Special Section: Party On

Hear that? It’s the call to private dining, and it’s time to answer it.

SPECIAL SECTION SPONSORED BY: HOFFMASTER, LIBBEY AND STERNO 

Around the holidays, private dining and catered events are an ask-and-you-shall-receive proposition. The business is there for the taking, as long as your concept and service align with your clients’ expectations. 

Planning and hosting events isn’t easy, but it is a logical extension of what you’re already doing: extending hospitality to guests. Booked parties can ensure your restaurant ends the year on a strong, positive note, especially when guest counts are softer during the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas. 

“(Private dining) is very important to our business strategy and success,” says Lynette Velez, director of private dining sales for Chicago-based Gibsons Restaurant Group, which includes the flagship steakhouse that grossed more than $22 million last year. From the 14 locations under various brands at GRG, private events account for 15 to 20 percent of the company’s total revenue.

With big revenue potential as incentive, the time to launch event offerings is now. Seasoned private event coordinators say that by summer, half of their spaces already have contracts for the peak weeks leading to Christmas. 

No Space? No Problem

Operators without private dining space can indeed capitalize on holiday parties.

Restaurants are increasingly offering menus for larger parties that line up with the busiest times of the year, such as the holidays.

Some key considerations for group dining to-go:

-Provide packages that encompass the entire meal but start with signature items and be mindful of dishes that compromise quality when held or reheated.

-Offer pickup times that do not interfere with lunch or dinner service.

-Provide higher-quality disposables, such as napkins and chafing dishes.

-Be sure you’re staffed to handle the additional business.

-Promote the service far in advance in the restaurant, through social media and your website.

-Be honest about your capabilities. An onslaught of business is not worth the repercussions of dissatisfied customers if execution falls short.

Personalization Runs the Show

Gone are the days when restaurants dictated a set menu. 

“Our guests personalize the experience and put their stamp on it with the rest of the menu,” Velez says. GRG offers a robust list of appetizers, from seafood towers to antipasti platters. “More and more, people look for a unique experience, one that is personalized,” she says. 

Customization also means flexibility. “Our chef might see something at the market that looks fantastic; we then offer that as a change,” says Suzanne Blezard, director of catering and events for Untitled, a vegetable-focused concept from Union Square Hospitality Group at New York City’s Whitney Museum of American Art. “It’s exactly how people eat in restaurants, and we work to ensure it’s the same experience for private events.”

The food portion of events should spring from your overall goals, says Ron DeSantis, director of culinary excellence at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut. “What they’re trying to achieve, the look of the party and the guest list—that architecture drives the menu.” Within that framework, he’s also seeing an ever-growing focus on vegetables. 

“Plates are rearranged, with protein off to the side and vegetables the star,” he says. That can mean a BLT in which the B is slowly roasted butternut squash. “It becomes very umami-like, almost a smoky bacon taste that’s familiar.” 

DeSantis also sees a surge in vegan desserts prepared so skillfully that the absence of dairy and egg is a nonissue. “We make coconut panna cotta with agar-agar instead of gelatin and a cardamom-spiced olive oil cake with fresh pears. There’s no need to highlight them as vegan—they stand on their own merits.”

Make it Passable or Shareable

Marta, a USHG restaurant in The Redbury New York hotel, showcases a casual-chic Italian menu that plays well in private events. “Everyone wants our pizzas,” says Andrea Oltjen, director of catering and event sales, adding that they can be passed during cocktail receptions or served family-style at tables.

Antipasti plates also continue to dominate the first-course arena, while wood-fired proteins hold on tight for main dishes. 

Booze Adds to the Mood

For beverages, specialty cocktails are making inroads. “Guests might come to us with a clever name or a few key ingredients they like, maybe bourbon or gin. We then can custom create a signature drink for the event. It’s very memorable and personal,” Oltjen says. She also notes a surge of interest in non-alcoholic beverages such as housemade sodas with herb-infused syrups. 

