Theme supreme

The Beresford Hotel in Sydney's Surry Hills.

The Beresford Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills.

Changing up your weekly dining schedule with a dedicated ‘theme night’ can pay dividends—both for you and your customers. Jessica Prince-Montague investigates.

When the team behind The Beresford Hotel in Sydney’s Surry Hills got together to brainstorm a new initiative some two years ago, little did they know the impact of their decision. At the time, both The Beresford’s licensee and general manager were intent on bringing something fresh and exciting to their venue; something that would give their bistro more buzz and break up the week.

Owned by the progressive Merivale group, there were naturally plenty of ideas but it was eventually concluded a weekly ‘themed’ dinner would suit the venue nicely. The prospect was floated with head chef, Reid Hingston, who responded favourably. In his own words: “We agreed to give it a go and it flowed organically from there.” That seemingly small decision to mix things up has paid off. The Beresford’s Long Table Feast was born and the venue has become a fixture on the mid-week Sydney dining scene. Every Wednesday evening, up to 70 guests book in for a communal culinary adventure. At $30 per head (or $45 with wine), guests dine on 10 to 15 of Hingston’s carefully crafted Mediterranean dishes, which, as the ‘theme’ suggests, are enjoyed family-style at one long table. For Hingston, it was always a no-brainer about which direction their theme was going to take. “It was always going to be representative of our kitchen. Our specialty is trattoria-style Italian, so we were never going to go Asian or down the fusion track. It was going to be an extension of what we were already doing.” Some 18 months later, the Long Table Feast continues to provide strong growth for The Beresford brand.

Hingston credits this success down to a few things, starting with the fact it offers a wider selection of dishes for regulars. “On a usual evening, patrons will order several shared items and a main,” he explains. “But the Long Table Feast allows them more variety and the chance to see how creative we can be.” All things going well, it’s hoped contented customers will return (with a few friends in tow) on a later date to order beyond their usual fare in a more adventurous—and more plentiful—manner, which many of them do. The evening also targets those wanting a unique culinary experience, but without a hefty price tag. “People get to taste everything and take part in that whole communal dining phenomenon in a very social and diverse way,” continues Hingston. This targets Sydneysiders willing to travel to try something new. “We have a lot of people come in who aren’t regulars and always receive amazing feedback. Only recently we had a group of 30 women from out of the area make a booking and say they loved it. People are always on the hunt for that different dining experience.” The benefits to The Beresford, however, aren’t just evident front-of-house. “It breaks up normality for us, too,” confesses Hingston. “The guys in the kitchen are working on the same menu for at least 2000 people a week, so it gives them the chance to play with different dishes, experiment, and also gauge the reaction. We almost use the evening as a test; to see if a dish will succeed as a permanent menu item.” Which, he adds, has often proved the case.

Down the road in nearby Holt Street, the sophisticated Italian restaurant Vini has experienced similar success. In 2005, Vini’s owner and then head-chef Andrew Cibej started their now-famous Regional Dinners. It was billed as a night for guests to enjoy a four-course set menu of seasonal fare based on one of the 20 regions in Italy. Held every Tuesday and priced at only $55 per head, the evening now sells out weeks in advance, with two sittings at 6pm and 8.30pm. “We find customers love it because of the interaction with the chef,” says Vini restaurant manager Jen Burley. “They are treated to a speech about each of the dishes, where the chef draws on information and anecdotes about how each one was developed. It’s also great value for money and allows people to experience unusual dishes and regional cooking.”

The road to success for both The Beresford and Vini has not been without its challenges, though. “We initially found it difficult to get the word out there,” concedes Hingston. “But once it started resonating with locals, we got more traction. We were also fortunate the Long Table Feast became part of the larger March Into Merivale Food & Wine Festival. That gave it a huge kick.” The other trial was getting all guests seated at the same time to avoid latecomers missing out on food. They’ve since solved that problem by having only smaller dishes served from the starting time of 6.30pm, with larger dishes distributed from 7.30pm and beyond. One hitch they haven’t yet solved, however, is fluctuations in numbers. This naturally affects stock levels and estimated activity in the kitchen. “Some weeks we get 50 bookings, then other weeks we only have 20,” says Hingston. “We’ve discussed why it goes up and down, but it’s hard to judge. I think people are more reluctant to lock in mid-week plans because their schedule might change.” On the whole, though, he says business is pretty consistent. For Vini, their regional dinners have been part of the restaurant’s well-oiled routine for some time now.

However, Burley says the restaurant did experience a transitional phase in the beginning. “Before they were fully booking out the region dinners, I know they were offering two sittings of the set menu, and à la carte dining in between. So I’m sure that would have been extremely difficult.” For the most part, both restaurants have learnt from their experiences and continue to build on their ‘theme night’ triumphs. In fact, the very phrase seems almost tokenistic because it implies a one-off, when The Beresford and Vini have built long-term success stories. Both mid-week ventures are now integral to their restaurants’ multi-layered business plans, which is probably the greatest measure of all—a new idea has done well.

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