Steve Wecker, Iron Bridge Wine Company, & other restaurateurs noticed a positive bump in business during Howard County Restaurant Weeks.

Diners who took advantage of the special menus curated by restaurants in Howard County’s winter Restaurant Weeks & Craft Beverages celebration had the option of doing so in the comfort of their own homes, with nary a thought of what to wear.

A total of 31 restaurants participated in the annual event, sponsored by Howard County Tourism, Inc.

In addition to favorite mainstays such as the Iron Bridge Wine Company, Aida Bistro, and Tino’s Italian Restaurant, first-time newcomers included Beef Brothers, Bushel and a Peck Kitchen & Bar, The Periodic Table, Rathskeller and Xenia Greek Kouzina, to name just a few.

“Hundreds of restaurant employees [benefitted] from everyone making an effort to dine out during this time,” said Marshall Weston, Jr., president and CEO of the Restaurant Association of Maryland.

Creating Thinking

Steve Wecker, principal at the Wecker Hospitality Group whose Howard County operations include Mutiny Pirate Bar and Island Grille, Cured, 18th and 21st and Iron Bridge, said COVID-19 made this year’s Restaurant Weeks particularly challenging. With seating limited to 50 percent capacity, restaurants had to get creative.

“You’re seating four or five tables instead of 11 or 12 but at Iron Bridge we had tents that allowed us to add some additional seating outside,” Wecker said. “At Cured and 18th and 21st we still had pretty good traffic and I’m happy to say we saw a lot of new faces.”

Recipe for Success

According to Amanda Hof, executive director of Howard County Tourism, Howard County’s Restaurant Weeks have gained a loyal following since the celebrations first began in 2008 but COVID-19 made organizers question whether it could continue this year.

“We surveyed restaurants over the summer, and they all said yes, they need this support,” she said. “They were pivoting to stay afloat, so we pivoted as well and were able to leverage the craft beverage options thanks to relaxed off-premises sales regulations. There is more profit margin for restaurants on beverages so they were still able to get some of that market share and also help out the local craft producers.”

Participating restaurants took special care to select menu items and dishes that would hold up, Hof said, and also took special care in the packaging they used for Restaurant Weeks.

“A lot of restaurants innovated by bundling meals, making it possible to buy a single meal for multiple people, offering themed meals or combining appetizers and entrees,” she said. “That was not so much a thing for a lot of independently owned restaurants before the pandemic.”

Despite social distancing and capacity issues, Hof declared this year’s winter Restaurant Week a success.

“Restaurant participation was up 10 percent over the number last summer, maybe a couple shy of what we normally see in a non-pandemic year and there were a lot of newcomers,” she said. “We registered significant increases in the number of visits to the Restaurant Weeks website platform. When things get back to normal, I think we’ll see increased participation in the future because the pandemic made more people aware of the program.”

By George Berkheimer | Senior Writer | The Business Monthly | March 2021 Issue