As the winter holidays approach, restaurant operators and chefs are trying to be extra-inspired in their culinary creations and planning. It’s all part of an effort to draw more companies, organizations and cadres of friends to celebrate the season with them.
Even though it’s still early for making predictions, restaurateurs are guardedly optimistic that holiday bookings will continue to improve over previous years that were snagged by the Great Recession of 2008.
Most operators report a slightly higher or similar number of Christmas parties being scheduled this year, both in the restaurants and catered, than in 2010. Dollars budgeted are up a little, too.
Although December sales are not quite as important to restaurants as to retail stores—the holiday season represented nearly 20 percent of total retail industry sales last year, according to the National Retail Federation – they are still vital for an eatery’s business.
Mother’s Day is the busiest “holiday” for restaurants, with more than a third of the nation’s moms dining out on the second Sunday in May. Independence Day and Halloween are bigger days for holding parties.
But the Christmas season stands out, because it lasts an entire month, capped off by New Year’s Eve parties.
“December is always one of the largest and most important months for restaurants,” says Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the research and knowledge group for the National Restaurant Association, which claims more than 380,000 restaurant members.
“Expectations for retail sales are definitely higher this year over last, and restaurants should mirror that situation,” he adds. “While sales growth might still be modest compared to historical rates, it’s still a positive environment.”
A cautious outlook
The retail federation is predicting holiday retail sales will rise 2.8 percent this Christmas season, half of last year’s increase. So, while there is room for optimism, it’s tempered.
Many of the culinary trends that are appearing during the holidays this year are similar to the overall trends that full-service restaurants have been seeing.
“This may well be the year of the heirloom everything and the year of the local everything,” says Clark Wolf, a veteran New York food and hospitality consultant. “We will be celebrating and giving thanks for what we have around us.”
That means more tasteful and purposeful parties than frivolous ones, with focus on food and friendship rather than on décor.
“I think we’re seeing fewer balloons and ice sculptures and sushi goddesses and more Kobe beef and heirloom pork,” he adds. “We’re seeing the enjoyment of a locally raised heritage turkey, and any of the great hams from farmers around each region.”
Increasingly, holiday celebrations include locally grown, organic food.
“People are saying they want food that is as local as possible,” says Robby Kukler, a partner at Fifth Group Restaurants, which owns several upscale and casual Atlanta-area restaurants, including two South City Kitchen units that serve Southern cuisine.
“It’s still a handful or so, but it’s really growing,” he says, “and certainly much more than in the past. The interest is definitely there.”
The company has purchased many ingredients from local farmers for nearly two decades, and Fifth Group even grows some items at one of its restaurants. As a result, many of its regular guests already know about the local content.
Consumers show some savvy
“Consumers are getting very smart and can recognize good food,” says Gui Alinat, a certified executive chef, who specializes in French cuisine and teaches in a high school and culinary school in Tampa, Fla. “They ask more questions now.”
“There are better relationships between chefs and farmers,” adds Alinat, who wrote “The Chef’s Repertoire,” a book that lists hundreds of common dishes with their ingredients and national origin. “People want us to cook what is here, locally.”
That includes fruits, vegetables, herbs and meat. One offshoot of the local, organic and sustainable movement is charcuterie, the art of curing meats, primarily pork. Once reserved for older European immigrants, it is now part of American chefs’ culinary skills.
“It’s a great way to use meat, and we will serve platters of prosciutto, salami and more for holiday parties,” says Alinat, who also has a catering business. “If you have a farmer raising pigs on a small farm, that makes for a great-quality product.”
The use of charcuterie enhances the concept of real, classic food.
“Every generation has to learn the methods and traditions of past generations,” Wolf says. “This is part of the idea of traditional holidays and better times that many people are seeking.”
It’s also a reason comfort food is still a popular choice for parties, even though there is a polarization of themes starting to take place.
“For a while comfort food was really the trend, and we saw that both at the restaurants and in catering,” says Mark Maynard-Parisi, managing director of operations at Union Square Events and a partner in Blue Smoke, a restaurant and jazz club that features barbecue and regional cuisine.
Blue Smoke is one of 10 restaurants in Danny Meyer’s New York-based Union Square Hospitality Group.
“One of the things that is different in the last six months is that we started getting requests for some of those luxurious parties that we used to see a few years ago,” Maynard-Parisi says.
Just as luxury items are slowly making a comeback in retail, the same is happening for parties, according to Maynard-Parisi. “People say it’s been three years now, and we want something really great. So there’s a real pent-up demand.”
But while there are parties that include the finest steaks, caviar, foie gras, gold-leafed chocolate desserts and champagne, most clients are still looking for fried chicken with locally grown organic birds or the Low Country shrimp and grits popular at Blue Smoke.
Affordability is still the name of the game
“People ask a lot of questions, especially here in New York,” Maynard-Parisi says. “People ask where your butter and eggs are from, who bakes your bread, where are the vegetables grown. So we are able to bring value to them, even though it’s not cheap.”
Affordability is still the name of the game for many holiday parties.
“A lot of people are going with lighter fare – petite portions but with more variety,” says Rob Ohlsen, a certified executive chef and teacher who owns Buck Tavern in Corbin City, New Jersey. “They’d rather see tapas, multiple hors d’oeuvres and the like, but creative in design with different cooking techniques and different textures.”
