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Eat, drink, win — Newport Beach’s first Restaurant Month kicks off in September

Sugar 'n Spice manager Eilish Zachary shows the Classics, and Dark Side, which have five banana pops each with many toppings.
Sugar ’n Spice manager Eilish Zachary shows the “Classics,” left, and “Dark Side,” which have five banana pops each with various toppings and dips.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

This year was the diamond anniversary for Sugar ‘n Spice.

Founded in July 1945, the 75th anniversary of the little ice cream store on Balboa Island was to be celebrated with activities and events that have all since been canceled with the onset of COVID-19. So, store owners Courtney and Will Alovis decided to celebrate the anniversary with the next best thing — Newport Beach Restaurant Month, which began officially on Tuesday.

The campaign, helmed by Dine Newport Beach and the Newport Beach Restaurant Assn., aims to help boost revenue and foot traffic at local restaurants and businesses impacted by the pandemic.

This is the first month-long celebration.

Carlos Godinez, president of the Newport Beach Restaurant Assn. and the general manager at Tavern House Kitchen + Bar, said that the organization along with Visit Newport Beach, has held Restaurant Week every January, each bigger and better than the last. This year’s included 75 different participants.

“How do we help? What do we do? Do we put on a restaurant week? I know it’s not January, but would this be a way?” Godinez said.

Sugar 'n Spice young customers enjoy ice cream at the Balboa Island location in Newport Beach.
From left, James Younkman, 2, of San Bernardino, William Cavanaugh, 3, of Evansville, Ind., Trace Gramm, 2, of Bloomington, and Grace Younkman, 3, of San Bernardino, enjoy ice cream from Sugar ‘n Spice in Newport Beach.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

The idea was first floated in June, initially proposed to be a week-long affair when it eventually became two weeks before it became a month. The Newport Beach Restaurant Month, Godinez said, was Dine Newport Beach and the Newport Beach Restaurant Assn.‘s way of reaching out to the community to remind them that businesses were still open and could use local patronage.

Godinez said plans were initially to launch in August, but development of the dine pass and other delays made the campaign start in September instead. But chef Amy Lebrun of Lido Bottle Works said that she felt the timing of the event in September was a great opportunity for locals to check out restaurants just as the summer tourism season begins to come to an end.

Lebrun said her restaurant was continuing to operate through outdoor dining at levels of activity close to before the pandemic.

“We’re thriving down here and we want to continue,” Lebrun said. “We feel we can reach out in a community way and showcase our menus and who we are, that’s really going to help our small local businesses and Newport Beach to continue to thrive."

Godinez said one distinguishing factor between the Newport Beach Restaurant Week and Restaurant Month — outside of the times of year and length — was that traditionally, businesses would be asked to offer discounts or special menus. For this event, restaurateurs were encouraged to do what they could.

“We said to the restaurants, ‘We know times are tough,’” Godinez said. “You don’t have time to figure out a new menu or you don’t have the ability to discount. We really just want to use this as an avenue to remind guests we’re here.”

By checking in with the Newport Beach Restaurant Month dine pass, customers get a free cup of Mama Avila's soup.
By checking in with the Newport Beach Restaurant Month dine pass, customers get a free cup of soup, at right shown with a sample of a taco and enchilada lunch plate at Avila’s El Ranchito in Newport Beach.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

But Godinez said he was pleasantly surprised to see that several restaurants offered discounts or deals such as offering free appetizers with purchase or buy one, get one deals.

Sugar ‘n Spice, for example, is offering special menu items that they’re calling the “Classics” and the “Dark Side,” which are flights of five banana pops with either their classic or their dark chocolate dips. Pops vary between the versions.

The store’s pivoted during the pandemic, having gone cashless and limiting its once 30-item menu down to just the 10 most popular.

“We’re the In-N-Out of frozen bananas,” Courtney Alovis joked.

The Alovises said that the business initially shut down in March and remained closed until Memorial Day weekend. Employees are required to wear masks, but the store model originally only featured a takeout window in the first place. The concern was to make sure that the line moved quickly so people wouldn’t gather.

Sugar 'n Spice offers two types of banana flights, both include five banana pops.
The “Classics” are one of two types of banana flights Sugar ‘n Spice offers.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

Courtney Alovis said that Sugar ‘n Spice has seen less traffic than normal, adding that the Fourth of July is usually the store’s busiest weekend but that it was “so depressing” this year. The Alovises said they just hope the campaign will bring more people out to Balboa Island and encourage people to visit local restaurants.

Interested parties can look on Visit Newport Beach’s website at visitnewportbeach.com/restaurant-month to see a list of the participating restaurants.

As part of the campaign, patrons can sign up at the link for a digital dine pass and diners can check in at restaurants to redeem exclusive offers, special menu items and be entered in daily foodie giveaways or for weekly getaway prizes.

Will Alovis said that he felt that Newport Beach Restaurant Month showed, “even in the face of adversity, Newport Beach [has] a thriving restaurant community.”

“It’s been a super challenging year, but everybody’s committed to getting through this challenging time and continuing on,” he said. “I think that signals something really positive and it kind of calls out to the world that even though we’re having a tough, tough time and circumstances that we’re all committed to making the restaurant-going experience tremendous even with all the strangeness going on.”

By checking in with the Newport Beach Restaurant Month dine pass, customers get a free cup of Mama Avila's soup.
Mama Avila’s soup at Avila’s El Ranchito in Newport Beach.
(Raul Roa / Staff Photographer)

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