by Zacch Estrada-Petersen

CHARLOTTE — Neighborhood restaurants and bars tend to attract familiar faces with a steady rotation of the same people trickling in and out, becoming known as ‘regulars’, picking and choosing their favorite servers and in some cases even getting to know the restaurant staff on a first-name basis.

That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the crucial business practice of drawing in new business can often pose a particular challenge.

So 20 years ago the concept known nationally as Restaurant Week was developed to address that problem.

“Restaurant Week actually began, coincidentally, during the Democratic National Convention in New York City during the summer of 1992 as a way for the upscale Manhattan eateries who were on a budget to attract media,” Bruce Hensley said. “And it took off.”

Hensley, along with his wife Jill, owns Hensley Fontana Public Relations, the firm that owns and operates Queen’s Feast Charlotte Restaurant Week. The next Restaurant Week runs July 20-29, and will feature three-course meals at more than 100 upscale restaurants for a fixed price of $30 per person.

Hensley first learned of the concept in 2007 when meeting with a client in New York. As they were talking about strategies his agency could use for the client, “One of the owners said ‘What about restaurant week?’ We had no idea what it was. So they started explaining the concept to us and we said ‘Well that’s a great idea.’”

Charlotte Restaurant Week has taken place twice a year in January and July for nine days in a row since its launch in July 2008. The greater Charlotte area has been included since its inception, with a growing number of Lake Norman-area restaurants participating each year.

Alton’s Kitchen & Cocktails in Cornelius is gearing up for its third Charlotte Restaurant Week.

“I think it gives folks from Charlotte an opportunity to travel north and check out the restaurants,” Alton Updike, owner of his namesake eatery, said. “I think Lake Norman has a great variety of fantastic restaurants and they’re all priced properly. You’re not paying Uptown or SouthPark prices for the same product.”

Alton’s offers its restaurant week prices a week early, beginning July 13 as a bonus to customers,.

“We’ve been very committed since our first restaurant week to always begin a week ahead of time,” Updike said. “The reason why is because we can’t mess up that week that we’re actually going live. I know a lot of restaurants that fail that first weekend because they didn’t prep properly or because they didn’t have enough staff on. So we give ourselves a week to get the staff mentally prepared and get our food and our orders in line.”

Alton’s is getting to be a seasoned restaurant week veteran, but other area restaurants have just come on board this year.

“It took us a little while on the uptake,” Nancy DiGiorgio, co-owner of Campania Italian Café & Trattoria in Davidson with her husband Vincent, said. “We weren’t sure initially if we were the right fit. We thought it was more of an uptown Charlotte thing, but we participated in January and it was really well-received.”

Campania’s price points are on the lower end of the upscale range, so it throws in a little extra, offering a four-course meal as well as a glass of wine for the same price.

Since one of the main objectives of restaurant week is to attract and retain new clientele, the participating restaurants don’t divert from their current offerings.

“The Charlotte Restaurant Week menu that we have is a highlight of our dinner menu as it is,” DiGiorgio said. “What we didn’t want to do was create a whole different menu for Charlotte Restaurant Week and then folks want to come back and it be different.”

One advantage Updike points out about the majority of the Lake Norman restaurants is that a lot of them tend to be smaller, ‘mom-and-pop’-style operations.

“Some of those restaurants that are participating are very chain- and corporate-driven, whereas we have a little more flexibility,” Updike said. “We give the world away during restaurant week so that we can impress future guests and they tell their friends. It’s our goal to really wow people during that week.”

Sixteen Lake Norman-area restaurants are participating in Charlotte Restaurant Week. To view a list of participating restaurants, along with Restaurant Week-specific menus, go to www.charlotterestaurantweek.com.