The holiday season has never been a blockbuster for foodservice the way it is for retailers, but operational shifts from the past two years could change that, at least incrementally. Covid forced operators to refine—or in some cases, create—off-premises systems. That legwork has already yielded fresh revenue streams, which could grow even more at restaurants offering special holiday carryout options.
“A lot of the ideas came because of the pandemic. And as restaurants, we learned very quickly that we’re not bulletproof and had to change up a lot of our models,” says chef Thomas Harvey, owner of the eponymous restaurant/market in Falls Church, Virginia.
Last year, the chef struck out on his own after four years at Tuskie’s Restaurant Group, whose properties range from café fare and pizza to upscale, farm-to-table dining. This past March, Harvey’s made its debut. For the first month, it operated as a fast casual, but guests’ appetite for dine-in led to a full-service transition. Still, the retail arm remained an integral part of Harvey’s business model and now, with the holidays approaching, it’s adding a new layer to its off-premises program. Not only is the restaurant putting together special holiday baskets featuring wine, beer, meats, cheeses, and more, it’s also cooking ready-to-serve sides.
“For the holidays, we’re going to bulk up our production,” Harvey says. “I’m going to make big batches of sides that people can buy from our location, things like stuffing and green bean casserole, mashed potatoes, big stocks of gravy—just classic and traditional sides with a little bit of a twist.” For example, the sausage stuffing features house-made brioche while the sweet potato mash incorporates porter beer.
As a small independent, Harvey’s has the benefit of flexibility and local clientele, but larger brands can also get in on the holiday action.
Unlike some chains in the elevated casual space, Maggiano’s already had takeout systems in place. Since the Great Recession, the restaurant has offered a “Buy One, Take One” promo in which dine-in orders from a selection of classic pastas include a second order to take home for $5. “Historically we have always performed well in carryout during the holidays because our food travels extremely well, is perfectly packaged and insulated, and is the same food quality that guests have come to expect from Maggiano’s,” says director of marketing Cami Lehmann. She adds that such orders increased at the height of the pandemic; now, the long-term goal is to grow the channel by enhancing off-premises execution, increasing the number of menu options, and ramping up marketing efforts.
In addition to offering its standard catering and delivery services during the holidays, Maggiano’s will also sell special carryout packages with large portions of popular items, like Mom’s Lasagna, Fettuccine Alfredo, chicken entrées, as well as salad and dessert, during the two weeks leading up to December 24. Then, the brand will transition to a similar package for New Year’s, with elevated mains like beef medallions and salmon paired with sparkling wine.
The larger portions were informed, in part, by the pandemic.
“We now have broadened our categories and packages to focus on family meal dining or smaller parties. We also offer wine and beer to-go (where legal) so that we can truly be a one-stop shop for dinner,” Lehmann says.
Both Maggiano’s and Harvey’s have the advantage of offering dishes that hold up well in transit and during reheating. For fine-dining, however, carryout was always more of a challenge. That’s why D.C.’s Knightsbridge Restaurant Group traditionally poured its off-premises energy into its more casual concepts, like Bindaas (Indian street fare) and Sababa (modern Israeli cuisine).
But as the pandemic dragged on, Knightsbridge founder and CEO Ashok Bajaj observed an uptick in demand for fine dining fare from three- and four-star restaurants.
“During the last couple of years, people ordered food from Modena, which is an Italian restaurant, La Bise, our French restaurant, and Annabelle, which is a modern American restaurant,” he says.
Last December, Modena offered a three-course meal with options like marinated burrata, spice-crusted duck breast, and panetone for $75 per person. La Bise, which had only recently supplanted longstanding D.C. institution, The Oval Room, created its own version, with French-inspired dishes like winter squash soup, beef tartare, and a cheese plate with fresh honeycomb. The year before, Annabelle served a Christmas feast that included one locally sourced protein (prime rib, rack of lamb, or cured-on-site baked ham), five sides, and a Bûche de Noël or cookie dessert, with portions for two people ($175) all the way up to six ($365).
Bajaj says the rules of off-premises carryout—at the holidays or any other time of year—are simple. “You’ve got to come up with a menu that travels well; that’s No. 1. And, No. 2, if the food needs to be reheated or [requires] something, give directions,” he says. “I think most restaurateurs and chefs already know how to do that.”
While Bajaj says Knightsbridge will continue with its carryout options, he hopes dine-in business will surpass off-premises this year.
As for Harvey, he sees the upcoming holiday season as a way to drive home the restaurant’s selection of market goods and carryout offerings.
“With this being our first holiday season, the goal is to push this market and side concept and really bring more of an awareness to the kinds of things we can do and make that a bigger part of our game plan going forward,” he says.