Your guide to boosting profits, maximizing takeout and creating a killer menu during the COVID-19 pandemic holiday season

Pre-pandemic, Americans ran short on time and adopted a “why cook and make a mess when you don’t have to?” approach to the holidays, while restaurants stepped in with takeout and dine-in options for Thanksgiving, Hanukkah and Christmas. 

This year, when many are in some level of quarantine, and balancing remote school, work and life, preparing a labor-intensive holiday meal feels more daunting than ever. 

Enter your restaurant’s holiday strategy. If you want to generate revenue this holiday season, this is your guide. You’ll discover what diners want, and learn how to build a profitable menu and promote your offerings.  

Some 45% of millennials who eat turkey would likely purchase a prepared bird for a holiday meal, according to a 2019 Technomic trend report. Technomic data also shows that of the consumers who order catering for social occasions, 59% use it for the holidays. 

“We double our revenue on busy holiday days,” says Cliff Denny, executive chef at Andina in Portland, Oregon, which has cranked out a Thanksgiving tasting menu for 700 covers the last few years. 

Traditional offerings, such as turkey, stuffing and apple pie, are common – but often, selections are tweaked, imprinted with the restaurant’s concept or subverted for a new take on classics. 


Whether we like it or not, we’re still in a pandemic. This will affect the way consumers gather and celebrate, which changes what they want to order from you. Consider new research that provides insight into diner habits, and how you can leverage their preferences to boost business this holiday season.  

Three Takeaways from our Research:  

  1. Think smaller when it comes to your catering menu. If you’re accustomed to selling a full Thanksgiving meal for 12, think about portioning for 4 or 6 this year instead.  
    • To avoid waste, and save on food and labor costs, think about pre-portioned products that can help make the process more efficient. 
  2. One-third of Americans surveyed say they’ll be eating out more this holiday season. So, while that may include the holidays, consider a small-scale holiday party to-go strategy. How can you help someone put together the perfect bite-sized items for a small, festive holiday gathering in your restaurant or at home? 
  3.  To attract dine-in business, including small private parties, making your safety precautions well-known will be a big key to success.  
With the holidays approaching, what will most likely be your approach to significant meals?
Cook at home 61%
Order from a restaurant 31%
Go to a restaurant 8%
With holidays approaching, overall, what best describes what you'll be doing?
Cooking more, eating out and ordering less 52%
Eating out and ordering more, cooking less 31%
About the same as usual 17%
Because winter holidays are often indoors, will your approach change?
I expect to see fewer people than I normally do 77%
I expect to see the same amount of people as I normally do 23%
How will your approach to gathering for holidays compare during winter vs. this past summer?
I expect to be more careful during winter and gather with people less 53%
I expect to gather more during the winter 28%
I think it will be about the same, winter vs. summer 19%


This season’s holidays occur in rapid succession: 
Thanksgiving: Thursday, November 26 
Hanukkah: Thursday, December 10 – Friday, December 18  
Christmas: Friday, December 25 

Consider ways to stretch ingredients between all three holidays, and any catering in between, to help control inventory and reduce waste. 

Consumers want the classics, but with twists that they can’t make at home – such as changing up the herbs or aromatics for brining poultry, or a flavorful chile to give gravy a lift. 

Remember, most people want leftovers for the next day. Increase portion sizes and add next-day components like sandwich bread, additional sides or extra gravy to entice them to order out instead of cooking at home. Including recipes like the ‘Winchester Sandwich’ adds a great service component that they can’t get with dine-in.  


Your survival this holiday and winter season depends on takeout and delivery; learn how to break out your takeout here.


❱ If you choose to go takeout only, it requires little to no staff working the holiday, and allows you to control food and labor volume. You can take orders in advance to plan food deliveries and staff schedules. Don’t forget to set order and pick-up deadlines to avoid wasted time and food. 
❱ Offer complete meals or parts of the meal that diners prefer not to make, such as gravy and pies, which is often vexing for home cooks. Provide options like pre-trussed roast or turkey that customers can simply toss in the oven and reheat before serving. Remember: you’re selling what many won’t or can’t make at home. 
❱ Offer a no-slice bird. Believe it or not, there are still customers who try to pass off holiday catering as a home-cooked meal – which explains why turkey is one item for which customers expect a little less work from the kitchen. Jon Crost, formerly of Weber Grill, says,“ Customers wanted that Norman Rockwell, picture where they get the whole turkey and it has that beautiful dark brown skin…They wanted to take it home, put it on a plate and quietly pull [it] out of their oven when nobody’s looking.” 
❱ Provide take-and-bake sides, such as mac ‘n’ cheese, that can be made at home instead of being warmed. 
❱ Offer a variety of sizes. For each portion, consider 4 ounces for vegetables, 6 ounces for starches and 6 to 8 ounces for proteins. Sell by the foil pan, quart or pint-sized containers. 
❱ To control food costs and labor, offer a discount for early orders and a surcharge for last-minute ones 
❱ Stagger pick-up times. To dole out the 75 turkey packages without creating a mob scene, City Limits has customers sign up for a 30-minute slot. “We can only do so many per half-hour,” she says. “We will cut certain times off if it gets too crazy…You have to pick a time and you’re pretty much held to that time.” 
❱Promote, promote, promote. We’re talking wall-to-wall marketing, social media pushes, word of mouth – everything you've got to let people know you’re about to make their holidays easier and more delicious. 


