Visit Harford!’s decision not to host a Harford County Restaurant Week this summer has disappointed owners of some of the independent eateries in Harford County.
“I am more than disappointed,” Debi Bell-Matassa, who owns Alchemy Elements with her husband, Michael, said. “We look forward to that income. People look forward to coming out for restaurant week. I look for that to sustain my business in the summer.”
Visit Harford!’s executive director, however, said the organization has heard from many local restaurants that the two-week long summer restaurant week isn’t necessary.
“They’re busy in the summer,” Executive Director Greg Pizzuto said. “They don’t necessarily need or want restaurant week. Patrons often have conflicts, other things going on that it’s not worth it.”
Other restaurant owners understand Visit Harford!’s decision.
“I understand the perspective from the restaurant owner, but when you hear the other side, you understand it,” Ben Meyer, owner of Vagabond Sandwich Company on Thomas Street in Bel Air. “The past couple summers, they didn’t get the turnout.”
Meyer said he doesn’t rely on restaurant week for business.
“If they did it, great, but if not, OK,” he said. “It would be like being disappointed there’s not a Barbecue Bash every week across the street.”
Visit Harford!, the county’s “destination marketing organization,” according to www.visitharford.com, recently received $595,000 from Harford County through the latest round of tourism grants.
During the summer and winter Harford County Restaurant Week events, Visit Harford! promotes local, independent restaurants to encourage diners to experience restaurants they may not have been to before, according to Visit Harford!.
The Harford County government administration recently announced the award of more than $1.5 million in grants to local nonprofit organizations to plan and implement tourism-related activities including historical, cultural, agricultural, heritage, and eco-tourism operations.
Historically, restaurant week has been held once a year for two weeks in January, Pizzuto said. In the last coupleyears, Visit Harford! tried to implement a second restaurant week in the summer.
“January is big. Two years or so ago, we tried the second, and it just didn’t go over well,” Pizzuto said.
In January, 31 restaurants participated in the wintertime Harford County Restaurant Week. During last summer’s event, 18 restaurants participated, Pizzuto said.
Two dozen restaurants joined on Alchemy’s Facebook page in expressing their disappointment in the cancellation of summer restaurant week. They also discussed organizing it themselves and are still trying to work out the logistics.
Councilman Mike Perrone, also a candidate for county executive, challenged how local tourism grants, funded by the 6 percent room tax, are awarded annually, highlighting that the two largest grants went to organizations that have his council colleagues as their board presidents.
Independent restaurants struggle, she said, because they don’t have corporate support. When someone is on vacation, she or her husband as to step in — as chef, bartender, hostess, whatever is needed.
“But the people [who] come in know us, they want us to be successful, they want us to be there for them,” Bell-Matassa said. “We have really strong relationships with out guests. They support me and I try to give them the best food and drinks I can possibly put on the table.”
Pizzuto said everything Visit Harford! does to promote tourism in the county offers an opportunity to dine.
“All our tourism events, our marketing, the Apple Festival, Decoy Festival, Ladew, there is an opportunity for a restaurant to gain a diner,” Pizzuto said. “We feel we are promoting dining year-round.”