Photo credit Emily Calkins

When Howard County Restaurant Week debuted in 2008, less than 10 establishments participated.

Eleven years later, what has evolved into the biannual Howard County Restaurant Weeks – the first event to be held from Jan. 20-Feb 2 – are events that the area’s dining community has come to anticipate every January, for a lift from the post-holiday doldrums and a great opportunity to try new dishes.

“Our original idea was to raise visibility of our restaurants to the Baltimore-Washington market as well as the growing dining community here,” said Joe Barbera, owner of AIDA Bistro & Wine Bar, in Columbia Gateway Business Park, and one of the events’ founders.

Barbera said the event now boasts about three dozen participants and just this year began including breweries, wineries and distilleries.

New Approach

What makes Howard County Restaurant Weeks stand out?

“Restaurant Weeks aren’t just for higher-end establishments,” he said. “Our offerings are varied, and each restaurateur can determine how aggressively they want to be with their offers. I don’t know of another locale in the U.S. that takes that approach.”

With so many participants, the restaurants, breweries, wineries and distilleries aren’t the only establishments that benefit. Many use products grown by Howard’s agricultural community.

For instance, AIDA Bistro sources with Larriland Farm of Woodbine and Clark’s Elioak Farm of Ellicott City.

“That makes it more fun and offers a chance to try yet another local option,” said Barbera, who added that “since the event is presented during a slower time of the year, volume for participants roughly increases 10 percent to 15 percent. That exposure during Restaurant Weeks can result in diners coming back multiple times a year.”

Set Prices

The success of Restaurant Weeks is notable, according to Amanda Hof, executive director of Visit Howard County. “Due to the expanded promotion during the weeks leading up to it and of the actual event, historically, it outperforms any other promotion we run.”

Hof’s numbers tell the story: Restaurant Weeks has accounted for 22 percent of its website users and for 35 percent of page views for 2019, as of press time. In addition, it generates a 68 percent increase in website users, compared to the month before and after the events.

Since setting the prices and promotions are up to each establishment, Hof stressed that “it’s really not a Groupon-type situation where the restaurants have to offer a discount. That makes it friendlier to the restaurants.”

She said, “It’s evolved to be more about the experience and the opportunity for diners to treat themselves. A diner will often get an entrée, appetizer and dessert during the event. They might not do that during the rest of the year.”

As breweries and distilleries grow in popularity, Hof said, it was natural to add them to Restaurant Week.

Howard is home to eight breweries and one distillery, with a second distillery coming online in downtown Ellicott City by spring.

“They can feature flights or specialty brews, paired with food offerings,” she said, “and serve local wines. If they don’t offer food in house, they can partner with caterers or food trucks.”

Local Dollars

Brewers and distillers are getting involved in similar promotions “around the state,” said Kevin Atticks, founder of Annapolis-based Grow & Fortify. “That’s a growing part of the agriculture industry and [by joining such events] we’re feeding our citizens and investing money into the local economy. That’s huge.”

One such new participant is Lost Ark Distilling Co. in Columbia, where Owner Brad Blackwell and his staff are “distilling a lot of rum.” he said. “We think the consumer wants something local.”

Domino Sugar from Baltimore is used for the rum and corn and wheat grown at Rural Rhythm Farm” in Dayton are used for a batch of bourbon, he said.

Lost Ark relies on about a dozen food trucks on the days the distillery is open Friday through Sunday.

“We’ll be working to establish relationships with restaurants during Restaurant Weeks so we can figure out what cocktails would work best with what they serve,” he said, “and we’ll be offering those pairings and at their establishments, too.”

Food Fest

Marshall Weston, president and CEO of the Columbia-based Restaurant Association of Maryland, doesn’t see anything but growth for such promotions.

“Restaurant Weeks are extremely popular with the dining public here and elsewhere because of the fixed-price meals and since they give diners the opportunity to try something new. Also many like the idea of getting extra value” at a place they already frequent, Weston said.

“People here look forward to Restaurant Weeks,” Barbera said. “Customers have grown to look for it, as they do any type of festival. We have a good thing going in our community via what we like to call ‘co-op-itition.’ We all have to work together to make it work. And we do.”

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This story originally published in January 2020 issue.