'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.”


Finding a place for all that turkey.

Throughout much of the year, turkey sits on the sidelines—a sandwich staple but little else. During the holiday season, however, turkey is expected to move beyond Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners to assert its place in inventive seasonal dishes.

“We’re definitely seeing a huge spike in the availability of turkey and the breadth of turkey items,” Webster says.

Hamburger Mary’s Bar & Grille, an emerging California-based chain, offers mini turkey burgers topped with a signature sauce, while Florida-based Bono’s Pit Bar-B-Q menus Barbecue Cheese Fries topped with barbecue turkey.

During the holiday season, Webster says chefs exert more creative license and she anticipates restaurants will bring turkey into casseroles, appetizers, and other original dishes. Last year, for instance, Landry’s Seafood House served up roasted turkey fritters as part of its “Chef’s Harvest” LTO menu.

Exploring new uses for the season’s favorite flavors.

Pumpkin, ginger, and mint are promoted throughout the holiday season—but what’s new, however, is the growing movement to inject the season’s favorite flavors into food and beverage options well beyond the norm.

According to Technomic’s MenuMonitor database, use of pumpkin as an ingredient increased nearly 33 percent during the fourth quarter of 2012 compared to the same timeframe in 2011. Seasonal examples included the Pumpkin Spice Pancakes at Shoney’s, a Pumpkin-spiced Martini at Mimi’s Café, and the Pumpkin Risotto Shrimp at Landry’s Seafood House.

“With pumpkin, in particular, you’re seeing movement far beyond the standard pumpkin pie,” Webster says.

Versatile and flavorful, ginger continues to branch out from the realm of baked goods, planting itself in innovative offerings such as the Carrot Cake Soufflé with cream cheese crumbs and ginger ice cream at Restaurant Nicholas in Red Bank, New Jersey, and the Pleasant Bay Oysters made with miso vinaigrette and fried ginger at Providence, Rhode Island’s Cook & Brown Public House.

“As diners become more familiar with ethnic foods, ginger—which is commonplace in Asian cooking—is gaining familiarity and people are more interested to see it elsewhere,” Freier says.

Meanwhile, two Chicago destinations—Estate Ultra Bar and 2 Sparrows—have introduced ice cubes with mint frozen inside, a move that Freier says creates visual interest while simultaneously imparting flavor.

“We’re seeing these holiday flavors being used in a broader way, and expect to see increased applications in entrées, sides, and appetizers as well,” Freier says.


Falling for autumn and winter superfoods.

Although the garden’s late-year offerings take a backseat to their more prominent summertime siblings, the holidays bring their share of garden stars as well. Throughout dayparts, chefs this holiday season are expected to increasingly embrace fall and winter superfoods while using a variety of preparation techniques—roasted, braised, or grilled—to extract flavor and address the aforementioned trend of balancing holiday excess.

A root vegetable like squash, for instance, works well with the holidays because it’s on trend with seasonality and carries bold flavors. As an ingredient, Technomic reports that squash increased nearly 14 percent from fourth-quarter 2011 to fourth-quarter 2012.

Five years ago, Webster says, something like Bertucci’s Butternut Squash & Blue Cheese Pizza would have been unthinkable; now, butternut squash has moved quickly through the trend cycle to proliferation. Places like Underbelly in Houston serve up Old School Wagyu Sirloin with heirloom acorn squash and lardons, while Bart’s Restaurant in Matawan, New Jersey, offers spaghetti squash, butternut squash, and pumpkin ravioli with a fresh chestnut sauce.

Next up? Less celebrated squash varieties, such as Kabocha and Delicata.

“Operators and chefs are looking for the next thing that plays on trends, but is not the same as the rest,” Webster explains.

Flavoring the gravy—and other toppings.

Given the ritual nature of the holiday season, many diners tend to skew to the traditional in their preferences. That, however, isn’t stopping chefs from pursuing innovative spins on the staples, including gravy.

“I think chefs are going to continue to ask themselves how they can take a holiday staple like gravy and augment it with traditional holiday flavors or ethnic flavors that will create a memorable experience,” Webster says.

To wit, consider the apple-rosemary gravy that accompanies the Grilled Pork Chop at Solo Bistro in Bath, Maine, or the homemade Pearl Beer Gravy drizzled over a free-range, brined half chicken at Lucy’s Fried Chicken in Austin, Texas.

“Gravy is a classic sauce and flavored gravies are easy to pull off in the kitchen,” Lucy’s chef-owner James Holmes says. “Plus, it’s a fun way to show off the kitchen’s creativity and capture guests’ attention.”

Freier foresees the rising momentum for flavored gravies extending into other toppings. She predicts chefs and bartenders will take an otherwise common, relatively nondescript item—say butter or whipped cream—and inject seasonal flavors into it for a splash of culinary pizzazz.

“Doing something like that is simple and inexpensive, and it can bring new and interesting flavors to the forefront,” Freier says.

Embellishing alcohol with apricots.

Increasingly, cocktails are being treated like menu items, where concepts such as “locally sourced” and “seasonal” hold just as much value in the glass as on the plate.

Enter apricot, a late-season fruit that holds better than some of its summer counterparts and that embraces a deep, rich holiday color alongside a sweet and tart, even musky, flavor. Freier says apricot-infused drinks—perhaps using apricot brandy or liqueur—are becoming increasingly prevalent on holiday menus, particularly in independent shops.

At Five Bistro in St. Louis, the Kickback Cocktail features Rothman & Winter apricot brandy alongside Bulleit rye whiskey, Alvear Solera 1927 sherry, sweet vermouth, lemon juice, Aztec chocolate bitters, and blood orange bitters. Five Bistro owner Anthony Devoti says apricot brandy is a “good warm drink to sip on for the cold months” and complements any recipe that uses spices, such as nutmeg, cinnamon, or cardamom.

