One minute, fall foliage is lining the streets again, and the next, the unstoppable rollercoaster ride from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is starting.
Anybody who has ever tried to play Thanksgiving host, Christmas morning Santa and New Year’s Eve party planner knows the holiday season is a hectic time. People, understandably, are desperate for a helping hand.
That’s what makes the festive winter holidays a golden opportunity for restaurants to drive as much traffic as possible.
In fact, 77% of consumers depend on restaurants to prepare at least some part of their holiday meals, according to a 2022 survey from the National Restaurant Association.
So here are 16 trusted tips to make the holidays the most wonderful time of the year for your bottom line.
HIT UP THE HOTELS
Do a “concierge run” as soon as possible, dropping off goodie bags with small treats like cake or a bottle of wine. Don’t forget corporations. Include your banquet and holiday menus. It may not reap immediate rewards, but the efforts should plant the seeds for future referrals to your restaurant, says Chef/owner Rob Lam of Perle in Oakland, California.
MARKET EARLY; MARKET OFTEN
Executive Chef Steve Chiappetti of the Albert Chicago starts e-blasts, check inserts, press releases and digital ads for the holiday season “the minute Labor Day is over” – and sometimes sooner, for corporate holiday party pitches. “Even if you book just 10 guests three months before Thanksgiving or Christmas, that’s 10 guests you might not have otherwise seen,” Chiappetti says.
THINK ALL OCCASIONS AND ALL CHANNELS
If it wasn’t a certainty before 2020, the pandemic proved without a doubt that a restaurant occasion can extend beyond the four walls of the dining room. Prepare a robust offering for off-premise dining with holiday takeout specials, catering options for all sizes and pickup packages for at-home celebrating. Don’t forget gift cards, and offer incentives, such as $10 extra for every $100 purchased.
PLAY TO YOUR STRENGTHS AND CUSTOMER NEEDS
If you already serve a killer roast chicken, apply the same technique to turkey. Same goes for favorite side dishes. Solve home cooking challenges, such as making jus, gravy and even stock for sauces, by offering them for purchase.
BE THE MIDDLEMAN
Your customers typically don’t have direct access to your purveyors, whether it’s seafood, aged meat. par-baked rolls or desserts. This is the time of year to offer them, prepped with instructions.
PREP THE POS SYSTEM
Be sure you’re ready to take holiday orders online. Save recipient contact information for your email lists, and be sure to follow up with thank you's and surveys on improving selection and service.
DECK THE HALLS
The holidays are a magical time, and the dining room should reflect that spirit (just be mindful to fit the vibe with your concept). A festive pop-up, such as Rudolph’s Holiday Rooftop, traditionally held atop London House Chicago, draws crowds with seasonal cocktails, private igloos and plenty of social media photo ops.
CATER TO EVERY OPPORTUNITY
Cracker Barrel, the 660-unit casual dining chain, has long been known as an off-the-highway pit stop. But the chain recently charged hard into catering, seeing big jumps in sales, and reporting that it’s on track to turn it into a $100 million annual sales channel. Cracker Barrel has found catering success by offering a wide range of choices (from a 10-person breakfast to holiday limited-time offerings and party platters). It’s a moneymaker that succeeds only if kitchen operations are well-oiled and efficient.
DAY DRINKING, ANYONE?
Minneapolis-based steakhouse The Butcher’s Tale offers a discount for companies to host office holiday parties during the day, bringing in big business during a potentially slow time. It might be a hard sell for some customers, but nudging them with (slightly) lower prices and the promise of undivided staff attention could produce results.
CONSIDER THE GUEST’S HOLIDAY PREP LIST
Chiappetti likes to put the kitchen to work during downtime producing and packaging bulk items. Create pretty holiday cookies, pies or cakes for purchase that diners can take home after the meal. “There is always someone who needs a last-minute hostess gift or holiday party food contribution,” he says.
DON’T GET TOO CREATIVE
The busy holiday season is a time to play on your restaurant’s strengths, not necessarily try something new. Longtime chef Rose Elliot will never forget the “Frosty Fiasco” of more than two decades ago, when she decided to serve a new holiday ice cream recipe that swiftly turned to a “sea of festive soup” on diners’ plates.
BUT RIFFS ON SIGNATURE DISHES ARE A-OK
Velvet Taco, the 35-unit taco chain known for its 52 limited-time Weekly Taco Features (WTFs) each year, drove traffic last November with its “Dinner at the Rockwells” creation – filled with turkey, stuffing, sweet potatoes, cranberries and gravy folded into a flour tortilla. See what you can build with existing SKUs to keep costs in check.
MAKE IT MINI
No one likes waste – but just about everyone loves an assortment, which is why offering miniature or bite-sized desserts can be profitable, especially when they’re holiday versions of their full-sized counterparts. Think pecan tarts, cheesecake, apple pie and pumpkin squares.
Those who dine out for Thanksgiving miss out on a holiday ritual: leftovers. Attract diners by offering an additional portion of turkey, stuffing, gravy and sides, but adjust your costs accordingly.
DON’T FORGET THE BAR
The holidays are nothing if not celebratory, which means plenty of toasts and rounds of drinks. Come up with holiday-appropriate libations, including nonalcoholic choices. Seasonal ingredients are a draw, especially at this time of year, so think ingredients and garnishes. At Steam Pub in Southampton, Pennsylvania, holiday beverages focus on cranberries, citrus, warm spices and chestnuts (such as a Chestnut Purée Espresso Martini).
KEEP STAFF INVIGORATED
The holidays can be stressful for everybody, so look for ways to increase staff retention. Neighborhood upscale counter-service spot Birdie’s in Austin, Texas, tacks a 3.5% health-and-wellness fee onto each check to help pay for four weeks of paid vacation per year (including two weeks in the winter around Christmastime), as well as subsidized mental health care and paid parental leave. Taking care not to alienate diners, Birdie’s explains the added charge and its streamlined service model in detail on its website.