Edmonton’s Downtown Dining Week: Stagnant and Uninspired?

Though superhero Daryl Katz has been in the news of late for his plans to singlehandedly revitalize downtown Edmonton, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the city’s core has been on a steady upswing over the past few years. From the Paramount Theatre reclamation by the City Centre Church, to the trendy development of the 104th Street Warehouse District, to the stunning new Art Gallery of Alberta, there have been many positive changes in recent years.

Of course, the annual festivals that roll into Churchill Square during the summer months are a yearly guarantee of crowds, but I think the off-season events are even more important. To convince people that downtown Edmonton is a vibrant year-round destination, arts and cultural institutions, nightlife, and events are vital in the crafting of a core culture apart from warm-weather hot dogs and buskers.

To that effect, I think Downtown Dining Week (this year in its seventh incarnation) should be the jewel in the Downtown Business Association’s crown. Food has an uncanny ability to excite people, and dinner and drinks are often just the start of a night out. If presented well, I don’t see why discounted pre-fixe meals couldn’t be the successful lynchpin of a favourable downtown introduction to those unfamiliar with the district.

I wrote last year about how, in my opinion, the DBA is failing to engage those that don’t already frequent downtown restaurants, and seem to be satisfied with the status quo. There is no doubt that the DBA has to work a little harder – with Original Fare hosting Fork Fest, their own pre-fixe food festival twice a year, Downtown Dining Week doesn’t have the luxury of being the only discount menu event in the city. Still, with a self-proclaimed mission of encouraging people to “live, work, shop, play and learn” in the core, I think the way Downtown Dining Week is currently being organized (and promoted) is a missed opportunity. Sure, the number of restaurants participating in the promotion has increased each year, to a “record” 29 in 2010 (keeping in mind that the total number of restaurants downtown has also increased this year), but the event itself is stagnant.

A quick gander at the Dine Out Calgary site leaves me with a feeling of festival envy – the city-wide 91 participating restaurants notwithstanding, their event includes opportunities to dine with local food critic John Gilchrist, wine and chocolate seminars and cooking classes. I’m left with many questions – why hasn’t the DBA attempted similar events, which no doubt would get people excited about food, chefs, and ultimately, downtown Edmonton? There is no shortage of talent, or ideas – Gail Hall, who herself lives downtown on 104th Avenue, could speak at a luncheon; Kelsey Danyluk and Neil Chamberlain of TZiN could teach a food and wine pairing seminar; Moriarty’s, with their Enomatic wine system could host a wine tasting; and Paul Schufelt of Hundred, always innovative and currently dabbling in sous vide techniques, could lead a cooking class. Even better, the DBA could help celebrate the new AGA  by hosting a “dine out and art” night with a package meal and gallery tour deal.

More than partnerships with non-food establishments, however, I think the best asset of Downtown Dining Week is the proximity of restaurants to one another (especially when compared with Calgary’s version). The variety of both casual and formal eateries and bars is fantastic, and if one of the goals is to encourage people to return after this event, shouldn’t DDW be organized so establishments are given maximum opportunities for exposure? For example, a package deal could include a beer and a share plate at The Hat, followed by entrees at Kai Asian Grill. Or dinner at ZINC, then dessert at the Harvest Room in the Hotel Macdonald.

Unlike last year, I decided to contact the DBA with some questions, given that they were probably not aware of my previous comments. I first e-mailed Victoria Boutilier, Communications Coordinator, on February 16, hoping to meet her for a coffee to chat about DDW.  Eventually, it was determined that my questions would be answered by e-mail, so I sent them to her on Wednesday, and finally received a response this morning. I think the answers speak for themselves.

How were the price points reached? Though some may say the recession has since passed, the high end of a $50 meal, which would be over $100 for two with tax and gratuity (and without beverages), is still pricey. The other route, of course, would be to ask restaurants to offer a tasting menu ($75-$80), which would include 4-5 courses, and could offer a better value.

When the program began 7 years ago, the price points were $15, $25, and $35. Based on the feedback received from restaurants it was determined that most found it challenging to offer a high-quality three course meal for $35. It was then that we decided to increase the last price point to not only accommodate feedback from participating restaurants, but as a way to encourage more restaurants to come on board. As a result, the program has grown to encompass a variety of restaurants, from ethnic and pub-style, to trendy and fine-dining. This approach was quite successful as we have had great feedback from both patrons and restaurants. A tasting menu would be a great idea to incorporate for the future if restaurants are interested in offering this.

Although the number of participating restaurants has increased this year (taking into account that the number of operating restaurants has also increased), Downtown Dining Week as a program has remained the same for the past few years. How has the DBA considered expanding the event? For example, Dine Out Calgary has organized a “lunch with” food critic John Gilchrist in as a part of their festivities, in addition to wine tastings and cooking classes. Has the DBA considered hosting similar events?

