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Historically, restaurant weeks have looked something like this: For a week or 10 days, diners can pay a fixed price—usually at a steep discount—for an appetizer, entrée, and dessert at participating restaurants, often fine-dining establishments. In part, that formula was meant to help get new customers in the door who may not otherwise have dined there.
But when she took over First Bite: Boulder County Restaurant Week in 2019 and started chatting with restaurant owners, chefs, and diners, Jessica Benjamin realized this tried-and-true model wasn’t necessarily working for everyone. Some restaurants, particularly those at a lower price point, never participated because they didn’t feel the event was meant for them—they thought it was for higher-end spots only. Others grew frustrated by the deal-seekers who descended upon the restaurant in huge numbers, which left the staff exhausted (and, often, under-tipped). Some also said they just couldn’t make the fixed-price, appetizer-entrée-dessert format work with their menu. And many patrons weren’t impressed either: Some of the county’s residents even told Benjamin they simply cooked at home during that week, either because they wanted to avoid the crowds or just didn’t see the point of the event.
So Benjamin decided to toss out the old playbook entirely, offering restaurants more flexibility in how they chose to participate and making the event more inclusive of eateries at all price points and styles. She wanted to create an event that benefited restaurants as much as possible while also highlighting and celebrating their contributions to the economy and the community. “I wanted to get rid of the rules,” she says.
Benjamin started First Bite’s evolution gradually in 2019—by adding a second, more affordable price point and encouraging restaurants to offer whatever they wanted—with even bigger plans to change the event’s format in 2020. Then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and she had to cancel the event outright. She successfully pivoted to create the popular A Bite of Boulder cookbook featuring recipes and stories from dozens of Boulder County restaurants. And, importantly, she used that time to build relationships with chefs and restaurateurs in town and explain her new vision for First Bite moving forward. “I thought long and hard about, ‘How can I be an event for who we need to be in the future and do something really meaningful?’” she says.
This year, more of that vision is becoming a reality. First Bite returns October 8–17, offering diners creative new ways to eat and drink, connect with local chefs, and support restaurants as they try to rebound from the pandemic.There are three price points—$29, $39, and $49—which gives both diners and restaurants an opportunity to participate within their budget and their preferences. As restaurants try to recover from the pandemic while grappling with labor shortages and supply chain issues, they need courteous, supportive patrons but, above all else, they need to make money from the event. “What we realized in 2020 was that we are all different diners on different nights of the week—there is a time and a place for lobster risotto, those moments where you want to go out and celebrate, but then there are also moments where you’re like, ‘It’s Tuesday and I don’t want to cook,’” Benjamin says. “First Bite needed to be much more inclusive to all those dining establishments, all of those types of diners and, in the post-pandemic life, be a lot more sensitive to both what diners could afford but also, frankly, what the restaurants need.”
One of those innovative packages comes from T/aco, a staple on Boulder’s Walnut Street for the last nine years. For $39 per person, diners can eat and drink to their heart’s content for 90 minutes. This all-you-can-eat-and-drink option includes alcoholic beverages such as T/aco’s tasty (and strong!) margs. “[Benjamin] really hit the nail on the head when she said, ‘This is a celebration of the survival and success we’ve all had this past year,’” says owner Peter Waters. “What we want is to create an opportunity for people to come in, have a great night or afternoon, and experience something they’ve maybe put on the backburner over the last year and a half.”
West End Tavern is doing a barbecue platter for two people for $49, while Japango is doing an appetizer trio for $29 (diners can also upgrade the deal with a cocktail and dessert for $49). For the first time, some spots are also doing brunch. “There’s definitely more creativity happening,” Benjamin says. “It just kind of opened it up for them to be a lot more themselves and have fun.”
Benjamin also hopes to expand restaurant week beyond the annual 10-day affair by hosting year-round events like cooking classes and wine and cheese tastings. Her overarching goal is to help diners connect with and get to know the chefs, farmers, purveyors, producers, and other people who work with food in their community. To that end, First Bite is also partnering with local food delivery service Nosh Boulder to raise money for the Emergency Family Assistance Association, a Boulder County nonprofit that helps families in need. Throughout First Bite, 10 percent of orders placed through Nosh Boulder will go to the organization.
“We recognized through the pandemic that one piece of the economic puzzle actually impacts everybody,” Benjamin says. “If restaurants are struggling, that has a huge impact on suppliers and growers and farmers. How do we keep supporting nonprofits that are working to address food insecurity? To me, it’s like, let’s help each other while we celebrate.”
First Bite Boulder County Restaurant Week is October 8–17 at participating spots. View a full list here.