How to Keep It Festive and Profitable During the Holidays at Bars and Restaurants

The holiday season is a crucial time for many in the bar and restaurant industry, when venues engage with loyal and newfound guests in celebratory ways, significantly increasing sales.

So how does a bar or restaurant owner or operator manage the busy holiday season and related tasks, such as holiday staffing, keeping it festive but profitable, marketing to the local community, and creating a menu of familiar flavors that evoke the season?

Bar & Restaurant News gathered a group of owners, operators, chefs, beverage directors and industry leaders to get their thoughts on being successful during the holidays.

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Tis' the season! Festive cocktails with Still Austin spirits (Photo: Courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co. )

During the Festive Season, Staff Makes All the Difference

For many operators, staffing is critical during the rush of the holidays. Thus, Filbert “Fil” Ip, owner of Gold Marquess, Yip Dim Sum and the soon-to-be Baoshi Food Hall + Bar in South Florida, creates the right work environment so his team can be successful.

“At our company, we have set a culture where everyone is on board during the holiday season and understands that it is one of the busiest times of the year,” said Ip, who noted that he always makes an effort to appreciate his team and their dedication and efforts.

“Make sure your team members are being heard and remember to celebrate the holidays as a restaurant family,” Ip suggested.

Filbert Ip - Gold Marquess - Yip Dim Sum - Baoshi Food Hall + Bar
Filbert “Fil” Ip, owner of South Florida's Gold Marquess, Yip Dim Sum, and the upcoming Baoshi Food Hall + Bar (Photo: Courtesy of Baoshi Food Hall + Bar)

According to Isis Wright, one of the founders of Italian Food Company in the Florida Keys, the holiday season adds quite of bit of pressure to kitchen and service staff. “We have a core staff that we keep year-round,” she said. “Tenured staff makes our operation run smoother; they have a rhythm and can accommodate the large volume swings. Large volume swings, communication, and order timing for the kitchen are significant variables [with staff during the holidays].

”Wright pointed out that staffing is a year-round issue and finding the right team members will help during the holidays. She hires staff based on their potential, attitude, and natural strengths.

“Having strong team leads are important for us; they set the tone, maintain consistency, and hold teams accountable,” said Wright. “I think if we walk through the guest experience from the parking lot to the point of waving goodbye – we’ll find opportunities to shine. Excellence is a habit, and we try and work on the little things and expectations every week. If we’ve done our job as owners and managers in communicating expectations and valuing employee efforts, the stress of the season is worth it for everyone.”

Isis Wright - Italian Food Company
Isis Wright, one of the founders of Italian Food Company, chats with customers in the Florida Keys. (Photo: Courtesy of Italian Food Company)

Mary Santo, tasting room manager at Still Austin Whiskey Co. in Austin, Texas, said staff can be stretched a little thin during the holidays, especially if some employees have multiple jobs or other priorities.

“Our team really invests in the staff ahead of time, making sure that our employees are reliable, responsible, and ready for the long hours required during this busy season,” said Santo. “Our management team does our best to offer unique team outings before and after this season, as incentives to keep our noses to the grindstone when necessary.”

Mary Santo - Still Austin Whiskey Company
Mary Santo, tasting room manager at Still Austin Whiskey Co. in Austin, Texas (Photo: Courtesy of Still Austin Whiskey Co. )

Eric Wyatt, president and CEO of NORMS Restaurants, a Southern California restaurant chain – along with his operations team – believes that having a well-trained and full staff will help establishments during the holidays. In fact, Wyatt and his team strongly recommend that venues are over staffed to exceed guest expectations.

“Be purposeful in how you project and schedule the team,” said Wyatt. “Utilize historical information to project what the business trends will potentially look like, and schedule team members based on these trends. A well-trained team far enough in advance is a key to success.”

NORMS Restaurants - Holiday Meal
This year, one of NORMS' holiday promotions is their Holiday Family Meal (pictured), which feeds a family of four with traditional holiday fixings. The restaurant chain also offers gift cards and merch for the shopping season. (Photo: Courtesy of NORMS Restaurants)

Nicole Orchard, vice president of operations for Rock & Brews, a rock-in-roll themed chain of family restaurants, shared that operators can always rely on one thing to boost success during the holidays, and that’s positive employee morale.

“We must always be reminded that our guests have chosen to spend their time and money at our restaurant,” Orchard said. “That's especially important to note during the holiday season. It's critical that everyone in our building appreciates that fact and, in return, be gracious and provide an uncommonly excellent holiday experience for our guests.”

Nicole Orchard Vice President of Operations Rock & Brews
Nicole Orchard, VP of operations at Rock & Brews (Photo: Courtesy of Rock & Brews)

Keep It Festive and Profitable at Your Bar or Restaurant

In addition to staying on top of staffing issues during the holidays, many restaurant and bar operators want to keep things festive but profitable.

