John Halter understands the intense competition that exists for holiday diners, which is why Halter, the owner of Tortilla Republic—a modern Mexican eatery with two Southern California locations and another in Kauai, Hawaii—devotes extensive planning to marketing, service, and operational initiatives aimed at appeasing diners during the calendar’s final two months.
“If we don’t corral diners [during the holidays], then we lose,” a no-nonsense Halter says.
For restaurants of all types, the holidays present a critical opportunity to push annual revenues over the top. Diners, in fact, spent more than $92 billion at restaurants during November and December 2013, according to the National Restaurant Association.
“People are out and in a festive mood, so it’s vitally important to make the most of these two months,” confirms Ryan McCaskey, chef at Acadia, a high-end Chicago hot spot, noting as well that holiday highs can float a restaurant during slow periods.
The holidays also offer restaurants a chance to build loyalty. Greg Butterfield, co-owner of Copley’s on Palm Canyon in Palm Springs, California, says that a strong showing to guests during the holiday season can entice future visits on other special occasions, such as Mother’s Day, the top dining-out day of the year, as well as anniversaries, graduations, and birthday celebrations.
“A lot of diners during the holidays will be first-timers with us, so if we provide a memorable experience, we believe they’ll likely return,” Butterfield says.
This summer, FSR teamed with Florida-based Study Hall Research to survey nearly 400 adults about their holiday dining habits and preferences, including specific holidays that spark a restaurant visit, factors that drive holiday-dining decisions, and menu items that capture attention during the holiday season.
The results spotlight numerous ways that restaurants can generate traffic, secure higher check averages, and capture holiday spending.
Dining in Numbers
The Finding: A whopping 94 percent of all holiday diners indicated that their holiday dining parties consist of up to five other guests.
According to the survey, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve rank as the top holidays drawing large parties, a reality that has motivated eateries such as Buca di Beppo to offer holiday dinners and open its doors on the year’s marquee holidays, including Christmas.
Yet recognizing that groups gather in restaurants throughout the holiday season, from corporate events and small-business celebrations to reunions of college friends or former co-workers, many restaurants hustle to accommodate groups by leveraging internal assets, such as private rooms, or by championing special menus.
At Grace in Portland, Maine, owner Anne Verrill’s five-year-old, upscale establishment is one of the few Portland eateries able to accommodate large groups, something it accomplishes with a range of versatile seating options. Each year, the restaurant sends reminders to past groups encouraging them to reserve seats for the coming holiday season.
At Tortilla Republic, meanwhile, Halter runs group-dining promotions Monday through Wednesday, attracting business on typically slower weekdays. Halter also offers a diverse selection of prix-fixe menus and waives minimum requirements to simplify group dining and provide the assurances group diners crave.
After actively refusing group reservations during the 2013 holiday season, DryHop Brewers in Chicago has pledged increased flexibility in 2014. Greg Shuff, DryHop owner, says the restaurant, which typically resists pushing its two- and four-top tables together, will reconfigure its service to better accommodate groups, including allowing groups of six or more to make reservations.
“Last year, we didn’t do a great job accommodating groups, and it was to our detriment,” Shuff says. “We won’t make the same mistake again.”
The Finding: Nearly half of the survey’s respondents said they will order a holiday-themed dish from a full-service restaurant one to two times from October to January, while four out of 10 indicated they will order a holiday-themed dish three or more times during the holiday season.
Holiday diners are consistently attracted to dishes that have seasonal ingredients or flavors, particularly chocolate, pumpkin, nutmeg, and cinnamon.
In the last two holiday seasons, The Greene Turtle has offered a gingerbread milkshake on its winter LTO menu. Greene Turtle vice president of marketing Chris Janush says the gingerbread shake, available in a spiked or non-alcholic version, accounts for 28 percent of total shake sales during the seven-week period that closes the calendar year.