“[The apricot flavor] also pairs well with any type of spirit, whether it’s whiskey, vodka, gin, rum, or even tequila,” Devoti adds.


Being bold and spicy with beverages.

Flavored ciders, mulled wine—either simmered or served hot—and other bold, holiday-inspired beverages are expected to accelerate this holiday season.

“The bolder and spicier flavors are meant to cut through heavier dishes and desserts, and they go well with the more indulgent options people favor during the holidays,” Webster says.

At Aska in Brooklyn, New York, the Warm Swedish Punch features a Batavia Arrack base infused with sweetfern and juniper harvested from the Hudson Valley. Raw citrus and sugar are then added and the drink is finished with a hot water, tea, or cider.

In Chicago, the Publican offers Glogg, a customary Nordic favorite. The drink features mulled wine, almonds, brandy, and Madeira wine.

“Mulled cider is common during the holidays, but [Glogg] is off the beaten path,” says Matt Poli, spirits director at The Publican.

During the holidays, Poli continues, people are accustomed to “Christmas things,” which challenges food and beverage directors to find innovative ways to spin the holiday standards. He anticipates restaurants will create LTO beverages that use robust holiday flavors, add punches of spice to traditional holiday drinks (eggnog, cider, and hot chocolate), and capitalize on consumers’ evolving, more ambitious palates.

“There’s a comfort factor involved, so we’re looking for ways to bring in those drinks that might trigger memories, but do so in a creative, novel way,” Poli says.

In an extra-special twist, some of these drinks—and innovative desserts, too—might be prepared tableside so guests can hear, see, and smell the unique offering come to life.

“This way, you’re merchandising what you want people to feel and creating a distinctive, memorable experience,” says Courtnay Kasin, an instructor in Hospitality and Service Management at the American Bounty Restaurant, located at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, New York.

Capturing holiday demand with comfort and convenience.

According to the National Restaurant Association, more than 30 million Americans celebrate their Thanksgiving feast by dining out or using takeout.

To handle the growing demand, the CIA’s Kasin expects restaurants to continue switching from à la carte menus to prix-fixe menus, which will help streamline restaurants’ execution. Kasin also predicts the rise of meals pledging a “leftover” component. In addition to receiving their turkey dinner at the restaurant, for instance, diners will receive some extras to take home.

“This appeals to those who want that homestyle feel,” she says. “They’re able to purchase a meal as well as the memory that goes with it.”

To further that homestyle objective, Kasin anticipates restaurants will increase their use of banquet or communal seating at scheduled time intervals. While guests will get the familiar feeling of passing the mashed potatoes around the table just as they would at home, this seating format allows a restaurant to maximize covers and, again, helps inspire streamlined, efficient operations.

“Diners don’t want cookie-cutter experiences. They want to feel that someone has put love into their food and into creating a warm experience,” Kasin says.


Making moves on Black Friday.

Typically considered the domain of big-box retailers, restaurants are increasingly entering this unofficial American holiday with a vengeance, eager to appease consumers hungry for deals.

Last year, Red Lobster’s buy-one-get-one Black Friday deal was accessible to guests who visited the restaurant’s Facebook page or who checked into the restaurant on Foursquare on November 23. Over 109,000 diners claimed the Red Lobster deal on Facebook alone.

By and large, restaurant operators are recognizing that they, too, can compete for a piece of the consumers’ pocketbooks on a day that has historically been unkind to restaurateurs.

“Restaurants will see this as a way to drive business and, ultimately, a means to propel repeat business,” says Freier, who recalls one restaurant running a Black Friday promotion that invited male customers to have a beer while their wives and girlfriends shopped.

Might steakhouses enter the breakfast realm on Black Friday with steak-and-egg meals? Might breakfast spots open even earlier to accommodate Black Friday crowds? Or might some restaurants partner with retailers to create a pop-up kitchen? It’s all in play, Webster says.

“Restaurants are asking themselves: What can we do to leverage this behavior? That might mean special menus, or one-day only discounts, or even stepping outside of their traditional operational mode to capture business,” Webster says.

Following Black Friday, some restaurants will look to capitalize on another blossoming event: Cyber Monday, which captured nearly $1.5 billion in online sales last year according to comScore. One-day offerings on restaurant websites might include gift card purchases with a perk, deals on tastings, or other special event opportunities.

Tapping into Small Business Saturday.

Founded in 2010 by American Express, Small Business Saturday has morphed from a novel experiment into a growing fixture on the holiday shopping scene. The upstart holiday occurs the day after Black Friday—November 30 this year—and encourages consumers to visit independent shops. Small Business Saturday spokesperson Patricia Norins says 74 million consumers shopped small on 2012’s Small Business Saturday, spending nearly $5.5 billion at small business operations.

“Customers are embracing this initiative, so it makes sense for restaurants to jump on board and drive traffic,” Norins says, adding that business owners continue mixing traditional advertising methods as well as digital avenues to promote their Small Business Saturday involvement.

Monique Trudnowski, who owns Tacoma, Washington’s Adriatic Grill Restaurant with her husband, Bill, has previously offered special menus on Small Business Saturday touting local wines and local microbrews. This year, she plans on extending that to local spirits and other local vendors as well.

“Our guests want to get behind this and are excited about supporting independent businesses,” she says. “There’s energy to the day and it gives us an opportunity to tell our unique stories as an independent business.”

Not to be left behind, Webster predicts larger chains will look to get into the Small Business Saturday spirit as well, championing stores run by local franchisees or operators connected to the community.

“Chains will look for the chance to leverage these connections and show themselves as community players even if they exist on the national level,” Webster says.