Oaxaca is known as one of the premier cities for food and drink in all Latin America. The south central Mexico mecca for mole is noted for more than the range of rich delectable sauces: internationally acclaimed restaurants, enticing late night street food stands, unique culinary and beverage items such as tlayudas, tejate, barbacoa de borrego, and of course the iconic agave based Mexican spirit, mezcal. But despite its gastronomic greatness, every year from early September until the cusp of Day of the Dead towards the end of October, its restaurants suffer from malnutrition – that is, not enough in the registers to maintain a healthy level of financial sustenance.
Enter the inaugural Oaxaca Sabe, September 16 – 23, 2014. The weeklong event was the first attempt in recent memory by a group of restaurant owners to bring dearly needed revenue to eateries ranging from high end to middle-of-the-road, by offering fixed price menus at one accessible price. Yes, there is Saber del Sabor for those of substantial means, the always-seemingly-struggling springtime Festival de Humánitas, and the Feria de los Siete Moles held during the summer when there are already a number of food and drink events. What the city of Oaxaca has always needed has been something to give restaurants hope and keep their servers afloat, during a time of the year when the rains in full swing keep residents indoors, and tourism is at its annual low. Oaxaca Sabe appears able to provide the right recipe, despite startup shortfalls.
Twenty-three eateries each pooled 1,000 pesos for advertising and marketing, including website and online social media presence and posters. The promotional material boasted a three-course meal (comida or cena) of appetizer, main course and dessert, including beer, wine or mezcal (or soft drink, tea or coffee), all for 250 pesos gratuity included. And to boot, a series of private lots were seconded to provide parking at the rock bottom price of ten pesos an hour.
My wife and I attended three cenas on consecutive nights, two of which were exquisite in all respects, and the third, well, though high end, did expose flaws we had experienced there on previous occasions. Why go to a restaurant which had not previously made the grade for us? I suppose we thought “one last chance, and for 250 pesos, how can you go wrong at a dining room which has received international critical acclaim.” We learned how – again.
We selected three esteemed city restaurants – Origen, Azul and La Pitiona. We’ve always considered Origen one of the top two restaurants in the city, the other being Casa Oaxaca. Origen did not disappoint, with all three courses selected by each of us living up to the restaurant’s reputation, wine well paired, and a premium arroqueño mezcal, virtually never used as a house spirit. Since this article is not in the nature of a restaurant review, I will not turn it into one. I can opine with confidence, however, that where an eatery is found along a continuum of quality of fare and service the other 51 weeks of the year, there it will remain during a promotional week.
While we had not previously dined at Azul, it too had the haughty reputation, housed in the courtyard of a high end hotel of the same name, with several lodging suites designed by and named after prominent Oaxacan artists. As at Origen we were offered a selection of three dishes from which to choose for each course. This time we each had red wine, a Spanish tempranillo, so pleasing that we ordered a second glass. And as at Origen, at Azul the servers were attentive and helpful.
La Pitiona, according to my wife who had dined there on two occasions more than I had, maintained a level of pretentiousness the same as the day it opened. How presumptuous to not offer a choice of selections for any of the courses! Even a cheesy wedding in Canada or the US often offers chicken or fish. But as suggested, a restaurant’s personality does not change for a special event… just as a leopard cannot change its spots.
The closing event was held the evening of September 23, at one of the higher end participant restaurants, Casa Crespo. Fine Oaxacan fingers foods and drinks were served. Attendance was complimentary for those who had been to five previous meals at any of the participating restaurants. The plan had been to give out a card at the end of each meal, with a stamp on it, so if you presented a card with five stamps, there would be no cost to attend the finale. The problem was that for the three evenings we attended, at Origen our server explained about the final evening but forgot to give us the stamped card, and at La Pitiona no card, stamped or otherwise, was even offered. Azul gave us the stamped card at the conclusion of our meal, without explanation as to what it represented.
