TORONTO — In a city like Toronto, the dining options are so vast and diners tastes so fickle that it can be a struggle for a restaurant to stand out from the crowd. Toronto-based U-Feast uses experiential marketing to get butts in seats and really make an impression on diners.
U-Feast connects restaurants and brands with avid diners looking for new, exclusive and out-of-the box experiences through curated, private events. The company’s consumer-facing booking platform allows customers to sign up to be members and gain access to regular dining experiences. Once registered, members can view and purchase tickets for a selection of upcoming events.
“We’re really trying to address three major pain points,” explains Terry Mocherniak, co-founder and CEO of U-Feast. “Restaurants have unused capacity and they’re also struggling to market to the younger, millennial demographic; we have consumers out there that are looking for new experiences — there are millions of food events, but there is no single curated marketplace to find them; and food and lifestyle brands are also often struggling to get their product in front of consumers in a very targeted and direct way. We really bring these three different stakeholder groups into one platform.”
U-Feast events take dining out beyond a night at a restaurant. The company’s events combine chef’s-table-style menus with social dining. Meals are typically five to seven family-style courses comprised of off-menu dishes — providing a healthy dose of it-crowd allure — and include drinks for an average ticket price of $65.
The company’s membership of approximately 7,000 offers restaurants an opportunity to reach new customers, while the events offer chefs a chance to showcase their creativity and skill through the development of exclusive, one-time-only menus.
“[Restaurants are recruited] based on an understanding of what our users like, [which is] restaurants with strong urban sensibility — we call them venues with a vibe,” says Howard Thomas, CMO. “The format is generally very social, interactive and communal — what we call family-style. So, we look for restaurants that have a downtown, hip feel and chefs that would be described as up-and-coming.”
At a recent U-Feast event, attending members were treated to a special hands-on experience — a pizza-making contest at Queen Margherita Pizza’s Dundas W. location. Guests were put into groups of four and pitted against each other in an attempt to create the best pizza to pair with Creemore Springs beer. Participants were given a brief tutorial on how to work pizza dough into a crust from the restaurant’s chef David Jimenez-Sanchez. On top of the pizzas they created, guests noshed on a menu that included three appetizers and three pizzas, accompanied by a selection of beers by Creemore Springs.
As the evening’s advertising partner, Creemore Springs also provided a brief educational session by National Beer Education & Culture manager, Justin Lamontagne. As Lamontagne explains, these events make for an ideal platform to reach guests in an engaging, experiential environment — ideal for making an impression. “Everyone who is signing up and aware of U-Feast is there for the experience, they want to have a good time and they know they’re getting something special, so the vibe is very positive to start with, which is really exciting,” he says. “The reception of the crowd was phenomenal and made it a great time.”
Since its establishment in 2015, U-Feast has been on a path to rapid expansion. In September, the company acquired its competitor Pass the Table. This month, it also launched U-Feast Intimate Dining experiences, which allows members to have U-Fest experience on their own terms. The new feature gives members the option to select their desired date, time and group size, and gain access to special off-menu tasting, chef’s tables, hands-on experiences and more, during regular restaurant service.
The platform’s success has also driven the U-Fest team to explore options for expansion beyond the city of Toronto. “Toronto was really our test market, but we have much broader ambitions than just being a Toronto-centric company,” says Mocherniak. “We will be moving into Vancouver next — the target is the first quarter of next year. After that, it will likely be a third Canadian city, likely either Montreal or Calgary, and then the first U.S. city we have on our radar is Chicago.”