Some restaurant owners unhappy with Visit Harford! decision not to host summer restaurant week

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!.

Restaurants typically offer a three-course, price-fixed menu at lower prices to draw new diners.

Historically, restaurant week has been held once a year for two weeks in January, Pizzuto said. In the last couple years, 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.

But doing it solo, Bell-Matassa said, is just like running any other promotion the restaurant might normally have.

“That would just be me, advertising a special,” she said. “I want and I expect the support of the Harford County community.”

Restaurant week helps Alchemy, in the Bel Air Town Center on Baltimore Pike, through the summer, after graduations are over and while people on summer breaks and vacations, Bell-Matassa said.

“I look forward to them to keep me floating,” she said. “I just really feel so much advertising goes out. They support all kinds of causes, they need to invest in independent restaurants.”

Those local, independent restaurants — not the large, corporate chains — provide jobs for all kinds of people, most from the community, she said.

“I believe we give back in that way,” Bell-Matassa said.

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.”

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