Oaxaca Sabe appears to have been a successful maiden event, with a buzz felt in the city, at least amongst some of our friends and acquaintances. However, a few changes and additions to the next edition would make it more successful, and potentially turn Oaxaca Sabe into a permanent fixture:
• Toronto has found success with a Winterlicious multi-day restaurant event in the dead of winter when even Canadians are loathe to venture into the cold and snow, and a Summerlicious program six months thereafter. Both have met with considerable success. Accordingly, consider a second Oaxaca Sabe each year, during the other soft season for tourism, May. Peoples’ memories are short. Twice a year keeps the experience in the foreground and gives residents something to look forward to. Furthermore, tourists who attend can spread the word to friends and family about a second week, only a few shorts months down the road.
• Do not include gratuity in the price. Yes, ensure that servers are looked after, quietly, but they need the cash flow more so than restaurant owners. Perhaps remind patrons that they are getting a real bargain and should accordingly considering raising their usual pattern of tipping.
• Consider doubling the number of restaurant participants, and include a range of ethnic foods. Go beyond Italian, and Oaxacan fusion or continental. Oaxaca’s middle class population is now large enough to adequately patronize many more than 23 restaurants, especially if the system of encouraging patrons to attend more meals is adjusted. Oaxaca is known for its gastronomic greatness, and a sizeable percentage of tourists to the city, both foreign and domestic travelers, come to Oaxaca for the food. Promote it through more offerings, and they will come.
• Begin giving out “passports” to residents and tourists a week in advance, at all participating venues. Do not rely on servers to remember to give diners their cards for stamping. Patrons will quickly become trained to take their passports to every restaurant they visit, and ask to have them stamped. Through all advertising and promotion of the event, the public should be made aware of this incentive program.
• Consider reducing the number of required attendances for being able to participate in the grand finale, from five to four. Five meals out in the course of a week is a lot to expect. After all, the cost of the final botanas and drinks evening should be relatively modest.
• With more and a greater diversity of restaurants, consider two different fixed price amounts, one for restaurants with higher prices (I.e. Los Danzantes, Casa Oaxaca, Origen, La Pitiona, Vieja Lira, etc.), and another for more modestly priced eateries (I.e. La Olla, La Biznaga, Las Quince Letras, El Morocco, Zandunga, etc.). If two price categories are used, and there is a greater diversity of restaurant styles, then perhaps the five attendance requirement for attending the finale would work, since patrons would not be obliged to visit five higher end establishments with similar types of cuisine.
• Do more to promote the nominal charge parking lots, as way to bring residents downtown from the suburbs. Remember that there are now many, many restaurants in neighborhoods like Colonia Reforma, so if one of the aims is to attract prospective customers to downtown, more clearly advertise the parking incentive.
• Require that every participating restaurant offer three options for each course. By doing so there will be a greater likelihood that patrons who were impressed with their first meal at a particular restaurant, will return to it later on in the week.
• Consider getting the state government on board, with a view to encouraging it to promote Oaxaca Sabe on its website and in other promotional material throughout the year, as a bone fide important tourism week; but not, however, at the expense of organizers maintaining control over the event.
• Oaxacans love promotional posters. In this case, the participating restaurants were identified on the posters only by logos (of different sizes) printed at the bottom, some of which failed to adequately identify the restaurant. Forget the logos and simply name each restaurant, in the same bold print.
• All promotional material should be bilingual, Spanish / English, and not just in Spanish as was the case for the inaugural week. While tourism in September is low, one of the objectives should be to get not only Oaxacans and national tourists to visit the restaurants, but travelers, including foodies, from English speaking countries who are already in Oaxaca, or considering a visit. Oaxaca is already synonymous with Culinary Tourism!
So many American and Canadian cities host “taste of” weeklong events, which are promoted on a permanent basis throughout the year under a calendar of events (I.e. Taste of Chicago). With Oaxaca’s reputation for food and drink, the city has the potential to use Oaxaca Sabe as a major drawing point to entice visitors at a time of year they would otherwise not consider traveling to the city. Oaxaca Sabe just needs some tweaking. But bravo for an admirable beginning.