STOCKTON —Stockton’s Restaurant Week is Jan. 20-29, but Mile Wine Company’s executive chef, Justin Good, was already hard at work on the event’s special offerings in early December.
“I don’t really have a theme,” he said of the eclectic fixed menu that will include a soup or salad, one of four entrees and a dessert. More than a month before the event, he was bouncing around ideas such as curry cauliflower soup, a winter harvest salad (cranberries, bleu cheese and raspberry vinaigrette) and a bistro filet with green chili and cheddar mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.
Good said he’s going with his gut, crafting a menu that sounds good to him and he hopes will also appeal to a variety of customers.
“Sales are good,” Good said of the industrial-chic eatery that also serves sandwiches and small plates. “We definitely see more business with restaurant week. It’s a fairly easy entry point to restaurants you may not have tried.”
Visit Stockton’s CEO Wes Rhea said the annual event is really about value. In the past, they’ve required a $30 fixed dinner menu of all restaurants. This year Visit Stockton is giving participants the freedom to set their own prices to accommodate those with higher price points, but Good said Mile Wine is trying to stick to $30.
To participate in the 8th Annual Stockton Restaurant Week, restaurateurs must fill out an application on the website. There is a $100 fee to sign up.
In addition, all participating spots are required to supply two $25 gift cards to be used for giveaways.
Participation gives restaurants the opportunity to serve new customers as well as repeat customers taking advantage of the value at their favorite places. Rhea said that is of increased worth during a time of year when fewer people are eating out.
“(Restaurants) can try out new dishes, seasonal dishes,” Rhea said. “We always encourage restaurants to be really creative.”
To help participating businesses thrive, Visit Stockton spends about $7,500 on marketing for the event.
Eric Lee and his restaurant Cast Iron Trading Co. are participating for the first time. He owns the downtown American eatery with fellow chef Tommy Mogan. It opened in October.
“We’ve heard good things, that restaurants have had good results,” Lee said of Restaurant Week.
The duo sees it as an opportunity to get their name out there.
While Lee and Mogan are still in the early stages, they are planning a lunch.
“A little bit fresh, a little bit seasonal,” Lee said. “(It will be) a good volume of food … good enough that someone is very satisfied.”
Inclusion of new restaurants is just one way Stockton Restaurant Week celebrates the growing restaurant scene in Stockton —- one that is perhaps too often associated with large chain businesses.
“We haven’t opened up any big chain restaurants recently,” Rhea said of Stockton. “I think a lot of it is just perception.”
For example, large chains have more disposable marketing dollars, which means you may hear about them more, but it doesn’t mean that’s all there is.
“There’s plenty of restaurants in this town,” Rhea said. “I think there’s a restaurant for every scale.”
One challenge locally owned shops face is cost. Rhea said residents believe those restaurants should be able to meet or beat the prices of area chains. That’s not the case, and “if you can’t afford it, you don’t support it,” he said.
He added that Midgley’s Public House and Market Tavern, two of Stockton’s higher-priced establishments, are succeeding. In fact, the owners of Market Tavern opened a second restaurant in Stockton, Prime Table, in late 2016.
“There’s a lot of opportunity in Stockton for unique, locally owned restaurants,” Rhea said.
“For the most part we’ve had pretty overwhelmingly positive feedback,” Lee said, but he added, “There’s no shortage of people who offer their suggestions.”
That includes comments that Cast Iron is too expensive for downtown. Its entrées and meals run $5-9 on average, Lee said.
“It’s about offering quality. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Lincoln Center or elsewhere,” he said. “We try and offer a unique thing.”
“I like to think of us as being a little more on the nicer size,” Good said, comparing Mile Wine Company to chain restaurants.
“Chains buy their foods in mass quantities… that’s how Applebee’s can sell dinner for $10,” Good said. “(For Mile Wine), that’s never going to happen.”
Good pointed out buying from a local spot supports not just the family who owns that business but other local businesses as well. Mile Wine purchases produce and eggs from Puentas Farms two miles from the restaurant’s location on the Miracle Mile.
Cast Iron brews coffee from Trail Coffee Roasters, also downtown.
Chains experience their own struggles.
“Locally owned restaurants can pop up in the smallest of places,” Rhea said.
Chain restaurants, on the other hand, require a certain amount of space to build. In addition, unique offerings, such as Bella Vista in downtown, add flavor to local neighborhoods.