September 26, 2020

Restaurant week has never been as crucial as it is now

When the Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber of Commerce holds restaurant weeks, most business owners willingly throw in their spatulas to participate. It’s a way to market their meals, ambience and more, while the chamber works to promote communities.

But never was the promotion needed more than it is now.

Restaurant weeks usually are held during the winter and summer, which are typically times of slower business. But downtime has taken on new meaning, as the coronavirus hits its seventh month, busting the incomes of many restaurants.

It’s led to innovative ways for the chamber to market food places. Its first COVID-19-era restaurant week in April was in Whitehall, and the chamber’s Jessica O’Donnell said it evolved into a “Gift Card Grab and Go Week” to encompass many businesses besides restaurants.

The chamber also held a Hellertown-Lower Saucon Area restaurant week in July and is planning one in early October for the Bath area.

“We tried to be more inclusive to not just restaurants but retailers,” O’Donnell said. “We’re trying to get the cash flow into our businesses.”

Starting Sunday, the second annual Nazareth Area Restaurant Week will kick off with more than three-course dinners. Customers also can choose spots that serve fast food, frozen desserts, baked goods and brewed refreshments.

“When I saw the advertisement on Facebook, it showed Rita’s and Emily’s Ice Cream,” said Eric Geleta of The Spot Drive-In. “I mean, we sell food, too, so let’s get involved in this.”

Geleta, who since May has operated the 60-year-old Spot Drive-In off Route 191 in Lower Nazareth Township with his wife, Jamie, and Adam and Jasmine Pooler, is like any other merchant looking to draw customers and get out from under the grip of COVID-19, which has claimed about 650 lives in the Lehigh Valley, more than 7,860 lives statewide and more than 190,000 people across the country.

Restaurants in particular have been hit hard, with the industry calling government shutdown orders and limits to indoor service to 25% so drastic and devastating that more than 7,000 out of about 26,000 establishments statewide risk permanent closure. Even with the state last week allowing bars and restaurants to expand to 50% capacity on Sept. 21, good news came with the bad — a 10 p.m. cutoff for serving alcohol.

O’Donnell, whose role as executive vice president of affiliated chambers requires keeping tabs on nine business groups in two dozen Valley communities, said it’s been difficult to track the list of restaurant and other small business closings.

And yet, new businesses are being established. For them, O’Donnell said, the chamber is reaching out to offer what assistance it can.

“It’s about supporting small businesses during this time, to give them a platform that says, ‘We’re open,’” she said.

Stephanie Altieri, who coordinates Easton Restaurant Week, said about 10 merchants participated in July, less than half the normal number. Altieri, who works in marketing for Bethlehem’s Cumulus Media, said the week featured outdoor dining and curbside pickup. And earlier, she organized a “Take Out” week.

“It’s all about people’s preferences, whether they feel comfortable going to a restaurant or not,” Altieri said.

Locally owned restaurants often are the backbone of downtown retail and business districts, Altieri noted. “Most of them are mom-and-pop establishments, and restaurant patrons drive business to other local businesses.” she said.

A few restaurateurs have decided to forgo this year’s restaurant weeks over concerns such as not having enough staff to cater to customers, O’Donnell said.

One told her, “Count me in next year, but unfortunately, I don’t want people to get a bad experience.”

Not so Rios Brazilian Steakhouse on South Broad Street in Nazareth, where owners Dina and Edson Geleski feel confident patrons can enjoy a pleasant meal either inside their 100-seat restaurant or in the outdoor area they recently created.

“I think we’re rolling with a lot of challenges,” Dina Geleski said. “We are surviving and everything; it’s been good.”

Nazareth’s restaurant week is important because Greater Lehigh Valley Chamber, which late last year merged with the former Nazareth Area Chamber of Commerce, launched the inaugural event last year, O’Donnell said.

“Despite COVID, we felt more than ever, we need to do this for our businesses, but also continue the tradition,” she said. “We want this to be an annual event and we were not going to let COVID get in the middle of it.”

Morning Call reporter Anthony Salamone can be reached at 610-820-6694 or asalamone@mcall.com.

If you go

The second annual Nazareth Area Restaurant Week runs through Saturday. More information is at lehighvalleychamber.org.

The chamber’s Bath Area Restaurant Week will run Oct. 4-10.

Easton restaurant weeks are Jan. 17-23 and July 18-24.

More information is also at discoverlehighvalley.com.

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