Sustainable Scene

We know Twenty-five for $25 is problematic. So what's the solution? by laura cassidy

Seattle is a city of eager, educated, discerning diners. Having mingled with some out-of-town conference attendees at a recent International Association of Culinary Professionals event (I'm not a member, just a party crasher), I can say that while there's certainly a growing nationwide awareness of the ecological issues affecting our collective plate, the Pacific Northwest seems just slightly ahead of the curve as concerns the value of sustainable, local, and organic ingredients. I asked a pair of magazine editors from Des Moines, Iowa which of the three is most important in their city. They looked at each other, puzzled, for a moment, before shrugging simultaneously and offering, "Local?" I hadn't meant it to be a trick question, and I don't mean that we should pat ourselves on the back and rest on our laurels, but these women, along with a magazine test kitchen manager from Birmingham, Ala., who was also at our table, didn't indicate that their communities were actively thinking in terms of renewable resources and naturally harvested food. I credit chef/restaurant owners such as Crave's Robin Leventhal and Flying Fish's Christine Keff with leading by example in presenting family-farmed meat, seafood, and produce, most of it from our own backyard. But how discriminating are we in terms of supporting—and sustaining—the industry that feeds, challenges, and informs us? Recently wrapped up for the year, Twenty-Five for $25 has lately come under scrutiny in the local food press after Union chef/owner Ethan Stowell, who has twice declined when asked to join 25/$25, sent out an e-mail that inspired examination of the so-called promotion. You probably read the stories that resulted, and you're probably caught somewhere between thoughts like, "True, bargains often end up being pretty costly," and "But I wouldn't have had the chance to try [insert fine-dining establishment here] otherwise." It's good you're thinking, but you're not done yet. I asked Stowell to take the next step and address two things: What was the original goal of 25/$25? And if we've strayed from it, what should we do about that? Here's what he had to say: "Twenty-five for $25 was started by a group of well-meaning sponsors to help encourage business after a steep drop in sales following 9/11. The program began in New York as Restaurant Week and had such a great response that many other cities adopted similar programs. [It was initially] difficult to find 25 [Seattle] restaurants willing to roll the dice in hopes that the program would work; [most] feared there would not be enough increase in profits the rest of the year to make up for the losses on discounted food. The original 25 restaurants should be commended for taking such a huge risk. "But with the list limited to 25, the promotion now serves only those involved while other [restaurants] take a serious hit in sales. Every other city that has started a 25 dollar promotional program has opened it to anyone who wants to join. Why not Seattle? The organizers have thought about renaming it 'Thirty for $30' or changing the lineup of restaurants each year. Instead, why not solve the problem at its core? What about offering membership to any restaurants that want to join? Change Twenty-five for $25 to $25 Dining Month; any restaurant that wants to join, can. No rules, no restrictions, just good food and happy customers." Twenty-five for $25 should be about inclusively supporting as many Seattle restaurants as possible during their lean months. Stowell's suggestion calls for an open invitation; any restaurant could join, as is the case in every other city that runs a similar promotion. What would this mean for advertising, which is now sponsored by the organizer and is, of course, a huge draw for the restaurants? How effective is an ad listing 110 restaurants? This seems like the biggest kink to work out if and when the floodgates are opened, but I'd rather see the organizers solve that issue than continue 25/$25 as is. After considering the many angles on this story and one possible solution, what do you think? Call 25/$25 organizers NW Source at 206-464-2189 and tell them. Call or e-mail local sponsors such as Charlie's Produce (www.charliesproduce.com), Starbucks (www.starbucks.com), and the Washington Wine Commission (www.washingtonwine.org) and tell them, too. After all, the promotion's original intent is based on the notion that individual diners can make a difference.

 
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