It’s no secret that diners have short attention spans and a variety of choices when it comes to dining out. To combat diner boredom, several restaurants give patrons a reason to come back again and again by changing their menus, décor and cocktails several times a year.
CHOW Foods in Seattle operates five restaurants—Endolyne Joe’s, 5 Spot, The Hi-Life in Seattle, and Brewers Row and Cooks Tavern, both in Tacoma—that change several times a year. Owner Peter Levy hit upon this idea in 1990 when he opened the 5 Spot in Seattle. His previous restaurant had been an American diner and patrons were disappointed that the 5 Spot didn’t offer the same menu. In an attempt to bring more diners to his his restaurant, Levy decided to offer a special Mardi Gras menu that coincided with the holiday. Business picked up and the restaurant received so much local press that Levy kept it going, offering another special menu, Chesapeake Coastal cooking, for six weeks. When that was also a hit with patrons, he decided to make a rotating menu part of the restaurant’s business plan. “Originally it was out of desperation but then we saw it as a real method to maintain business,” Levy says.
It’s not just the menu that changes, but also the artwork, music, cocktails, wine and beer. About two-thirds of the menu stays the same, but one-third, including an item or two on the kid’s menu, changes to fit the theme. Because all the CHOW Foods restaurants are located in neighborhoods with regular clientele, Levy says, the rotating menus have kept the restaurants popular.
However, he admits, it’s a very expensive and time-consuming endeavor. He estimates the cost per restaurant is well over $50,000 a year when factoring in menu development, staff training and the evitable mistakes that are made executing a new menu. But, he adds, “We are so far into it, it would hurt our business to stop doing it.”
Several other restaurants across the country have made rotating menus part of their business plan, including New York City-based Park Avenue, which has been changing with the seasons since 2007. The restaurant alters its menus, décor, uniforms, cocktails, wine list, even the soaps in the restroom to match each season, says Michael Stillman, owner of Park Avenue Summer. The transitions follow the seasons, with the restaurant changing to autumn over Labor Day, winter over Thanksgiving weekend, and summer over Memorial Day weekend. Spring is a bit more flexible and depends on when the spring holidays of Easter and Passover occur. During each transition, the restaurant closes for 48 hours to allow a construction team to change the design, lighting and décor, while the chefs and beverage teams train their staff, Stillman says.
Since 2011, the upscale Next Restaurant in Chicago has been changing its menu at least three times a year. Themes have included Paris 1906, Childhood, and Ancient Rome. “Dining out is ultimately entertainment and probably the most popular form of entertainment in the world,” says Nick Kokonas, co-owner and co-founder of The Alinea Group, which owns Next, Alinea Restaurant and The Aviary, all located in Chicago. “We want to create experiences for people and to be transportive.”
Every three months, Next shuts down for a week so that staff can be trained on a new menu. “We want to keep it about the food so we don’t do that much to change décor,” Kokonas says. However, Next will often use special plating and props to drive home its theme. For instance, for the Childhood menu, which featured high-end versions of foods nostalgic for American children, Next purchased a selection of vintage lunch boxes that were used to deliver one of the courses. When diners would book a table, the staff would look them up on social media and match a vintage lunch box to their age.
“The fun part is we would put a note in [the lunch box] from mom or dad,” Kokonas says. The wait staff would try to figure out what the table was discussing—for instance, perhaps it was first date or an anniversary or birthday celebration—and they would write a customized note to match the event. “We go all in,” he says. “It is a constant creative endeavor for our teams and service people.”
Trick Pony, a cocktail bar in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhood, also sees reinventing itself as a creative endeavor. The bar was designed to be minimalist to allow for seasonal changes, says beverage director Alex Fletcher. Since it opened in September 2017, the bar has had four themes—Bill Murray, The ’80s, Around the World in 80 Cocktails, and the most recent Endless Summer. Around the World in 80 Cocktails featured a new six-drink menu every week for 13 weeks. “It can be fun trying out new concepts and seeing how the public reacts,” Fletcher says.
Each theme lasted about three or four months but Fletcher says Trick Pony plans to extend Endless Summer to end of the year. “Three or four months is too short,” he says. “It takes a while to get the word out. I still have people coming in for the Bill Murray theme six months later.”