It began with a conversation over lunch at a locally owned Reno restaurant. Two enterprising friends with a fascination for the food industry met to discuss an idea that one of the pair was mulling over. Other cities and regions had been successful in promoting their local dining establishments through events called restaurant weeks, in which area restaurants provided dining specials and food-focused events to encourage residential culinary exploration and attract visitors.
Northern Nevada has a bounty of skilled restaurateurs and chefs. Why couldn’t Reno celebrate its food scene in similar fashion?
Reno Bites restaurant week was born in 2012, its two co-founders each bringing their respective expertise to the table. Chef Clint Jolly was born into the food business as a fourth-generation butcher to an entrepreneurial father who owned a decades-old butcher shop. There, he found a talent for cooking and worked his way to owning his own successful catering company, Great Thyme Catering.
Natasha Bourlin had spent more than a decade working in public relations and marketing, both for individual organizations and communications agencies locally and nationally, and then running her own. Both partners were entrepreneurial and wanted to shine a spotlight on Reno’s culinary community that the pair took pride in. They wanted locals to be just as proud, and for visitors to see Reno’s creative gastronomic side. They wanted local chefs to feel a sense of camaraderie, not just competition, and for a positive economic impact to be created and kept in the community by encouraging diners to patronize their local establishments, not just the chain restaurants they were familiar with.
“When we first decided to put on a restaurant week, our mission was to show locals and visitors what tremendous culinary talent the locally owned restaurants have,” Co-Founder of Reno Bites Natasha Bourlin states. “Unfortunately, most don’t have the marketing budgets that national chain restaurants do. The week encourages people to explore the area restaurants’ food and ambiance, keep their dining dollars within our community, and maybe they’ll find a new favorite.”
However, the creation of such an event locally wasn’t always served up with cherries on top. Bourlin and Jolly spent months researching similar events in other areas, looking at websites and business models, then calling and speaking to fellow restaurant week creators to learn of their challenges and successes, and what they learned from them all.
Between their research, and then trial and error over the first five years of putting on the Reno event, the Reno Bites founders learned many things themselves. The education process was long, both for the restaurants and their target market of food-lovers. Asking restaurants to be financially vested in the event produced far better results for the consumers. It also helped the duo, who created the community event in their spare time and out-of-pocket, pay for the expenses to put it on.
They strategically forged partnerships with local printers, media organizations plus regional and state tourism entities to help carry the message. Friends with talents the two didn’t possess were engaged. Eventually, it all paid off.
“As a chef, I really enjoy seeing my colleagues have fun and work together to build a great community. As an entrepreneur, the financial impact to the restaurants that embrace the week can seriously help them succeed,” Jolly asserts. “Win/win for everyone!”
Where before they had to explain at length what the restaurant week was about to potential sponsors, local—and then national—sponsors began to understand the event’s growing popularity and community impact. Some even began seeking out the week’s team to become a part.
“Whole Foods Market is really excited to be the official passport pick-up location for Reno Bites 2017. We have an amazing local food community in the Northern Nevada area and often see our local chefs shopping in the store,” said Heidi Rich, Marketing & Community Relations Lead for Reno’s Whole Foods Market. “We are proud to help promote these chefs and the local food movement.”
Now heading into its sixth year, Reno Bites Week touts approximately two dozen participating restaurants annually, and a bevy of culinary events that aren’t your average food and wine pairing. It also independently calculated a $1.25 million direct economic impact for the community, based on sales at restaurants, sponsor support, media value and salaries for the event producers.
But at its heart, the restaurant week is about, well, the restaurants.
“The exposure we get from Reno Bites Week is second to none,” exudes Chef Kevin Ashton of Zozo’s Ristorante. “We love the influx of new guests, preparing special menus and creating lasting memories…it’s exactly what a restaurant week should be!”