The devil is in the details, and that couldn’t be truer for hotel restaurant operators who take their teams off-campus to create a week-long pop-up event.
Vernick Fish, a contemporary American oyster bar located at Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center, brought the nearby New Jersey shore a taste of the celebrated restaurant when James Beard Award-winning Chef Greg Vernick and his team hosted in August an experiential five-day culinary activation and a collaborative fundraising dinner. The event, Vernick Fish Down the Shore, was done in partnership with Cookie Till, owner of Steve & Cookie’s, a beloved New Jersey bayside restaurant in Margate, where Chef Vernick spent much time as a youth and budding culinarian.
“I’ve been visiting Margate since I was a child and much of the menu for Vernick Fish was inspired by my time spent in this corner of the world – it’s even where I got my first kitchen job,” Chef Vernick said. “It felt like a full-circle moment for me to be able to present what we do at the restaurant at Steve & Cookie’s, a restaurant I’ve long-admired.”
Through strategic alliances with other merchants, including vendors Giordano’s and Samuels & Sons, some of the region’s top brands came together to create the ultimate culinary experience. On Monday through Friday of that week, the hotel team executed the pop-up experience at Steve & Cookie’s. They created a custom-built space and presented a menu with five options. More than 1,000 customers were served, and the menu sold out daily. It also marketed branded merchandise like koozies, hats, t-shirts, etc. No tickets were sold; it was simply a walk-up event.
To culminate the week, Cookie’s Reed’s Organic Farm hosted a 60-seat, sold-out, US$1,000-a-ticket benefit dinner with proceeds from both events going towards the farm.
The details for the benefit – from custom, branded wooden herb boxes that became the centerpiece for the dinner that guests took home with them, to the ambiance that was created through a live musical performance, the entire night felt like a scene from a movie. “Preparing the perfect summer menu and seeing it come to life through the ingredients of our partners like Reed’s Organic Farm, Samuels & Sons Seafood and Giordano’s felt like the ultimate trifecta,” Chef Vernick added.
On top of that, the guests were overwhelmingly generous in donating to the farm’s non-profit, A Meaningful Purpose, which supports the growth of the local community through agriculture and allows collaborations like this to take place.
But the event wouldn’t have come off so seamlessly without a lot of planning.
For example, it became clear that to maintain the integrity and freshness of Vernick Fish’s ingredients, the team would need proper refrigeration. They were able to prep and store some items at Steve & Cookie’s but with it being one of the busiest restaurants on the Jersey shore, the hotel team wanted to be mindful to not interrupt their service too much. Thankfully, it had partners like Giordano’s Garden Groceries who lent them a refrigerated truck to store a few items on-site and pick up what they needed before making the one-hour trip from Philadelphia to Margate each day.
Chef Vernick also had to come up with a staffing schedule back at the hotel restaurant, which he says took a lot of time to sort out. “We were lucky to be able to collaborate with the hotel’s banquets team during the planning process which helped to ensure all the prep work needs were met and that we could continue to operate the restaurant as is,” Chef Vernick said.
Since the pop-up was part of a brand awareness campaign, ROI was partially measured in the reach it had to new audiences in the nearby shore towns. The seaside restaurant is also very familiar and special to the Philadelphia community. “Most of the customers were those who lived down in Margate or vacationing for the week in those neighboring beaches,” said Lisa Tareila, director of Public Relations & Marketing Communications at the Four Seasons Hotel Philadelphia at Comcast Center. It was also covered in national media outlets like Food & Wine and Town & Country.
Tareila added that after the event, the hotel restaurant saw a 13% uptick in new guest reservations, many of whom joined them for the first time during the Down the Shore pop-up, attended the Farm to Table Benefit dinner, or heard about Vernick Fish through the added exposure it had from local editorial stories and influencers. During the campaign promotion, the hotel’s combined social media followers grew by 84% when compared to the previous quarter, and social engagement was up by 42%.
When designing a culinary experience outside of the home hotel restaurant, it’s also important to listen to local partners who know the market and can help support generating awareness, especially when it’s a location that many in the community have deep and personal feelings about, Tareila added.
“We took recommendations about where to place promotional material and market our event in key locations that would drive the most foot traffic,” she said. “Collaborating with local influencers gave us the ability to tap into their engaged audience and capture content to drive social buzz and continued foot traffic throughout the week. We loved hearing that guests learned about us through seeing it on their social feed – it underscores the power of social media and how it can help amplify a marketing campaign.”
Taking the team out of the kitchen for a week also created this powerful team-building moment which was really important to Chef Vernick. “After the ups and downs over the last two years, it felt refreshing and energizing to get team members out of the restaurant, and give them a chance to interact with guests, serve our food and practice our style of hospitality within a different environment,” he said. “Being so close to the sea has many benefits.”
In fact, the team was so energized from the momentum built during the event it is already taking the steps to make it an annual event. “In planning for Down the Shore, we created an identity; from the custom build that included our personalized logo, to the branded merchandise, we integrated ourselves into the community. Next year, we’re hoping to bring more of our staff, so the entire team gets to experience the magic of Margate,” Tareila said. “We received many requests from our social media followers looking to purchase the branded merchandise that we’re considering adding online and in-person pick-up capabilities for next year to allow our fans based outside of Philadelphia.”