In 2008 the Downtown Dining Week program had 17 participating restaurants. Just two years later, there are 29 participating restaurants which is a testament to the growth and development of the program. We have also incorporated a contesting component to the event in partnership with Global Edmonton and the Edmonton Journal. It is definitely part of the plan to continue expansion of Downtown Dining Week and we look forward seeing both the DBA and downtown restaurants establishing new initiatives as the program grows. 

In my opinion, the best asset of Downtown Dining Week is proximity – all of the participants are within walking distance of one another. Has the DBA ever considered asking restaurant to partner up (e.g. dinner at Ruth’s, night cap at Moriarty’s; cocktail and appetizer at TZiN, dinner at Sabor Divino)? It would help with exposure of the area’s variety, which seems to be the goal of DDW.

Downtown Dining Week is a collaborative effort to get people to experience the diverse dining scene downtown. We promote downtown Edmonton as the place to live, work, shop, play and learn so for this particular program our focus is to get people to come downtown for dinner and then stay downtown to catch a movie, a show at the Winspear Centre or Citadel Theatre, to check out the new Art Gallery of Alberta, and the like.

Even though this is the seventh year of Downtown Dining Week, many people in the city still aren’t aware of this food festival. What has the DBA done to try and engage those that don’t live or work in the core? Particularly in light of the social media trends in the city?

The Downtown Dining Week program is the biggest it’s ever been. This year, we have expanded our advertising (through increased sponsorships) to include television, newspaper, and magazine. We have also turned to social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook as a means to get the word out to the online community. In addition to these marketing developments, the Downtown Business Association has also enhanced the features on their website to better promote the program and make it easier for our visitors to get the information they need about the program. There has also been an increased focus on the pre-promotion of the program – with extensive and detailed collateral pieces that will be distributed throughout the city and surrounding areas before the event takes place. The Downtown Business Association is confident that with all of our cumulative promotional strategies, Edmontonians will become more aware of the program this year and will look forward to it year after year.

I noticed that Sysco is a partner/sponsor of Downtown Dining Week. What does their sponsorship entail? How does this align with the participating establishments that celebrate local food (Hardware Grill, Madison’s Grill)? How does this align with Edmonton’s recently passed Municipal Development Plan that preserves local farm land (and signals the City’s support of local food)?

This is the first year that Sysco has come on board as a sponsor of the event. They have numerous clients involved in the program and, as the Downtown Business Association promotes all downtown restaurants, we felt this was a great new relationship to build. We are also supportive of local food establishments and encourage people to dine out locally. Organizations such as Keep Edmonton Original and Original Fare are doing a great job in promoting many different local companies and restaurants throughout the city, including several retail and food establishments in the Downtown area.

Although some of Victoria’s answers could lead me to believe that the DBA is heading in the right direction (considering tasting menus, joining the social media fray), the general and vague nature of the responses overall leave me with the feeling that the Downtown Business Association really hasn’t given one of their premiere events much thought on how the festival could really grow and expand to highlight some of Edmonton’s best restaurants in a burgeoning area of the city. More than anything, I am disappointed in their lack of initiative and failure to make the most of a promising concept.

22 thoughts on “Edmonton’s Downtown Dining Week: Stagnant and Uninspired?

  1. I wholeheartedly agree with your closing statements. Festival envy, indeed. I’ve always asked myself why YEG gets the short shrift in publications (with a national or continent-wide reach) that would tout such events. The answer is barely a layer deep in the answers you got back.

    To be fair, perhaps the individual restaurants could imbue this festival with a little innovation of their own, instead of always having the bottom line ($) rule the day. I love you Hardware Grill, but why no dinner option for this festival?

  2. I wonder what we could do? How much involvement would we need from the DBA to initiate some of the ideas you have spoken about in your post? It certainly gets my mind going, how could we, local bloggers, restaurant patrons, purveyors of fine foods, work collaboratively to expand Downtown Dining Week to spark interest and passion for Edmonton’s growing arsenal of exquisite dining choices? My thinking cap is on… on a side note, will you both be at N.A.I.T. for the evening with David Adjey?

  3. If they were smarter, they’d have you as a consultant for next year’s edition! I love your ideas.

    It’s funny that you talk about this side of Edmonton because your blog has always looked at the bright side of things (at least since I got here). But for me, I see that there are some potentially exciting projects and events happening here but I often find it just a bit blend in the end… Is it fear? Is it the economy? I don’t know, but I have a hard time feeling the excitement and it’s disappointing.

