For many operators the promise of a strong fourth quarter can, at worst, partially make up for an otherwise lackluster year. On the other hand, if things are already going well, a strong finish will turn a good year into a great one. During the Holidays most peoples’ spending patterns loosen up, there are more reasons and occasions for individuals and families to splurge and celebrate and corporate revelry kicks into high gear (albeit not as high as a few years ago.) This is good news for restaurateurs.
We can all pretty much count on increased business in December compared to our historically slowest months, but the more effort we put into planning and preparing for a great Holiday season, the greater positive impact it will have on our operations. Why not leverage the opportunities of the season for all they are worth? Let’s look at ways we can set our restaurants up to make the most of all the potential bonuses the Holidays bring to us and our businesses.
Before we get into effective ways to increase traffic and profitability, we should make sure that the underpinnings of our establishments will be ready to handle the increased demand. With this tack, our Holiday preparations will have the added bonus of acting as a general tune up for various components of our operations.
Take Stock of your Staffing
Staffing is always an on-going concern in every restaurant. If you are uncomfortable with any of the individuals filling your management positions, either in the front or back of the house, office or sales, your concerns will only increase with the increased demands of a busy Holiday season. Just as great, competent people in key positions will be instrumental in having a smooth, busy and profitable fourth quarter, any weak links in the chain will cause your business more harm and cost you more money than you may ever know about. It’s temping, after doing your best to change the behavior of less than stellar managers, to just hope that they will miraculously improve, or to just wait and handle the problem at a latter date. Don’t do it. Think about how much worse it will be to have them in their current positions when business is (hopefully) doubled during December. Of course, the process of letting someone go, hiring a suitable replacement, training them and having them up to speed so that they can flawlessly handle a very busy stretch of business takes time.
The decision to replace a weak employee, especially a manager, must be undertaken with a modicum of strategic timing. Deciding to replace an employee in November, especially if you’ve had doubts about them since spring, will do no one any good in terms of being ready to nail the Holidays. This is true not only of your managers, but everyone on your team. From stewards to executive chef, and from bussers to maître d’, pay attention and always be aware of just how good a job each individual is doing. Offer sincere praise and constructive guidance as appropriate. If your goal is to have the A-Team in place by October, then spring or (at the latest) summer is the time to make an honest assessment of your crew and make any necessary changes. This will give you time to fire under-performing individuals according to the guidelines in your employee handbook, interview potential candidates and hire the cream of the crop. You’ll then have time for the new hires to be fully trained and become functioning and respected members of the team by the time business is booming in a few months.
Another issue that comes up during extra busy times is the necessity for more staff at every level, in both the kitchen and dining room. One possible solution to consider, depending on your particular business, is to hire seasonal help for non-critical positions. Sometimes, existing workers will recommend friends who can lend a hand. Over time, if it’s a good fit all the way around, some of these people will come to work for you every Holiday season. Another solution is to always carry enough staff so that, even when things get busy, you’ll have enough trained, experienced workers to handle it. With some effort at balance, maintaining this number of staff won’t be as much of an extra drain during slower times, as it will be a help in avoiding going into overtime as often as you otherwise might.
Any ancillary services that you outsource should also be scrutinized far enough ahead of time to rectify any existing issues by the start of fourth quarter. This is something that should be done on a regular basis anyway. If preparing for the Holidays becomes your impetus to finally take action, so be it. Window washing, flowers, extermination services, waste removal and other services should all be looked at for quality and consistency of service, as well as pricing. If you know you will want either more or fancier floral arrangements during the Holidays, you might very well be able to negotiate a better deal for them with your florist during a time of the year when he’s particularly slow than in December, when everyone wants his services.
One of the main services that you may outsource that will be especially important during the Holidays is your valet parking service. Find out just how happy your guests are with your parking situation; it’s really the first thing they experience when they decide to dine at your restaurant. If there are issues, address them as soon as you know about them. Then you’ll have time to see if the company is willing to correct them, or if you need to switch providers. You may also want to plan ahead, and reserve the extra parkers you’ll need in November and December when it’s still hot out. If you are locked into using a particular valet parking company because your landlord has chosen them, it will take even more time and effort to correct the problem, so don’t put it off until it’s too late. Even if you don’t provide valet parking, it may be appropriate to fill any potholes in your lot.
