'Tis the Season to Plan Ahead


Restaurant operators face a challenging holiday test: observing tradition, while thinking fresh.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, sales at eating and drinking spots surpassed $45 billion last November and approached $46 billion in December. It’s a sign of just how hearty the American consumer’s appetite is for restaurants during the holiday season—and just how much opportunity exists for ambitious and entrepreneurial restaurateurs to capture a slice of the holiday sales landscape.

But restaurant operators face a challenging test: observing tradition, while thinking fresh.

“Customers expect to see certain things when they go out during the holidays, but they also don’t want to be bored,” says Maeve Webster of Datassential, a Chicago-based firm that tracks foodservice trends.

Desserts have always presented the classic opportunity for operators to push holiday creativity—whether it’s mashing up two traditional deserts to create a seasonal LTO or bringing new ingredients, flavors, or presentation to a treasured dessert.

“Diners might want comfort in the middle because that’s their filler, but we can push the boundaries on the front and back end in exciting ways,” says Chris Wadsworth, executive chef and general manager of Baton Rouge, Louisiana’s Restaurant IPO.

Wadsworth would surely know. At Restaurant IPO, he serves an Apple Pie Egg Roll (tossed in cinnamon-vanilla sugar then garnished with fresh cream) and Sweet Potato Bread Pudding. He expects this holiday season will unveil additional comfort options with an intriguing slant.

“When people see favorite dishes done in a unique way, it’s a quick draw,” he says. “There’s the culinary creativity side, but also a marketing side that can draw peoples’ attention.”

FSR’s Top 10 Holiday Trends for 2013 embrace both creative and strategic thinking, packaged with just the right blend of nostalgia and newness:

Balancing holiday indulgence and healthy eating.

Seasonal celebrations bring the inevitable clash of two foodservice behemoths: Healthy eating, an ever-swelling industry focus, and holiday indulgence, when diners grant themselves a temporary reprieve from counting calories. So which one will win out?

Perhaps neither, as restaurants seek to balance a wholesome diet with unabashed gluttony.

Datassential’s Webster foresees restaurants moving toward small plate offerings for the holidays, which would promote sharing among bigger groups—another holiday norm—and allow diners to control their intake of indulgent items.

Operators might also seek subtle ways to incorporate healthier or lighter ingredients—pickled beets or whipped potatoes, to name just two options—into holiday meals, says Elizabeth Freier, an associate editor with restaurant industry research firm Technomic.

“Just because health is such a powerful movement in the industry doesn’t mean that diners will forego indulgence during the holidays,” Freier says. “Operators will continue to look for ways to strike the right balance.”


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