In addition, Marta has a strong wine program and, perhaps spurred by its reputation or symmetry with its menu, Oltjen sees a big move toward a stronger integration of wine into events. 

Play up the Place 

Forget plain walls built into a dark space, buffet service that seems a little too straight-line serious, tidy little bunches of flowers, industrial-strength serving dishes and drab linens. Private events are now style-forward, their surroundings and accoutrements thoughtfully selected. As expressions of the guests, those elements are a very important part of the event, Oltjen says.

“Private events have the same decor, china, linens, glassware, silver—everything. It’s like eating in the restaurant,” says Michael Lomonaco, chef-owner of Porter House Bar & Grill in New York City. However, guests who wish to bring in linens, flowers or special serving pieces are given free rein. “We’re 100 percent guest-centric,” he says.

Building on the modern aesthetic of a space, event coordinators say simple environments work well, with flowers and candles often the only grace notes required.

At Yale University, “urban-ness” plays large, according to Adam Millman, director of auxiliary services. “There’s familiarity in the look—sophisticated and contemporary even though it seems a little rough around the edges,” he says. One of the standouts: salad ingredients piled on a 6-foot wooden board, instead of served in a standard bowl. “The impact is huge when guests walk into the room. It’s a wow factor that people always talk about,” Millman says. The university also has a tall custom-crafted cylinder from which serving containers jut out in a staggered design. 

“Presentation is so important,” DeSantis says. “Take fried chicken. Instead of putting it in a hotel pan, one of our chefs stacked the pieces and topped them with fried herbs.”

Remember the Upsell 

Party favors are common for events like weddings and showers, yet they are often overlooked for holiday private dining. 

Restaurants are uniquely equipped to offer clients small but meaningful gifts that add to the bottom line and reinforce the restaurant’s brand. Housemade chocolates, cookies or mini loaves of breakfast breads wrapped in ribbon-tied cellophane bags or holiday-themed boxes go a long way toward leaving a lasting impression.

It’s also beneficial to include a small business card with a holiday greeting and a note for complimentary valet, dessert or other offerings during the slower months of January and February.     

“The hospitality piece is paramount for private events,” Oltjen says. “The client wants to be taken care of, and maybe even more so than the diner.”

SpecialSection-PartyOn2

YOUR CHECKLIST FOR SUCCESS

Successfully executing private dining rests largely on staying organized. With so many details to coordinate, maintaining and updating a checklist is imperative. Here’s where to get started.

1. Get it on Paper. Build a document that summarizes the full scope of food and service. Ask clients to review and sign off on the plan.

2. Run Your Numbers. Always run budgets by the people who do the ordering to avoid underpricing an event. Check with the back of the house for food and labor costs and the front of the house for staffing and tableware.

3. Suss out Your Vibe. Every element can convey ambience, from the shape of glasses and serving pieces to flowers and lighting.

4. Be Smart About the Small Things. Renting furniture or decor can spruce up your space, but going the high-end disposable route for napkins and tablecloths can be a better option, especially for events with a holiday theme. 

5. Think Green. Diners’ good-for-the-earth beliefs may dictate where they spend their event money. Eco-friendly disposables have the requisite high style to dazzle at private events. Bamboo, thin wood veneer, palm, potato starch and sugar cane are among the materials to consider.

6. Be Prepared for Music. Whether audio-visual support is an in-house service or contracted, double-check the equipment, music or presentations in advance.

7. Know the Guest List. Study up on the attendees, asking the client to describe who they are, what they will have done the day of the event and whether they know each other. Will they arrive together? Will they have business or other events the next day? The more you know about the group, the more you can cater to their unique needs. 

8. Be Flexible, But Don’t Be a Doormat. All events should be expressions of what you do in the restaurant. Don’t take on an event that doesn’t reflect your concept’s food and approach. 

9. Follow the Golden Rule of Hospitality. Make the client’s priorities your priorities. Food quality is most important to some people, while sticking to a set end time is paramount to others.