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RSW Living Magazine

Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week to Give Scholarship to Local Aspiring Chefs

May 21, 2018 11:18AM ● By Kevin
Sizzle SWFL Restaurant Week, the semiannual promotion that celebrates dining out at an affordable price, kicks off its spring-summer edition on May 31, running through June 13. This year is a special one, as the folks at the Food Idea Group have teamed up with Florida Gulf Coast University to provide scholarships to local aspiring chefs.

There will be more than 70 participating Lee and Collier County restaurants offering three course prix fixe menus with special upgrades and deals starting at just $25 and $35.

The goal of Restaurant Week, according to its official website, is to "encourage increased traffic to the BEST local restaurants and to celebrate the wide array of cuisine available here in Southwest Florida."

The idea of restaurant week all began in Naples in 2015 as Naples Restaurant Week. Through the evolution and growing popularity of the event, the founders of the Food Idea Group expanded it to serve the many neighborhoods and communities around Southwest Florida, including but not limited to Fort Myers, Cape Coral, Bonita Springs, Sanibel Island, and Marco Island.

"It was really time for us to make it all encompassing like Miami Spice," said the Food Idea Group co-founder Rafael Feliciano. "That's a huge restaurant week just two hours away form us, including South Beach, Coral Gables, and Miami City. That was a big move for us to transition to Southwest Florida."

With void comes opportunity. Restaurant week here has been successful, so far. All the big culinary hubs, such as Chicago, New York, Miami, and even smaller cities, such as Cincinnati and Grand Rapids, have their own "Super Bowl of Food." Knowing the food scene was evolving, Feliciano and co-founder Guy Clarke, saw an opportunity and rolled with it.

"The premise of restaurant week is to expose the restaurants and food in Southwest Florida, but also give residents and visitors other options to eat rather than your typical chain restaurants."

They have always tried to find a way to get the community involved. In the past, they've raised money for local humane societies, Boys and Girls Club, and St. Matthew's House. They didn't want to stop there, though.

"This is all great, but it doesn't tie into our mission," Feliciano said. "Our mission is the culinary world, the food scene, Southwest Florida. "So, this year, we teamed up with FGCU, because they have somewhat of a culinary program and a very heavy resort and hospitality program. We teamed up with them to create our own scholarship, this year."

The scholarship will be known as the Sizzle SWFL FGCU Food and Beverage Scholarship, tied directly into restaurant week, and is exclusively for young adults that fit the criteria: graduated from a qualifying Southwest Florida high school, enrolled at FGCU, and wanting to get into the resort and hospitality program there.

"The reason we came up with that was that this restaurant week has more than 70 restaurants," Feliciano said. "Typically between both restaurant weeks, we deal with more than 100. Some participate in the spring, some in the winter only. The number one thing we hear all the time is restaurants need help. They can't find kitchen people, servers, managers, concierges, caterers ... We look at this as a real problem."

The hospitality scene here, Feliciano said, is so important, and there is not enough good quality work. Why is that? A lot of graduates go off to other cities and jobs. So, the goal with the scholarship is to keep local people local.

"If you want to start a career, you don't have to go to Texas, California, or New York," Feliciano said. "We have good quality work in Southwest Florida."

Feliciano and Clarke have gotten every participating restaurant to agree that $1 from every restaurant week meal sold will be donated to the scholarship. Last spring, the event did 30,000 covers. In theory, that would be $25,000 - $30,000 in scholarship money. With more participating restaurants this year, they are hopeful that number will be even higher.

"Every time you dine out during restaurant week, you're serving the purpose and helping a kid, and it's a direct correlation to what we're trying to do," Feliciano said.

The titled sponsor of the event is Mercedes Benz of Bonita Springs. Twice a year, a preview party is held there called, First Bite, which showcases 30 restaurants. There is also a silent auction, and all proceeds go toward the scholarship. The next first bite will take place after the spring-summer restaurant week, occurring on Oct. 21.The Food Idea Group and Mercedes Benz of Bonita Springs are pulling out all the stops, featuring ice sculptures, live music, and photo booths.

There's not a big difference between this event and the winter edition, but there are less restaurants participating, as many are hosting their own holiday events.

"The winter one is the one that started this event," Feliciano said. "We look at that one as the flagship, signature part of the event. The summer one is very local-driven, because a lot of the snowbirds already went up north. The one in the winter is a mixture between locals and snowbirds that come down early."

For more information about the event, visit the website or its Facebook page.