Inspect your Facility for Signs of Wear
Your parking lot isn’t the only place on your property to search for signs of wear. If you’ve been meaning to give any part of your restaurant a face-lift, why not use the idea of showing your facility in the best light during the Holidays as an excuse to get it done? Re-modeled restrooms, new carpet, different art or even a new paint job can work wonders as far as a guest’s experience goes. Just make sure the projects are started in time to be finished by fall. Even something as simple as new waiters’ uniforms might be well worth considering. Of course, your kitchen is just as prone to wear and tear as your dinning room. It’s bad enough if you expect your kitchen crew to turn out great food all year using barely working ovens, faulty plumbing and insufficient small wares. Don’t go out of your way to increase your Holiday sales without making sure that your back of the house crew isn’t trying to get their work done with one hand tied behind their backs. Give them their first Holiday bonus early: replace or repair anything in the kitchen that needs it.
From the Customers’ Perspective
Now that your facility and staff are ready to handle the onslaught of a very busy Holiday season, let’s look at ways to make sure that your potential customers play along with the plan and come to the party.
If you are set up to do off-premise catering or have the capability to do private parties in-house, the Holidays are the perfect time of year to leverage these services. The main thing to realize is, with both off-premise and on-, that you have a very finite number of events you will be able to handle on any given day or night. Make sure that you book the most profitable ones you can, and leave the others for your competition. Have one person in charge of booking these events, and be sure that they understand the strategic nature of what they are doing. Your in-house banquet work is obviously limited by the number of rooms you have and the number of guests they can hold, with the guest capacity being different for receptions versus seated dinners (make sure you know which is more profitable for you.)
Your off-premise docket will be limited primarily by the number of managers you have available to be on site at the events. Depending on what off-premise catering looks like for you, you may need both a dinning room manager and a chef at each event. Figure out how many off-premise events you can handle on a given night, and what their maximum size is. If you can handle no more than two off-premise events of up to 100 covers each, don’t make the rookie mistake of taking a dinner for 10 on a Saturday night in December. Hold out for something at least close to your maximum. Other factors besides size come into play. A party for 50 with your most expensive menu items, full bar and premium wines is a better bet than one for 75 with chicken and iced tea.
Have your strategy to book only the most profitable events in place early in the year; many Holiday parties book months in advance. Have faith that you’ll get calls for good, profitable parties, and don’t fill your calendar early with small, bargain-priced dinners. It’s a lousy feeling to have to turn down a great event because you are already booked solid with things that are much, much smaller. If you are not confident that you will get calls for better events, even in December, then there might be a problem with your marketing or, possibly, your product. Fixing either of these problems is something you should add to your list of things to do during your pre-fourth quarter preparations.
Special Holiday Menus
One tactic to encourage guests to choose your restaurant over your competition is to offer special Holiday menus. One of the easiest ways to come up with ideas for specials, any time of year, is to look at what ingredients are the best during that season, and what dishes will be most appealing during the period of time in question, considering the weather. Some ingredients that are at their peak in the fall, in terms of quality, price and desirability are truffles, foie gras, pumpkins, walnuts, oysters, pears, game birds and various wild mushrooms. During the winter, chestnuts, lentils, potatoes, cabbage and preserved fruits are all things to consider incorporating into dishes on your menu. Winter is also the time when any braised item will be a welcome option for your guests. Dishes like osso buco, braised oxtails, beef stew, chicken and dumplings, coq au vin, short ribs and chile con carne will all be popular when it’s cold outside. Winter is also the time of year when thicker, richer soups, creamier side dishes and warm, rich desserts make a lot of sense for a lot of people. Summer may be perfect for gazpacho and sorbet, but December is perfect for beef-barley soup and warm chocolate-bread pudding with caramel sauce.
