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Restaurant Week offers some Sizzle

By Staff | May 23, 2019

Nothing brings people together like a good meal and a good cause.

Guy Clarke, co-founder of the Food Idea Group, also hopes the semi-annual Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week will urge foodies to cross over the county line and the Cape Coral bridges to experience culinary options they may not normally get to indulge in.

Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week, which is put on by the group, originally began in Naples, but Clarke has always envisioned it becoming a Southwest Florida-wide event.

If you’ve heard of BaconFest Naples, Clarke and Food Idea Group co-founder, Rafael Feliciano, were behind that as well.

Clarke explained that since Feliciano already worked in the food industry and BaconFest gave them even more connections, it was easier to start Restaurant Week in Collier County.

“We ran Restaurant Week the first few times in Naples and got the bugs out and proved ourselves,” he said. “It was always the goal to make it Southwest Florida-wide.”

That’s why they switched the name to Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week, “to be more inclusive to Southwest Florida.”

Cape Coral residents won’t have to go far to find participating restaurants – Gather and Maria’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant are taking part.

In addition to those two Cape favorites, there are more than 60 restaurants in Lee and Collier Counties participating in Restaurant Week from May 30 through June 12. A full list of participants can be found at www.swflrestaurantweek.com/.

Restaurants will offer either a two-course lunch for $16 or $21 and/or three-course prix fixe dinner menus with special upgrades and deals starting at $26 or $36.

This is the third Restaurant Week Val Zanella has participated in.

The owner of Gather says she’s seen the event grow each year.

“People are starting to really get it and more restaurants are joining so it’s more exciting,” she said. “The goal is to do as much as we can. It’s a great way for people to get to know the restaurants with a great value menu.”

Last year, people made the drive from Naples and Fort Myers to try Gather’s Mediterranean-themed cuisine.

“It’s very different. There are things that have a twist that you’re not going to find somewhere else,” she said.

Zanella also likes that $1 from each Restaurant Week meal will go toward a scholarship to Florida Gulf Coast University.

“We’re helping kids that want to do this as a career and that’s what we love about it,” she said.

This the second year in a row each participating restaurant will donate $1 from every meal sold during Restaurant Week.

The Food Idea Group has partnered with FGCU to provide an opportunity for Southwest Florida high school graduates to attend the university’s Hospitality Food and Beverage Program via the Sizzle SWFL FGCU Food & Beverage Scholarship.

The scholarship will be used to help fund and teach the next generation of Southwest Florida chefs, servers, directors, supervisors, managers, concierges and caterers.

Last year, restaurants raised more than $20,000 for the Sizzle SWFL FGCU Food & Beverage Scholarship. This year the Food Idea Group hopes to raise $25,000.

In addition to helping out future food industry workers, Restaurant Week helps restaurants and suppliers make ends meet during a normally slow time of the year.

“We didn’t realize the impact of how deep Restaurant Week really went,” Clarke said.

After talking to local farmers and food purveyors in the weeks leading up to Restaurant Week, they told him they’re seeing orders for food they’ve never had before.

Servers were also telling him they were making extra money and restaurants were busier than usual.

“We thought we were doing a cool event to help people try new restaurants,” Clarke said. “But we didn’t realize the impact this had and it keeps us going and it keeps us motivated.”

In the summer of 2017 before Hurricane Irma, Clarke and Feliciano began expanding Restaurant Week into Lee County.

“I think we had 12 restaurants in Fort Myers and Cape Coral,” Clarke said.

Then Hurricane Irma hit.

“Obviously when Irma hit it was a little tough on all the restaurants that December because they were dealing with debris, power outages, etc.,” Clarke said.

In the spring and winter of 2018, they continued to push into Cape Coral and Fort Myers.

“It’s a community event, for both counties,” Clarke said.

The Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week event was designed to build awareness and make a positive impact on the diverse Southwest Florida culinary community.

Clarke and Feliciano’s goal for the event is for the area restaurant scene to grow and for Restaurant Week to help strengthen the Southwest Florida brand and culinary reputation.

And it seems to be working.

“Almost every single one of the participating Sizzle restaurants has gotten back to us and told us of the massive influx of younger, newer faces that come into their restaurants for Restaurant Week,” Clarke said.

The second Cape Coral restaurant to participate this year is Maria’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant, and Clarke says he’s very happy to have them on board.

“Maria’s, personally, is one of my favorite Italian restaurants. My wife and I drive once a month from Bonita because we love the food.”

According to Clarke, everything is homemade and scratch made.

“Expect a good, solid meal at a good price.”

Keven Glaab, general manager of Maria’s Pizzeria and Italian Restaurant, said he had a pretty good turnout last year for Restaurant Week. This is his fourth or fifth time participating.

He especially likes that $1 from each meal will go toward the Sizzle SWFL FGCU Food & Beverage Scholarship.

“That’s a pretty cool thing,” Glaab said. “A lot of customers were coming in last year just for that.”

“We want to get as many people working in that field that have the same passion as we do,” he said.

Clarke always wanted to be a chef. He likes the idea of creating something from nothing.

When he was younger, his mom had a Betty Crocker cookbook with a red and white cover. Clarke would pick the recipe and his mom would go to the store and get the ingredients. When she came home from work, they’d follow the recipe and cook dinner together.

Years later, Clarke is still creating something out of nothing, and Restaurant Week only continues to become bigger and better each year.