Visit Vancouver USA organized its annual Dine the Couve promotional event for the month of October. Asking restaurants to give a discount during a financial crisis seems like cheerfully serving cocktails to passengers on the sinking Titanic, but many restaurateurs found reasons to participate.
Keri Buhman, owner of C’est La Vie, said the event in the past has lured in new customers who became regulars at her cafe in Hazel Dell. Bonnie Brasure, owner of Bleu Door Bakery, joined because this is the first year that breakfast and lunch establishments were included. Miguel Sosa, owner and chef of Elements, joined again this year so that he wouldn’t lose business.
“If everybody else in the neighborhood is participating and we’re not, we’ll be empty,” he said.
Sosa believes that Dine the Couve should be like Portland Dining Month, which sets the price at $33 for three courses. Dine the Couve has been $23 for three courses, but this year, the price was raised to $25. Sosa said that isn’t enough for chefs to show customers their craft, and instead encourages cheap menus.
Menus for Portland Dining Month all contain three real courses of food, he added. Dine the Couve has looser guidelines. Restaurants only have to offer three different things that can be anything from tots to filet mignon. Restaurants that source high-quality ingredients and serve labor-intensive meals suffer under these rules.
“In the end, it’s good they’re promoting Vancouver,” Sosa said. “Vancouver needs to be discovered.”
Joey Chmiko, owner of Nonavo Pizza, has worked in the food industry in San Francisco and New York City. He isn’t sure that these promotional dining weeks are helpful to restaurants.
“It’s egregious that they’re doing it this year,” Chmiko said. “Why not change? Why not have a ‘support your local business’ month?”
The pandemic has been particularly hard on the restaurant industry. Chmiko recently met with his accountant and found that his business expenses have spiked because he’s had to buy more takeout containers and gloves — items that are hard to find and increasingly expensive.
Chmiko is participating again, but only because it requires no extra effort. Nonavo Pizza will offer any pizza from the menu with a green salad and a beer, as it has in past years.
“The point has always been to support local restaurants,” said Michelle McKenzie, marketing director for Visit Vancouver USA.
She said that Visit Vancouver USA sent surveys to restaurants this year to find out if they wanted to participate. Increasing the price received mixed reactions from restaurant owners. Some wanted to stay at $23, others wanted it raised. In the end, Visit Vancouver decided to raise the price to $25. Takeout options were added to Dine the Couve because many restaurant owners requested it, McKenzie said.
“The majority of feedback supported keeping the program fairly consistent while tweaking for current circumstances. That said, we did see that this model didn’t make sense for every restaurant that has participated in the past,” she said.
Visit Vancouver USA’s goal is to use this program to celebrate the breadth of Vancouver’s food scene from a fancy night out to burgers and fries, McKenzie said.
Interesting changes have come out of this year’s challenges. The Dine the Couve roster includes takeout meals and alcohol. Some of the highlights are Mason jar cocktails from Underbar, growler fills at Locust Cider, mimosa kits at C’est La Vie, and half bottles of wine from Niche.
Visit Vancouver USA expanded the event from just dinner to all-day dining. As a result, Bleu Door Bakery has a breakfast menu with biscuits and gravy, as well as sour cream coffee cake. For lunch, Bleu Door serves a field green salad, club sandwich and chocolate caramel cheesecake bar. C’est La Vie’s lunch feast includes an autumn salad and choice of a Croque Madame or roasted vegetable tartine with choice of drink (mimosa, glass of wine, coffee) or sweet crepe.
Another change this year is the addition of food trucks. Taco Spaceship has a different menu every week featuring traditional taco fillings like birria and el pastor, as well as unusual fillings like mango lime pork belly and bulgogi beef. Slow Fox Chili is offering a three course meal that seems more fitting for an elegant restaurant than a food cart pod: beet salad with pickled fennel and lemon-mint vinaigrette, chile-braised pork shoulder served with fried yellow grits, cotija cheese and braised greens, and mini chocolate pot de creme with gluten free butterscotch cookie crumbles topped with vanilla whipped cream.
Dine the Couve, like everything else, is strange this year. Many of the participating businesses, due to the financial and regulatory strain of the pandemic, may not be around for Dine the Couve 2021.
“There are so many of us that aren’t going to be around much longer,” said Bonnie Brasure of Bleu Door Bakery. “I’m worried.”
Rachel Pinsky: firstname.lastname@example.org