Business: North Fork restaurants get creative to lure weeknight customers

08/24/2011 5:10 AM |

KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO | Jan Claudio, standing, greets guests at a recent Wednesday night speakeasy at Claudio's Restaurant in Greenport.

Given a competitive market, a somewhat seasonal industry and a very difficult economy, restaurants across the region have been trying to distinguish themselves to attract customers.

Three North Fork restaurants — Claudio’s in Greenport, Legends in New Suffolk and The Old Mill Inn in Mattituck — have stepped out of the box this summer, offering non-traditional vehicles to boost their business. The results have been mixed.

Claudio’s launched its Speakeasy upstairs on Wednesday nights, with a $50 package that included dinner, the musical stylings of the Park Avenue Gypsies and comedy from Jack Simmons. Opening night was an invitation-only event with local merchants, business representatives, press and friends invited as guests of Jan and Bill Claudio.

That night, guests sported fedoras and feathered headpieces as they table-hopped to chat with one another, danced to the music and clearly enjoyed the comedy. The idea was actually an outgrowth of the restaurant’s history, when a speakeasy operated upstairs from the main restaurant, Ms. Claudio said.

It was during prohibition when the restaurant, than managed by Frank Claudio, nephew of founder Manuel Claudio, served fine food downstairs while “upstairs became a lively place for imbibing the illegal spirits that found their way by the boatload from the southern islands through Greenport,” according to historical data the Claudios make available to customers. Rumrunners would bring the illegal alcohol in through a trap door that still exists behind the bar.

“We just gave it a shot,” Mr. Claudio said. It was comic Jack Simmons who helped launch “Upstairs at Claudio’s” and worked with the owners to develop the concept. Wednesday was a relatively quiet night during the summer and the Claudios thought the program might attract those looking for some good music, comedy and an entertaining interlude.

“Those who came absolutely loved it,” Ms. Claudio said. Many nights, people danced to the music and even sang along with vocalist Lora Kendall.

But after several outings, despite expending several thousand dollars to promote the program, the Claudios just weren’t getting enough of an audience to sustain their investment.

“We did everything we knew to try to promote this thing,” Mr. Claudio said. “There just wasn’t enough support. It’s tough to compete against all the free stuff,” he said.

They discontinued the effort in mid August. But Mr. Simmons is convinced the concept has a future and is exploring other venues.
At The Old Mill Inn, owners Elaine Lafferty, a war correspondent and former Time magazine reporter; Fox News anchor Greta Van Susteren; author Bia Lowe; and television executive Barbara Pepe took the helm of the nearly 200-year-old pub and restaurant in 2006.

“We’ve always done something a little different,” Ms. Pepe said. Three programs are on the bill this summer try to to bring in customers who might not have found the restaurant, which is a bit off the beaten track, she said.

Advertisements hailed “You Catch, We Cook” capitalizing on chef Saul Flores’ ability with seafood, she said. You can bring in your catch by 2 p.m. and the kitchen crew will gut it and cook it for your dinner. Or filet it yourself and you can wait around for your meal. The cost is $23 per plate.

“We don’t have a whole lot of people yet” taking advantage of the offer, but those who have tried it are enthusiastic, Ms. Pepe said. “Saul’s wonderful with fish” and a few local fishermen have become regulars, she said.

“Every time we start a new program, we reach a new audience,” she said.

A second effort was launched in conjunction with the Captain Bob V. For $55, diners get a three-course meal, then stroll next door to the boat for a one-hour scenic cruise of Mattituck Inlet at sunset. The cruise sales at 7 p.m. so dinner reservations must be no later than 5:30 p.m., Ms. Pepe said.

It started out as “a way to pump up Wednesday nights,” she said. It has proven popular for those seeking “a romantic evening,” she said.

On Friday, Aug. 26, at 8 p.m., The Old Mill Inn is featuring comic Sandra Bernhard, who recently appeared at Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett. Ms. Pepe and her partners thought Ms. Bernhard would be a draw on the North Fork. VIP tickets are $75 with general seating, $30.

“Special events add value and give people a reason to come out and spend their money,” Ms. Pepe said.

At Legends in New Suffolk, owners Diane and Dennis Harkoff were split on the wisdom of bringing a tarot card reader in on Monday nights. Ms. Harkoff was intrigued by the idea. Her husband “rolled his eyes,” she said.

But when tarot card reader Joan Bernhardt approached Ms. Harkoff with the proposal to do readings on Monday night, “I got goosebumps on the back of my neck,” the restaurant owner said. “It’s been great, very successful” and on most Mondays, more people show up for readings than Ms. Bernhardt is able to accommodate. What’s more, they come with friends and all stay for snacks or dinner, meaning business for Legends.

Summer Mondays have been Legends’ quietest night of the week, Ms. Harkoff said. That’s no longer true now that Ms. Bernhardt is in house, she said. Those requesting readings pay the tarot card reader directly, and most readings last 15 to 20 minutes. Ms. Bernhardt is at the restaurant for three hours on a Monday night, seated at a high table at the far end near the bar.

“She’s spot on,” said Raine Caravella, who has worked at Legends for 14 of the 18 years the Harkoffs have owned the restaurant.

As for Mr. Harkoff, he may still be skeptical, but he’s coming around, his wife said. And he’s talking about the idea of launching his own craft beer night at Legends.

“The hard part is to come up something that is different that everyone else isn’t doing,” Ms. Harkoff said.

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