Winterlicious — Celebration or Chore?


Hospitality student goes undercover to get to the bottom of polarizing dining event

A birthday, anniversary or promotion — they’re all celebrations where people decide to break away from the everyday routine of a homemade casserole and experience something special.

Most people have a “choice set” of around five restaurants they dine at when celebrating such occasions. Choice-set restaurants are in good standing because diners already have a good perception of the restaurant based on previous experiences. A small mistake here and little mishap there is often overlooked because the guests are relaxed, feel good about their decision and are simply looking to eat, drink and be merry.

This is not the case when it comes to customers dining at a restaurant during a Winter or Summerlicious event. For them, the experience is the celebration.

Twice a year, Torontonians are invited to dine at various restaurants across the city for a reduced-price three-course meal. People stray outside of their choice-set restaurants to experience something different and find a new gem.

Unfortunately for participating restaurants, many guests have a negative perception of Winterlicious due to a previous experience or bad reviews from family or friends. Many assume the reduced prices will translate to smaller portions and poor service, perhaps even thinking servers will look down on them for taking advantage of the promotion where checks and tips are typically smaller. Consumers are also wary of the number of meal choices and vegetarian options, and this apprehension grows when restaurants fail to post their Winterlicious menus online. It’s difficult for operators to break these preconceived notions and squeeze into the choice-set of an avid restaurant-goer.

Such truths are not lost on the City of Toronto, which helps organize the Winter and Summerlicious events each year. In fact, city reps approached George Brown instructor Adrian Caravello about including George Brown College students, like me, in Winterlicious mystery shops in which we would report our findings to the city.

George Brown made sure each candidate was well prepared for the task at hand with courses like Professional Guest Service and Dining Room Theory and Simulation. I also passed my WSET (Wine Spirit and Education Trust) intermediary exam with distinction and received high marks on the mystery shopping knowledge test, which the school created for the program. It doesn’t hurt that I also regularly read about the industry on my own, including passages from one of my favourite books, Setting the Table, by Danny Meyer. If this book couldn’t prepare me for a restaurant mystery shop, I don’t know what could.      

So, this past February I attended four restaurants promoting the two-week event, and all of the previously mentioned stigmas came to fruition. During one experience, when my girlfriend ordered off the main menu and I said I would be dining off the Winterlicious menu, the waiter rolled his eyes. At one restaurant, I was told the entire table had to order from the Winterlicious menu or nobody could. (When did it become too difficult for kitchen staff to prepare different plates for different guests — isn’t that what they do year round?)

I spoke with many of my peers and, unfortunately, it was a similar story.

Of course, these stigmas did not hold true for every restaurant I visited. I also enjoyed a quality of food that was consistent with the à la cart menu and had service that was warm and friendly, though I never received service that I would describe as above and beyond my expectations. Certainly, it was nothing that screamed, “Please come back and dine with us again!” As I was leaving the restaurants, no one ever said, “we’d love to see you again” or “come back soon,” they simply said “goodbye.”

So the question remains, why not try to exceed expectations during Winterlicious? So much potential can be maximized from exhibiting top-notch food and service.

It seems that most restaurant staff view Winterlicious guests as one-time-only patrons, people who are out to save money and not likely return. That may be true for some, but exceeding expectations could encourage return visits. Many Winterlicious patrons are in their 20s and haven’t reached the apex of their spending power. But, the day will come when they have that job on Bay St., or own their own company, and they’ll remember who treated them well.

The most annoying thing is being treated differently because of your age. I know of a student who wasn’t even offered a drink during his Winterlicious experience at a renowned downtown restaurant. More restaurant staff need to view these events as the best, cheapest opportunity to bring burgeoning restaurant-goers through their doors. Operators should encourage their employees to make sure each and every guest feels special. It can be tough for servers who can become almost mechanical when they’re very busy, but that’s why it’s important to employ good staff. Restaurant employees should exhibit bright, winning personalities, believe in the operator’s goals and express them to guests.

There’s so much wasted potential that comes with giving guests a bad Winter or Summerlicious experience. Such diners aren’t likely to return and may even spread the word to friends and family. And, let’s not forget: in this social networking age, media is king among young people who can spread news quickly and effectively.

On the other hand, excellent Winter or Summerlicious experiences create the opportunity to retain guests for a second and third time, possibly even turning them into regulars. In this case, they’ll tell their friends and family what a wonderful time they had. Perhaps, they’ll give it a good review online and blog or tweet about the experience. The amount of cheap, impactful marketing that can arise from the influx of happy customers during Winterlicious is endless.

Value the opinion of Winter and Summerlicious guests as much as repeat customers. Repeat customers have a bond that can influence opinion; but new guests can tell what’s what. Have them fill out customer satisfaction surveys and collect useful, unbiased feedback. Such information will help show how servers react to different people and situations and can help improve a restaurant overall.

According to Philip Kotler, author of Kotler on Marketing, the cost of attracting new customers is five times the cost of keeping a current customer happy. Every year, Winter and Summerlicious gives free access to new customers — just keep them happy. Even if two per cent of Winterlicous guests return — assuming 50 new guests showed up per day of promotion — that’s seven new guests as potential repeat customers.

Operators need to stop treating Winter and Summerlicious events as a chore and start recognizing the amazing potential for future growth. If not, potential diners might decide to stay home and eat their mother’s casserole instead.

Adam Minster graduated from the University of Western Ontario with a Political Science degree and continued on to George Brown College to study Hotel Management. After working for a reputable fine-dining restaurant in Toronto, he was hooked. He is now a second-year student of the Food and Beverage Management program.


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