  4. Victoria, you really missed an opportunity by not accepting an invitation for coffee with Sharon. I guess you have probably figured that out by now. Maybe next year you will bring her on board (as you have basically spearheaded some fantastic ideas, Sharon).
    I have never been interested in participating in this event as it does not provide the possibilities that KEO’s events do, or even come close to what Calgary does. Why is that, Victoria? We are a fantastic food city with fantastic independent restaurants and so much talent.
    Thank you, Sharon. Who could disagree? Yet, I will still continue to explore all we have to offer in this little city of mine. 🙂

  5. Great post Sharon! I live and work downtown and have never heard of this festival. Looking forward to checking it out. I’m surprised you got such poor answers to your questions, what a missed opportunity for some great *free* coverage.

  6. I think it’s easy to criticize something when you don’t know their constraints (budget or otherwise).

  7. Richard – I think a tasting menu would definitely allow some restaurants to flex some more creativity.

    Nikki – I, too was hoping for more involvement with food bloggers as well. And yes, I will be at the NAIT event! You as well?

    Dr. CaSo – I try to focus on the bright side, certainly, but I was hoping to provide the DBA with some constructive criticism and suggestions to improve their event.

    Shermie – I don’t think I was being critical for the sake of being critical – I really do think DDW could be better. And if constraints (financial or otherwise) were preventing the DBA from offering additional events or utilizing other promotional avenues, for example, then I would hope Victoria would have alluded to such contraints. As it stands, it looks to me like they are not doing enough.

  8. Check out multiple discussions on Connect2Edmonton for more public feedback on Edmonton’s Downtown Dining Week.

    Great column Sharon!

  9. Tough one. Downtowns are difficult to promote with or without food festivals. Especially when you freeze 6 month of the year walking down Stephen’s Avenue Mall.

    When I first moved to Calgary and lived DT, there was Eau Claire Market. We all know what happened. It’s people’s lifestyle patterns one has to look at, not business associations.

    Not sure what it would take to make Calgary or Edmonton’s cores vibrant. Let’s not count 17th Avenue as downtown.
    But I do think it takes a grassroots style movement first to motivate people before we put the onus on city (budget) run organizations to bring us back into the urban mood.

    Can you name one small business downtown, where a proprietor actually lives above the business? You know, similar to Europe’s inner city lifestyles.
    It all starts with citizens, not businesses.

  10. Hi Sharon!

    Yes, I too will be at the event, and I am looking forward to meeting some local food bloggers and putting some faces to names! I am fairly new to the local food blogging world so it will be good to meet some experienced local bloggers! I suppose meeting David Adjey won’t be too bad either, ha ha ha!

  11. My husband and I love eating out. We plan holidays around restaurants and where to eat!
    Compare Edmonton’s offerings to Victoria’s downtown dining week held mid-February and you’ll see why we aren’t feeling that inspired to participate in the Edmonton Downtown Dining week.

  12. I’m disappointed in the contrived tone of the responses. It really seemed like canned responses as opposed to actual enthusiasm, or worse, doesn’t even actually acknowledge the question at hand. Like your question about asking restaurants to partner up and the following answer didn’t actually address your suggestion.

    Sharon, I wish you were part of the organization. 🙂

  13. Thanks, Kenn!

    H. Peter – I agree there is some onus on the citizens to change their behavior (to “play” downtown, especially for those who work and live in the area), but I think the core has to be enticing enough for people to spend their time and their dollars there. It’s definitely requires commitment from both parties.

    Nikki – looking forward to meeting you!

  14. Leave Zinc out of your recommendations, I’d suggest. The terrible service far outweighs the nice food, even for us foodies. I simply can’t fully appreciate a meal if my plate is dirty, my glass has someone else’s lipstick and my companion’s food is cold and the wrong order!

  15. I’ve been to both Victoria and San Francisco’s dining week and Edmonton’s leave much to be desired.

    I remember when the dining week in Edmonton was $25-$35 ( about 3 years ago) and L’Azia offered 2-3 options. Looking at some of this years menus (some which aren’t even a full 3 courses, many with no options, just take it or leave it), I think the concept needs to be seriously reworked.

    I was under the impression Downtown Dining Week was to encourage people to try restaurants they’ve never tried before, and for restaurants to get people in their doors who’ve never been before by offering an affordable, promotional, limited time menu. At $50/dinner, and limited items, it doesn’t exactly encourage me to go try a restaurant that I haven’t already been dying to try. DBA needs to go back to the drawing board on this one, or I forsee downtown dining week dying out.

  16. Late reply because I’m catching up on my reading from when I was away!

    I totally agree with you Sharon. I started going to the Downtown Dining Week when it first started and, after a few years, gave up on it. Nothing they’ve done in the meantime has convinced me to give it another try. Original Fare does a much better job, even if they limit the days.

  17. bruleeblog – yeah, what disappointed me the most about their response was their definite lack of interest in enhancing and reinventing the festival. I still view it as a good idea, but a missed opportunity to do better.

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