Operators can still show good profits on reduced portions by offering variety and creativity, “but it’s not easy,” Ohlsen says.
The party menus for Columbus, Ohio-based Bravo and Brio restaurants are based on the core menu items for the 90-plus-unit chain. That helps “appeal to a broad number of people,” says the company’s marketing director, Nicole Roope.
“We like to add a special dessert for the holiday, like a gingerbread pumpkin pudding or a special chocolate treat.”
A team of chefs at the catering arm of Wolfgang Puck’s Los Angeles-based restaurant empire has developed four menus – Seasonal, Classics, Holiday Favorites and Modern – to be used either as “inspiration or as the menu,” says spokeswoman Alix Brewster.
These can be appetizers or fully plated dinners, or both. They can be as simple as mini-cheeseburgers or as complex as a fillet of beef or Dover sole accompanied by white truffles from Italy. Heirloom beets, tuna tartare in sesame miso cones and Wagyu beef tacos are also among the options.
Desserts range from gourmet sea salt-dusted popcorn to bear lime cheesecake pops with spiced graham crackers.
The idea of heavy hors d’oeuvres, rather than plated dinners, is popular nationally, says certified executive chef Donato Coluccio, who co-owns Donato’s Fox Chapel in suburban Pittsburgh. So is the concept of a having a chef at catered events and in party rooms.
“That’s especially the case when friends get together, which tend to be more creative affairs than some of the corporate ones,” he says.
“We might do flatbreads, have a carving station with tenderloin sliders on brioche buns,” Donato explains. “Or we might have seared seafood, like scallops. We tend to offer mini-portions of our regular menu items and mini-desserts are popular, too.”
Small portions of Donato’s homemade Italian dishes are also a favorite. Other restaurants and caterers have seen increased interest in ethnic food at holiday parties, ranging from an Indian-inspired Thanksgiving to an Asian New Year’s.
“Last holiday season, we did a Christmas around the world for a client that is a multinational corporation,” Union Square’s Maynard-Parisi says. “So we schooled ourselves in how to do food from all these countries where the client has offices.”
For instance, the staff talked to someone from the client’s Amsterdam office about good cuisine choices for The Netherlands and then got a cookbook with Dutch recipes.
“We tweaked each recipe a little, and now we have them on record.”
That has come in handy this year. Some guests who attended that party thought so much of the idea that they requested their own around-the-world party.
“That’s how these things get started,” Maynard-Parisi notes. “You get about 300–400 people attending these parties, and you never know who likes an idea.”
“It’s really an educational process”
Something as basic as a turkey can become an ethnic dish with the right herbs and seasonings, says Tony Seta, director of culinary for Butterball.
“It’s really an educational process,” he says. “For instance you can baste a turkey with a Greek marinade, with lemon and all those Mediterranean herbs. You cook that, and you have all that natural, flavored jus at the bottom of the pan.”
Strain the drippings, add a little salt and pepper, and you have gravy with an ethnic twist that would be perfect for a family-style party setting, he says.
One culinary trend being incorporated into holiday parties is the exploding interest in food trucks. Restaurants and caterers in California and around the country are using their own or others’ food trucks in their seasonal events.
In College Station, Texas, Chef Tai’s Mobile Gourmet Food Truck, an offshoot of Tai Lee’s full-service restaurant, Veritas Wine & Bistro, handles everything from home parties to corporate events.
The truck “can prepare all the food right on the spot right before they start the party,” explains Lee, whose vehicle won a contest as the nation’s best food truck. “People who like less than formal … can utilize our service to make the event unique and fun.”
The Carolina Inn hires food trucks to provide coffee or Krispy Kreme doughnuts “to top off the party,” says Heidi Werner, director of catering for the Chapel Hill, North Carolina, operation.
The inn also offers long farm tables for family-style meals and food stations with everything from shrimp and grits to mac and cheese topped with duck confit and pork belly crumbles.
The facility is known for its holiday décor and activities.
Of course, there’s nothing like a festively decked-out restaurant to elicit the holiday spirit, and one that plays it up to the hilt is Salty’s, a popular seafood eatery with three units in Portland, Oregon, and Seattle.
Dozens of nutcracker statues dot the restaurants.
“Many people are aware of the holiday decorations, and it’s a real draw for Christmas events,” says Carilyn Platt, spokeswoman for the company. But even though the ornamentation draws them in, “It’s the food that keeps them coming back.”
One of Salty’s holiday party specials is a whole salt-crusted Alaska salmon.
Another festive aspect of a holiday-season party is the choice of beverages, particularly alcoholic ones.
“The clients are asking for a signature cocktail or special drink for their particular party,” Donato says. Other chefs say a microbrewer’s winter beer can fit the bill.
Apples – that fall favorite – are often used to help brighten the season. Bravo features apple martinis and apple cider rum during the holidays, along with seasonal wines.
Union Square goes even further.
“If we’re doing something for a New York company’s party, say a New York state bank, we may do a cider with New York apples and spike it with a bourbon made by a local Hudson River Valley distiller,” says Maynard-Parisi.
Although most people tend to be very traditional with their holiday drinks, there are ways to update classics, he adds. Take a cranberry shrub, which is typically a cranberry drink with lemon and lime. “If you make it with sparkling wine, it becomes really special.”
All it takes, he says,"is a little creativity."