Focusing on hearty creations during the holidays, Copley’s Chef Andrew Copley will dish up a roasted butternut squash soup this Thanksgiving featuring cinnamon and clove, and topped with a mango-cranberry-pineapple relish. At Grace, Verrill serves a variety of food and beverage items infused with traditional holiday flavors, ranging from pumpkin desserts to The Afterglow, a fig- and maple-infused bourbon cocktail.
“It’s always fun to play up the tastes and flavors people remember about the holidays,” Verrill says.
Plenty of others follow suit, from Bakers Square’s Candy Cane Pie and Shoney’s Gingerbread Pancakes to La Madeleine Country French Café’s Turkey Cranberry Melt. And on the beverage side, treats like the Ghirardelli Winter White Chocolate Martini at Bonefish Grill and the Sugar Plum Martini at Outback Steakhouse are seasonal hits.
Black Friday Does Lunch
The Finding: Black Friday is the most popular lunch opportunity in the holiday season with 45 percent of respondents reporting they dined out for lunch on the iconic shopping day at least once in the past two years. Meanwhile, two out of 10 respondents reported enjoying a restaurant breakfast on Black Friday.
While quick serves have been at the front of the Black Friday rush, wooing traffic with aggressive promotions and even free product, full serves have risen to the occasion: LongHorn Steakhouse has offered a Black Friday buy one, get one free (BOGO) lunch special; Chili’s has provided free kids’ meals with adult entrée purchases; and Red Lobster has trumpeted a BOGO lobster tail deal.
In addition, some restaurants added breakfast to the day’s service, opening early to entice visits from morning shoppers. Last year, Victory Brewing Company in Downingtown, Pennsylvania, opened at 9:30 a.m. to serve a Black Friday Breakfast.
And Black Friday shows no signs of slowing. The survey found that more than half of all holiday diners planned to continue the tradition of dining out on Black Friday, while one-third of diners who were not among previous holiday diners predicted they would make a restaurant visit this Nov. 28.
Gifts that Impress
The Finding: Nearly 75 percent of holiday diners prefer a “buy one, get one entrée free” promotion over any other offer during the holiday season.
Many respondents cited the price of a meal as a key determining factor driving their dine-out decisions during the holiday season, an overwhelming majority favoring establishments with coupons and promotions, namely BOGO deals. Red Lobster showed the impact of such a deal when nearly 109,000 of the seafood chain’s Facebook fans claimed a BOGO coupon for Black Friday in 2012. “Buy one entrée, get one half off” promotions or offers touting free appetizers or desserts failed to stand up to the allure of BOGO deals with a free entrée.
Another decision-driving factor for holiday dining is the availability of tables, making reservations an important service for restaurants to offer. Holiday decorations and advertising, respondents said, held little sway on their restaurant decisions.
More Family Time
The Finding: Restaurant-cooked take-home meals are twice as appealing to holiday diners who have children under 18 in their home versus those diners without children in the household.
At the family-friendly Rusty Bucket Restaurant & Tavern, a 16-unit Columbus, Ohio–based operation, marketing manager Kate Sumption says the company promotes its carryout and party platters throughout the holiday season, particularly via its digital channels.
“During the holiday season, we know moms and dads are doing a lot of rushing around, and we offer a solution that gives them comfort food and convenience,” Sumption says.
Similarly, C.A.Y.A. Smokehouse Grill in Wolverine Lake, Michigan, found significant success last year with its $150 take-home Thanksgiving dinner, which featured two smoked turkeys and traditional sides to feed eight to 12 people.
“Demand was largely driven by families,” C.A.Y.A. owner Jeff Rose says. “People want to spend more time with their families and less time in the kitchen, particularly those two-income households where the parents just don’t have the energy to cook all day.”
This year, Rose will extend his holiday take-home dinner to Christmas Day and plans to more aggressively promote his fixed-price carryout meals.
For those holiday diners without children under 18 in the household, as well as respondents reporting an annual household income of more than $130,000, prix-fixe offerings are preferred. Copley’s offers prix-fixe menus on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Eve. Last year, the restaurant served nearly 350 dinners on Thanksgiving and an additional 300 on Christmas.