Turkey is still king for Thanksgiving, especially if it’s prepared with creative bastes and brines. At Colorado-based ViewHouse, executive chef Alex Pineda serves roasted turkey breasts, brushing them with a honey glaze flecked with thyme, rosemary and parsley. “By not preparing and serving a whole turkey, we save on labor and time, and there is less waste in giving our guests what we are sure they will enjoy,” says Pineda. The approach also applies to takeout for those who prefer the breast portions over dark meat. 

To ensure a moist product, Denny serves sous vide turkey breast brined with pisco and aji amarillo, a mild Peruvian pepper, to stay in line with the South American concept. The plate is accompanied by a gooseberry compote and rustic crushed potatoes. 
Get the recipe for Sous Vide Peruvian Turkey Here. 

For last year’s annual holiday lunch, No. 9 Park in Boston served a seared goose breast and confit leg meat with fried sweet potato, an orange canele and kale pistou made with parmesan, lemon zest and chili flakes. Limited quantities added to the appeal. “There are only two killings of geese,” says chef de cuisine Heather Neri. “So, once we order them, that’s all we get. People were so excited about it.” 


Diners flock to creative sides that retain some tradition, whether the audience is dine-in or takeout. “A little bit of a modern touch or flair is totally appropriate, but I try and hit as close to home as possible,” says Jeremy Salamon, executive chef at The Eddy in New York City. For Hanukkah last year, he served matzo ball soup inspired by his Nana’s traditional recipe, swapping schmaltz for bone marrow. Food costs are low, and it can be produced in volume – two necessities for all sides. 
Get the recipe for over-the-top Bone Marrow Matzo Balls here.  

Although casseroles hit those two targets, interest in sauce-soaked greens is waning, so repurpose broccoli or sprouts into warm salads. At Oak Steakhouse in Nashville, Tennessee, chef Bobby Hodge serves a warm broccolini salad with compressed apple, white balsamic vinaigrette, feta, smoked benne seeds and shaved radish. “The compressed apple gives it a little vinegary pop,” says Hodge, “and you’ve got the smoky seeds, salty cheese and peppery radish. It sells like crazy.”

Dine-In Tips


❱ Cater to couples by offering special shareable dishes for two

❱ Try a limited-run lunch. If you’re usually closed for lunch, capitalize on the daytime crowd – think holiday shoppers and office workers looking to celebrate 

❱ Set up a buffet to draw special-occasion diners looking for an indulgent all-you-can-eat experience

❱ Start a specials series that continues over a number of days and encourages repeat business. Make this menu work available for both dine-in and delivery, and think about how to best package for off-premise.   

❱ Introduce a signature dish with an annual variation. Returning diners relish being a part of the tradition.  
Get our guide to Create New Traditions for Holiday Diners Here

❱ Advertise far in advance, at least four to six weeks, with in-store notices as well as social media and print campaigns.  
Looking to develop a holiday season content strategy for your restaurant? Click here.


Matt Gandin serves a Mexican-style brisket for Hanukkah at Comal in Berkeley, California, which includes an adobo made with ancho chilies, vinegar, garlic clove, black pepper, allspice and cumin. The brisket is part of a ticketed 24-person dinner called Oaxanukkah served family-style with tortillas, rice, black beans, salsas and braised mustard greens. 

Meanwhile, in New Orleans, Marjie’s Grill offers an 8 Nights of Latkes menu featuring riffs on the classic potato-based dish that retains its integrity as a to-go option. “It has become one of the busiest weeks of the year for us,” says owner Caitlin Carney. Recipes include an “everything bagel” latke and a Korean seafood latke made with shrimp, squid, oysters and kimchi. Even with the shrimp, squid and oysters, it remains profitable, thanks to the low cost of the potatoes.

Get the recipe for the Korean Seafood Latke here. 

Savory bread pudding–with andouille sausage, cheddar and cayenne hot sauce–has been a Southern-inspired hit for David Guas, chef-owner of Bayou Bakery, Coffee Bar & Eatery in Arlington, Virginia. It’s offered as a half or full sheet for large gatherings and potluck dinners.


Pastry chef Ann Kirk veers from the traditional pumpkin pie for a cardamom coconut cream pie at Little Dom’s in Los Angeles. “Many of our customers entertain or need host gifts, and the coconut cream pie is not only delicious, but pretty and fun,” she says.

This year, takeout is king. Single-serve dessert options for safe, small gatherings, and decadent pies that travel well will win.

Dessert program inspiration:

Salted Caramel Apple Pie in a Jar 
Honeynut Squash Cheesecake 
Bourbon Apple and Valrhona Caramelia Pie 
Apple Pie Snickerdoodles 

This holiday season will look different for everyone, but diners are craving fresh flavors, twists on classics and a break from the monotony. Finding a balance between what wows and what works for the wallet will bring a profitable season.