The Scary Truth: Holiday Menus
Say you have a restaurant and you do solid, steady business. Your team is dialed in, the tables turn, and you have the supplies that your team needs to do their job. Now, let’s say, you decide to do a special menu for the holidays…could be Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Eve or even Mother’s Day. You get rid of your tried and true menu and instead offer a prix fixe, multi- course menu. Can’t get simpler than that, right? Every single table gets the same thing so that makes it much easier on the kitchen and service teams, right?
Well, in theory I’d say possibly… However, in my experience I have seen competent teams buckle under the stress of serving a seemingly easy menu for a special holiday. Doing something different for just one night can create stress and chaos; for the kitchen, the service team and also for the guest.
I spoke to Wade Moises, the Executive Chef of Rosemary’s, about his experience in creating special holiday menus. He shared his experience in attempting to create the perfect Christmas Eve menu. “We tried multiple course tasting menus, we tried a family style tasting menu, we tried a grand buffet with roasted pig, house-made panettone towers, salt-roasted whole salmon - that I really worked myself to death for - and none of it was successful.” His advice? The simpler the better.
Chef Wade has learned that “the lesson is to really keep it simple. Put yourself in the guest's shoes (which sometimes is super difficult) up to and including straight-up asking some regulars what they would like to see. People want it easy. What “easy” is depends on the holiday.” Chef Wade shares that on Thanksgiving easy means having a traditional turkey in addition to regular menu items. And that on New Year’s Eve he’s learned that “it’s ok to go a little crazy and have a little fun with the menu; but people still expect a certain style...for us it’s our simple Italian roots. We upgrade the ingredients, techniques and care but people know they will still get a Rosemary's style of meal.”
Besides keeping it simple, there are a few practical aspects that you must consider before deciding to offer a special holiday menu:
Prep: When the kitchen must prep for a series of completely different menu items this places a burden on your team and storage facilities. I advise you to not stray too far from your usual mise en place so that you are not filling your fridge with items that will be only used one night (special condiments, vegetables and proteins). And figure out a plan so that your team can accomplish the prep for their regular shifts as well as your special night.
Mise en place: Think about your service: if you normally serve 2-3 courses a night and now want to offer 5 or more courses you may need to order more silver and plates for this service. Simple things like cocktail or oyster forks for New Year’s Eve or serving spoons for your 5 additional Thanksgiving side dishes will require advance thought and ordering.
Menu: you should review your menu with your dining room team a week in advance so that they can begin to comprehend the menu and its ingredients and cooking techniques. One might hope that servers will memorize the menu in one night but that’s a lot of pressure to put on them. Advance notice helps them confidently sell and advise their guests, which in turn helps them maximize the average check at each table.
Wine: Many restaurants, when they offer a multi-course menu will also offer a wine pairing. So, again, plan your wines, ensure you have ordered enough and then a week before the big night train your servers in the pairing details. And ensure you have enough glassware so that the servers and somms can mise and serve the wine prior to each course without slowing down the flow of service at the table.
The Book: Don’t think your guests are looking to get in and out on a holiday night. They are making your restaurant the main event so you must allow more time per table than normal…. especially if you are serving multiple courses! So, plan out your reservation system so that it reflects the reality of the holiday table time…. depending on your menu this means 2-4 hours per table.
Your Guests: Are your guests the type that are seeking something special or different? Or are they looking for a nice night out at one of their favorite places? Depending on your concept and brand offering a special menu might come across as opportunistic rather than authentic. A lot of restaurants forget that they could fill their rooms with people who love what they do & how they do it, and simply don’t have to change course for one night. Chef Wade also shared that “offering reservations on Christmas eve with our regular menu was the key to bringing our regulars in with family from out of town. On a night when they wouldn’t want to risk the wait inherent to our walk-in only restaurant.” Thinking of your guests is crucial to the success of your holiday offering.
The challenge remains: if you are offering a truly special menu it had better be special. If you’re charging more than $100 per person then your food, service, wine and overall experience must come across as indulgent, fun, relaxing and memorable. Remember, people like to go out for the holidays because it reduces their stress and it’s fun and festive. Proper planning can help you and your team get through the holidays without adding additional stress and confusion to their work. If it all goes smoothly, your team may even enjoy themselves as well. Which is the best benefit of all.