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When it comes to dining out on Valentine’s Day, a quote from Yogi Berra seems to fit: “Nobody ever goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”
A common perception is that Valentine’s Day is one of the busiest days of the year for restaurants. Don’t go out to eat if you can avoid it.
And while that might be true for white tablecloth establishments, it isn’t the case for the majority of eateries, the mom-and-pop diners and strip mall haunts, according to a study from Womply.
“It appears that the idea of Valentine’s Day being busy makes it not as busy of a day,” said Dan Lalli, a spokesman for Womply, a firm that assists small businesses with data analysis.
Womply examined credit card transactions for more than 42,000 small independent restaurants, including 864 in Colorado and 135 in Denver. National chains and quick-service establishments weren’t included, and neither were bars or lounges.
What that study found comes as a big surprise. Valentine’s Day ranked as only the 129th best sales day of the year for restaurants in Colorado and the 199th best sales day of the year for restaurants in metro Denver, where sales are actually below average on that day.
“St. Patrick’s Day, Mother’s Day, and Cinco de Mayo are all better than Valentine’s Day for restaurant sales in Colorado,” Lalli said.
That claim generated disbelief and instant protests within the local restaurant industry.
“We can definitely quash this false report! Restaurants have told us that besides Christmas and Easter, Mother’s Day and Valentine’s Day are the days with the highest number of reservations,” said Carolyn Livingston, communications director with the Colorado Restaurant Association.
“It is a huge night for us, one of our busier nights. It’s the same intensity as New Year’s Eve. Valentine’s Day is in the top 10 busiest days of the year without a doubt,” said Dave Query, chef-owner of Big Red F Group, which includes Jax Fish House, Lola and several other restaurants in Denver and Boulder.
But before discarding Womply’s claims like an empty box of chocolates, it is important to remember those other festivities tend to be one-shot deals. Valentine’s celebrations stretch out over several days and many couples prefer to go out on the weekend, when they are freer to imbibe.
Lalli notes that the Saturday after Valentine’s Day is the 32nd best sales day of the year for restaurants in Colorado and generates a 41 percent boost in revenue. That seems to indicate people want to celebrate, just not always on the 14th.
Womply also isn’t implying that the places known for a romantic vibe aren’t packed. They are. It’s just in the grand scheme of things, there aren’t enough of them to compensate for what more ordinary places are losing. Going to the same old, same old won’t cut it, and that means lost business for many eateries.
Josh Wolkon, owner of Secret Sauce Food and Beverage, said when it comes to drawing a Valentine’s crowd, a hierarchy definitely exists. His long-running Vesta Dipping Grill is among the places that will see a big bump.
“We are sold out on Valentine’s,” he said. But his Ace Eat Serve and two Steuben’s locations probably will draw the typical Thursday evening crowd. He said he wouldn’t be surprised if some customers don’t realize what day it is until they notice the red velvet cheesecake and Red Hot cupcakes on the menu.
He adds there is a market for those serving the growing anti-Valentine’s Day crowd, people who are trying to escape the pressure of expectations.
“We do well with the couples who aren’t ready for the big romantic dinner,” he said.
Nor is Valentine’s Day the bonanza it might seem. Restaurants might be full, but big groups are rare. Tables that usually accommodate four diners will only have two. And couples are more likely to linger, slowing turnover.
Wolkon said Vesta really kills it when large convention groups with corporate expense accounts, like the ones from recently completed Snow Show by the Outdoor Retailers Association, come in.
Because men usually handle the arrangements for Valentine’s Day, reservations tend to come in late and with a lot of angst, said Wolkon and Query.
“It is never a woman. It is always a dude in a panic, a guy who messed up and is asking do you have a spot,” Query said.
Wolkon said one man pleaded to get into a fully booked Vesta, claiming his girlfriend would break up with him if he didn’t secure a reservation.
Based on the Womply findings, a visit to a local restaurant on Thursday night, one sans tablecloths, might offer a good alternative. Nothing fancy, but chances are good they will be happy to see you.