesting business. Hopefully, by word-of-mouth you get people that come in when it's the slowest time of year, and I think that when you do that, then you're all set. More importantly than summertime, it's the shoulder seasons that are really the most important for you to be able to survive. If you can do that; if you can have good falls and springs, then you can lumber through the winter."
Strategies? "The trivia has been great," Mr. Coogan said of The Wharf's mid-week trivia contest, which draws crowds reminiscent of what you might see at the restaurant in July or August. "We were trying to get it for a few years, but it's great when you have something that draws people in during the middle of the week, because you know that on Friday and Saturday, people are destined to go out, but when you can get people in the middle of the week, it's huge. Something like that is great to break up your winter. You can't do it in the summer, because it's too hectic, but in the fall, spring and winter, it's great."
Seasons, on Circuit Avenue in Oak Buffs, serves traditional pub food and also has a dedicated sushi bar. There is a wide variety of draft beer that can be enjoyed while watching one of the restaurant's many flat-screen televisions. In the winter, the bar opens up to Ryan Family Amusements, which is next door, where people can enjoy pool, air hockey, and video games.
"There's a few things," said Seasons' owner Mike Santoro about the challenges of remaining open year-round. "I think you'll talk to a few restaurant owners, and you'll find out that staying open in the wintertime is not profitable by any means. But, we've always felt that we have kind of an obligation to stay open, not only to our employees but to the local residents. This is a great local watering hole. We could close in December, and it would be cheaper to close, but we'd have to open up again with a whole new staff. You're not guaranteed that the same people will come back.
"Over the past years, it's been tougher with the economy the way it is, so you pretty much have to give the product away. All the places are offering a lot of specials. Right now, we do $5 appetizers every day from four to six. On Fridays, we do a free taco bar from three to six. On Sundays, we have free wings from four to six. So, it's a lot different in the wintertime. You really need to work it to encourage people to come out and to spend money on dining. I like the wintertime. I also like staying open because you get to see your local fan base, whereas you tend to lose them in the summertime."
The Ocean View
Ocean View restaurant is near Oak Bluffs harbor. Ocean View has been in business for 33 years. It features a pub menu and a fine-dining menu. It has a salad bar, a large seafood selection, prime rib, pizza. It has televisions that show mostly Boston sports and a fireplace that stays lit throughout the winter. The dining room is closed on Sundays, Mondays, and Tuesdays during the winter, but the bar remains open with the pub and fine-dining menus. Ocean View tries to entice customers in the off-season by doing mid-week dinner specials such as Lobster Night and Prime Rib Night.
"The biggest challenge to staying open year-round is the expenses," said Peg Jackson, owner of Ocean View. "We stay open mainly because I could not imagine training a whole kitchen staff every year, so it helps with the continuity.
"We have good food at reasonable prices. You don't have to knock over the bank or anything like that before you go out to eat, and really, a good product. You have to have a good product."
Ms. Jackson said that she thought that offering modest pricing is the most important lesson she's learned over the years about the restaurant business, and being successful off-season. And, the faithful.
"Thank God for the locals," she said. "We have regulars that come in at five o'clock every day, and they enjoy themselves here."