As Restaurant Week in Champaign County comes to a close, let’s take a look at a few things, shall we?

First off, this was without a doubt the finest of the many years of promotions and incarnations of the event around these parts. This year’s number of restaurants, and the quality of the meals, was unmatched by a long shot.

You can take a look at all of the different places we went, and the meals we ate right here. We were almost universally impressed, save for a couple misses, but nothing that should keep you away from them in the future.

Personally, I ate or did carryout from four different restaurants last week: Baxter’s American Grille, Koohinoor, Caribbean Grill, and V. Picasso. At each restaurant, I made it a point to ask the staff how they felt about the promotion and whether or not it served its purpose. Were sales up for this time of year comparatively?

The answer was invariably yes and YES. And not only was it a yes, it was emphatic and enthusiastic.

With that in mind, I asked Terri Reifsteck, the primary organizer of the event at VCC, about her feelings on it, and to see if she felt like things aligned with what I’d discovered as well.

Smile Politely: It was palpable that Restaurant Week was happening in 2018, at least moreso than in 2017. How many restaurants participated this year vs. last year?

Terri Reifsteck: 2017 was our inaugural year with 18 restaurants participating. As we approached restaurants this year, we had a good story to share with them on how impactful this event was, so we were able to grow participants to 24. Thirteen of those restaurants did not participate in 2017. I was thrilled to get new people on board and see value in what this event does for their business and the community.

SP: How do you see Restaurant Week growing in the future? Are there opportunities to expand the promotion and incorporate nearby population centers to promote tourism?

TR: I’m really happy with the size of this year’s event. There’s a few more places I would like to see jump on board in the future, but I think we are showcasing some of our area’s best restaurants. We are so fortunate that we have such a vast culinary scene that there is room to grow and showcase new and different cuisines. From the perspective of attendance, I am ecstatic. I’m a bit of a stats nerd, so I’ve been closely following our page analytics as well as a program we have to track advertising conversions. From web traffic, we saw a 253% increase to our Restaurant Week page, sitting at 37,944 views since January 1. We had over 10,300 people hit this page on the kickoff of the event, which probably explains why I couldn’t get a table anywhere!

As far as drawing nearby populations, we actually incorporated a number of advertising opportunities to attract people within 150 miles from outside of the area. Our primary goal at Visit Champaign County is to bring people from 50-miles and out into the community to spend their dollars so our area can reap the benefit from those tax dollars. We also want to scream from the rooftops how incredible our culinary scene is and debunk any perceptions that people may have of the area. Having won Midwest Living’s Greatest Midwest Food Town this September, we had the perfect opportunity to leverage that title in our advertising efforts. We did and it paid off. From one advertising avenue alone, we saw 27 searches for flights to Willard or Bloomington after hearing/seeing our ad.

I think our restaurants would tell you that they saw a significant boost in traffic this week and I hope to have some concrete numbers soon. From conversations while I or other members of our team were out, they were full even midweek, which is hard to do in January.

SP: What were some of your favorites this year? Anything really stand out?

TR: This is like asking me who my favorite kid is! I love to eat and I’m not picky, so as I started receiving menus I wondered how I could possibly eat at every stop. Thankfully, my coworkers “helped” me out and ate out as well. What made me happy was to see the enthusiasm from the restaurants themselves. To hear that they are excited to participate, to see new patrons coming in the door and to hear about first time experiences is what it’s really about to me.

There were several restaurants that just had incredible deals. Hamilton Walker’s really understood their goal of getting new people in the door for the first time, so they created their menu that way and it succeeded. I try to encourage each restaurant to be creative and think of how to get someone to eat there for the first time. Some did this really well and some will probably make adjustments for next year.

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Champaign County doesn’t have a lot to offer when it comes to the natural world, and what most people see as beautiful or appealing. No mountains. No ocean. No lake. We don’t even have a goddamned river. The weather is mostly blech. There are good things, and great things though, of course. But by comparison to other parts of the country, we can’t compete. We know that, by now. 

What we do have, though, are a great diversity in people and a hardworking culture. And that is why we have this many amazing restaurants, most of which will fit the budgets of the average citizen, whether it be special occasion or on the regular.

The work that Visit Champaign County does is absolutely irreplaceable. Their staff is dedicated to the simple, yet complex, idea that this community and the people who actively promote it are worth celebrating.

These are tax dollars hard at work, paying off dividends in multiples, many times over. I don’t generally wear rose-colored glasses when it comes to looking at this community. I see myriad problems, deficiencies, and space to improve on a daily basis. It’s frustrating at times. Like, honestly, there are moments where I am driven to anger over it. Shocking, right? 

But when there’s something done the right way, and done well, it’s worth celebrating. And that is precisely how I feel about the continued improvement of Restaurant Week and all that it brings to this community at a particularly depressing time of year.

With that said, I think I will stick around a bit longer. This place is worth it. 

Photos Justine Bursoni and Anna Longworth