Torontoist contributor and restauranteur Samira Mohyeddin gives an industry view on the mixed emotions that come with Summerlicious and Winterlicious.
I have been participating in Summerlicious and Winterlicious for the past seven years—not as a diner, but as an owner of a decade-old little Iranian restaurant along Queen West.
My initial decision to participate in the festival was borne out of necessity. With more than 13,000 restaurants in the GTA, I noticed throughout the years that during the months of February and July, business was waning and Winterlicious and Summerlicious provided a platform for me to garner more interest in getting diners off their sofas and into our seats.
But for all that extra business, Summerlicious and Winterlicious generates a lot of mixed emotions in the restaurant industry.
The biannual festival was initially launched in 2003 by the City of Toronto to help the tourism and hospitality industry recover from the SARS crisis. Only 35 restaurants participated in its first year, but there are now more than 200 participating restaurants. It costs each restaurant around $1,200 to participate. Before marketing and associated costs, the City stands to gain about half a million dollars a year from the festival itself.
Most restaurateurs bemoan the experience and belittle the clientele. Servers complain about the lower than average gratuity left by patrons.
While my servers were reticent at first about my decision to participate, I always remind them that you get what you give.
People do not dine out just to fill their bellies. They go out to have an experience and the business of food is not limited to a utilitarian function; the dining room is a theatre of sorts and you can either play the role of consummate host or be the bumbling and begrudging curmudgeon. The choice is yours.
To be sure, the experience is not all cocktails and curtain call encores.
Yes, there are diners who only drink water during the festival. Yes, there are diners who only tip 10 per cent (before tax) during the festival, and yes, there are those who show up late and languish way after their bill has been paid during the festival. But those types of diners did not develop this disposition because of the festival; they are always there.
There are many naysayers who exclaim at length on how the food festival sacrifices the integrity of the food and that it is difficult to make a genuine connection with a customer when you are only waiting to turn the table over to the next patron in line. But when are we not doing that in this business? Volume is the name of the game, regardless of the price point.
What people forget is that this is a festival. And like all festivals, there are the die hards and the try-hards who hashtag every course of the meal in the hope to win this year’s best photo caption contest, and with it a free dinner for four.
The clientele is as varied as the restaurants that participate in it. Some are curious culinary adventurers and others are frugal foodies. In fact, after seven years of consecutive participation, I can honestly state that Summerlicious and Winterlicious diners are no different than other diners; there is just more of them at one time coming through the door. How a restaurant and its staff control and corral the crowds says a lot about them.
After seven years, the bi-annual food festival orgy is something that my staff and I know will test our limits, both physically and mentally. We have come to view it as a marathon of sorts, where we push ourselves to be better and test our patience with both the patrons and each other.
I could be pessimistic like other noted chefs and restaurateurs in the city who compare the festival to buying cheap no-name toilet paper.
But I choose not to.
And to the patrons and proprietors who pooh-pooh the festival, if you require Charmin three-ply in order to have a pleasant experience, I suggest you get your colon checked.