(This blog posting is a follow-up to the Weekly Dish column in the Edmonton Sun on Wednesday, April 4, 2012, entitled "Alberta's Garlic Advantage" in print, and "Garlic Festival an all-Alberta affair" in the on-line version)

The Sorrentino’s Garlic Festival, in its 21st year, has become part of the very fabric of this city.

And along the way, a textbook case of great marketing that should be thoroughly studied by any student of marketing and promotion.

Most restaurants owners – 99% of them –lack the energy and imagination to separate themselves from the pack. It’s enough, they think, to simply open their doors, provide adequate service, good food and enough advertising to get by.

Then there’s Sorrentino’s.

Among their many other entrepreneurial strengths, Carmelo and Stella Rago understand the power of being different.

Inspired by a world-famous garlic festival in California, Carmelo found the extra energy and extra effort to start that first Garlic Festival two decades ago.

Just what does the Garlic Festival do for the Sorrentino chain?

·         Sales:  April is traditionally one of the slowest months of the year for the restaurant business.  At the Sorrentino’s chain, thanks to the popularity of the garlic festival, and the garlic festival alone, it’s one of the company’s most profitable months.

·         Image: The garlic festival (and its off-spring, the fall Sorrentino Mushroom Festival and its Back to Basics lesser celebration in January) has become a “brand” for Sorrentino’s. Most of Edmonton knows of the Sorrentino chain because of the publicity generated by the Garlic Festival. Being “top of mind” after some 30 years of existence is an extraordinary accomplishment.

·         Publicity: The Garlic Festival always starts with a kick-off party at one of the larger Sorrentino’s venues, usually downtown. And at that party, a “king and queen” of the Garlic Festival – always media personalities – are crowned. Do that for 21 years, and every recognizable media person in town has become a big fan of the festival, attends the annual kick-off party … and talks up the festival on air or in print.

·         Creativity:  Sorrentino’s is blessed to have one of Western Canada’s top chefs, Sonny Sung, as it’s overall “corporate” chef for the six locations, plus Sunny is a partner with the Ragos in the Bistecca Italian Steakhouse. Every year, Sunny and Stella come up with an “angle” on the garlic festival – a theme, a new type of garlic, a new dish. This year, it’s an all-Alberta ingredient, all-Alberta dishes theme and it’s a huge winner.  The festival’s creativity is part of its attraction to regular customers. They know the garlic festival menu for April will always be different and interesting. At the same time, it’s a continual reminder for the dining out population that Sorrentino’s food is not only first-rate but always interesting.

·         Community: This is probably the most important aspect of Sorrentino’s and its Garlic Festival, and probably the most difficult to actually measure. You cannot even start to do for the community what the Sorrentino’s and the Garlic Festival have done unless you have caring hearts – and the Rago family, born and raised in Edmonton with the deepest roots possible in the city’s Italian community , have big hearts. The Garlic Festival, with its now every-second-year Garlic Stomp Gala fundraiser and a portion of its sales, has raised at least $600,000 for the Compassion House for women fighting breast cancer, which in gratitude calls itself the Sorrentino’s Compassion House.  In addition, the Ragos also committed a portion of the Garlic Festival proceeds for five years to the city’s major prostate cancer fund-raising campaign … and raised $1 million. I don’t know about you, but I am certainly more inclined to patronize restaurants that I know give back to the community than those that don’t.

It all is synergistic – community involvement supports marketing, marketing supports dining out at Sorrentino’s, dining out supports appreciation and word-of-mouth praise, community work attracts media attention, which brings in more customers …

But as I said, it can’t be done in the first place without compassionate caring people at the heart, and owners with that little extra “umph” to spend that extra hour or two a day above the usual time it takes to run a business … to do something special.

And look how it has paid off, both in non-material satisfaction and for Sorrentino’s bottom line.

(This year’s garlic festival runs all April at the five Sorrentino's locations plus the Sorrentino's associated Bistecca Italian Steakhouse, and includes the Big Garlic Night Wed. April 25 when 5% of sales go to Sorrentino's Compassion House for women fighting breast cancer