The Finding: On average, respondents agreed they planned to eat more desserts, consume more decadent entrées, and enjoy more appetizers at restaurants this holiday season. By and large, holiday diners are willing to indulge on more courses and spend more money, which provides restaurants an opportunity to offer lavish options or create multi-course packages to spur spending.
At C.A.Y.A. Smokehouse Grill, Rose peppers his regular menu with weekly holiday specials built around premium entrées, such as filet mignon, crab legs, and lobster tails.
“We recognize people will spend a little more during the holidays, so we try and nudge them toward these high-end dishes,” says Rose, adding that he also highlights sharable appetizers during the holiday season, such as a crab dip and a smoked fish trio.
In Portland, Maine, Grace offers exclusive holiday specials, such as a 20-ounce rib eye and various truffles.
“We highlight items that we know people wouldn’t try at any other point of the year, but because they’re out in a celebratory holiday mood, they’ll treat themselves,” Verrill says.
At Acadia, McCaskey delivers indulgence with a New Year’s Eve bash featuring caviar and truffles, a 20-piece jazz band, and an after-party that keeps the good vibes flowing until 5 a.m. This year, McCaskey expects the price will approach $200 per person.
“We believe people will treat themselves when they know they’re getting something extra special and exclusive,” McCaskey says.
From the signature three-course $15 deal at Carrabba’s Italian Grill to Red Lobster’s Table for Two, many others have unveiled multi-course meal packages to heighten the number of items purchased, thereby formalizing the upsell opportunity. Coco’s Bakery Restaurant, for instance, has offered a Pie, Wine, & Dine special, which provides guests soup or salad, select entrées ranging from holiday favorites to prime rib, a slice of pie, and a bottle of chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon.
Momentum with Millennials
The Finding: Looking ahead to 2014, more 18- to 24-year-olds expressed intent to visit a restaurant on Halloween, Black Friday, and New Year’s Day than any other age group.
Millennials remain a prized demographic for restaurants, and many operators leverage digital channels to reach this lucrative audience, particularly when touting novel holiday offerings on favorite dining-out days.
Grace hosted its first Halloween bash just months after opening in 2009 and has welcomed costume-wearing Halloween celebrators into its historic, and supposedly haunted, converted church location ever since. According to Verrill, more than 300 guests attend the annual affair, which attracts a crowd of 20- and 30-somethings whom Grace woos through extensive promotion on Facebook and Twitter.
“We’re definitely more aggressive promoting our Halloween party on social media than any other event throughout the year because that’s where the younger demographic is,” Verrill says.
Chains such as Carrabba’s, Bob Evans, and Outback Steakhouse, meanwhile, are among the many restaurants that have offered digital-only deals, all three brands having previously unleashed special Halloween promotions through digital channels to reach Millennials.
Kickstart the New Year
The Finding: Nearly 23 percent of respondents have dined out for breakfast on New Year’s Day at least once in the past two years, tops among the winter holidays for that daypart, while more than 37 percent have enjoyed a lunch on New Year’s Day over the past two years.
To capture hungry diners on 2015’s opening day, many eateries are jazzing up traditional breakfast, lunch, or brunch offerings. In past years, at Tortilla Republic’s New Year’s Day brunch, Halter has created a festive mood with bottomless mimosas, a make-your-own Bloody Mary bar, and a DJ.
In Chicago, DryHop Brewers tradtionally serves a kitschy New Year’s Day brunch under the moniker “Kegs and Eggs.”
“There’s something romantic about nursing a hangover with beer and French toast,” DryHop owner Greg Shuff says.
Good news ahead for restaurants eager to capture diners on Jan. 1: Nearly half of the survey’s habitual holiday diners report they are likely to visit a restaurant this New Year’s Day. In addition, one in four non-holiday diners plans on dining out this coming Jan. 1.