Depending on your concept, it might make sense for you to offer special Holiday, prix fixemenus, with optional wine or boutique beer pairings. These menus can feature special items that your customers would consider a splurge, like lobster tail appetizers, Chateaubriand for two entrées, followed by individual Grand Marnier soufflés and flaming coffee drinks, prepared tableside. If this sounds like something your guests would love and that you could pull off, why not do it? You could promote it as the best meal anyone could hope to have during the Holidays, to be shared with the most important person in his or her life, for a highlight of the season. If this particular idea makes absolutely no sense whatsoever for your restaurant, there is probably something else that would be a perfect match for your concept. Perhaps a selection of special dishes served family-style with kids under a certain age eating free would be a hit. Regardless, seasonal Holiday options with a special hook that fit your concept and typical guest profile is something worth considering.
Holiday Buffet Dinners
If you have private dining space but don’t offer buffet-style dinners, you may want to consider adding it to increase your Holiday business. There are many groups that meet regularly that prefer this style of service. Reaching out to them can be one of your marketing goals. One aspect of buffets that might possibly make them attractive to an operator is that they typically require much less staff, both in the dinning room and kitchen, than a similarly sized plated event. For instance, from the kitchen’s point of view, a three-course plated dinner for 50 guests will require them to make 150 individual plates. The same sized party with a similar menu will only require them to make approximately 16 platters, including back-ups. This will require less manpower, as well as less time; for the kitchen, the hour before a buffet goes out is the most hectic. Then it slows down considerably, allowing those cooks to move on to other tasks. It will also take fewer waiters to give good service to the same number of guests with a buffet rather than a plated dinner. The difference in staffing requirements, front and back, may be the difference between being able to book a buffet dinner for 100 instead of a plated dinner for 50.
Specialty Holiday Drinks
Many guests will be in more of a mood to celebrate and show themselves a good time during the Holidays. One way to meet them half way is to have a small selection of special wines or pre-dinner cocktails for them to consider. Assemble a small, but exceptional, list of choices covering a basic range of tastes. For wines: a crisp Sauvignon Blanc, a balanced, oaked Chardonnay, a Pinot Noir and a Cabernet Sauvignon might be a good place to start. As for cocktails, be sure to offer some that are more fun, colorful and sweet, and some that are more “serious.” Know your guests and what will appeal to them. As important as it is to put together a list of choices that really are special and worth trying, it is just as important to have your waiters and bartenders in on the plan. Take the time to explain to them just how great these drinks are, why, and what a great way they are for your guests to improve their experience.
If there is any time of year that your staff will be more likely to sell their guests a glass of wine to accompany their desserts, it’s December. Make it even easier by providing some classic pairings for them to suggest. Chocolate and Porto, Vin Santo and a biscotti or Sauternes and a fruit tart are all popular combinations for good reasons. Hot mulled cider with a moist ginger-fruit cake would be fun. As always, if your staff has had first-hand experience of just how good these combinations are, they are much more apt to succeed in selling them.
The right live entertainment always makes a room more festive and merry. Again, know your clientele and what will make them happiest. The wrong music, or even the perfect music at the wrong volume, is worse than none at all. Perhaps you’ll decide that a solo piano, harp or singer/guitar player would be up your guests’ alley. Maybe a group of strolling singers dressed up like they just stepped off the pages of a Dickens novel would be just the ticket. Regardless, realize that most performers who are good are probably already booked for December months in advance. Plan ahead.
Market your Holiday Offerings
You’ve done some general housekeeping to get your restaurant ready for a great season, and made sure that anyone who spends a part of their Holidays with you will be glad that they did. Now, don’t hide your light under a bushel. Know your market and use every tool available to get the word out that when it comes to Holiday merriment, your restaurant should be the first place to think of.
Your current customers are the easiest and most important to reach. Table tents are a quick and inexpensive way to spread the word about special menus and wines offered only during the Holidays, as well as the availability of private rooms. If you have active Facebook or Twitter accounts, use them to let everyone involved know about your Holiday festivities. (If you’re not active on Facebook and Twitter, maybe you should be.) An email newsletter that is regularly sent to a well-maintained database can be very effective, as long as it always contains interesting information. If it applies, start building Holiday interest in your catering and banquet facilities early in the year; the best parties book the earliest. You might even include a calendar of available dates, especially as there become fewer of them left.
Many of the ideas that work to help make your fourth quarter strong can be applied all year round. Start using them to beef up your Holidays, but keep them in your plans long after the New Year starts.