For Nick Freshman, founder of Mothersauce Partners in Washington, D.C., it can all be distilled to three things: 1) advanced planning, 2) staff support, and 3) total flexibility.

Mothersauce Partners is the hospitality group behind The Freshman in Arlington, Va., The Eleanor in Washington, D.C. and Silver Spring, Md., and Upside on Moore, a food hall that will open in Arlington in 2024.

“With a strong plan in place and a team that is supported and trained, you can manage the inevitable craziness that befalls every restaurant over the holidays,” said Freshman. “We start talking about the holiday season in the summer. This includes discussions of our financial goals, our facility needs, and our staffing situation. By the time early inquiries start coming in, we already have a plan. I like to think we are always training our team, and that we are always supporting them as well. Before you ask them to pull doubles in December, they had better believe you care about them. Lastly, once we have the first two diligently mapped out, we wait for the chaos. By having a plan, and a great team in place, the crazy gets easy. The next thing you know, it is already January.”

Nick Freshman - Mothersauce Partners
Nick Freshman, founder of Mothersauce Partners (Photo: Courtesy of Mothersauce Partners)

While having a plan in place is key, keeping things festive and profitable can be challenging during the holidays.

“Festive and profitable are not easy these days,” revealed Wright of Italian Food Company in the Florida Keys. “Keeping up with the food costs is important. We try not to use single-use ingredients. Most everything on our menu is cross utilized across the kitchen and pizza stations, and even within our restaurants, regionally, we shift inventory. Our chef and the back of the house are pretty good at moving inventory before it affects quality and taste. Servers also need to be held accountable for the specials. And it is ok to run out of something new – it's great advertising for the next time.”

Orchard, of the Rock & Brews restaurant chain, said tracking data and trends within a venue can help operators with profitability and success during the holidays. “Analyzing data and trends from previous years, so you know what to expect in the days and weeks leading up to and during the holidays, is an obvious practice to optimizing success through the season,” she said. “Past years’ indicators may not always prove reliable, so you must use discretion and learn how to rely on that.”

Food Network Champ Sophina Uong, executive chef and co-owner of Mister Mao in New Orleans, La., said it’s important to consider guest reservations when thinking about being successful during the holidays. In fact, she believes that reservation "inconsistencies" are something to keep an eye on.

“During the holiday season, people make their reservations far in advance, but then decisions change at the last minute,” explained Uong. “The weekends are busy with tourists, but everyday dining has plunged. We adjust our labor to navigate our reservations on a daily basis.”

Uong noted that promotions and marketing are also important elements of a successful, profitable holiday season. “Social media is a great way to get the word out about new menu items, new initiatives, and events,” she said. “Word of mouth is a great tool as well. Being kind to customers when they come in and giving them the best experience sets a domino effect, where they tell their friends and their friends tell their friends."

Sophina Uong - Mister Mao - New Orleans
Food Network Champ Sophina Uong, executive chef and co-owner of Mister Mao in New Orleans (Photo: Courtesy of Mister Mao)

To support the holiday marketing effort at Italian Food Company in the Florida Keys, Wright and her team focus on local events. “Our restaurants are located in a destination area for tourists and seasonal residents,” she said. “We found it is important to strike a balance with the local and tourist markets. Our restaurants participate in and sponsor local events like the city Christmas Tree Lighting, Holiday Fests, and local winter sports. They are worthwhile investments in the community, build goodwill, and keep our restaurant top of mind.”

Grant Kneble, co-owner of Freddy J's Bar & Kitchen in Mays Landing, N.J., agrees, and his holiday strategy is centered around community engagement, which includes participating – or spearheading – community events.

“I organized the first annual charity bar crawl with the Rotary Club of Mays Landing, Egg Harbor City [N.J.],” said Kneble. “This event united local establishments and fostered community spirit, demonstrating our commitment to local collaboration. We contacted local businesses for funding in exchange for promotion, ensuring that restaurants could benefit without monetary contributions. Moreover, we incorporated charity elements, directing all profits to the Rotary Club, Food Bank, and Toys for Tots. Events like this one, our Santa brunch, and unique paint and sips are vital in thriving when customers are particularly mindful of their spending.”

Kneble added that his involvement in local holidays events has solidified his bar and restaurant in the community. “This engagement reminds locals of our commitment to giving back, bolstering our reputation as a critical establishment in the area.”

Holiday Food & Beverage: Make Seasonal Flavors a Priority

While keeping an eye on profitability and staffing issues are imperative during the holidays, it’s the seasonal food and beverage menu that can’t be overlooked – especially if customers are willing to pay more for that festive taste.

“There’s no beating the familiar comfort of seasonal flavors like sugar and spice this time of year,” shared Shane Schaibly, head chef at First Watch, a leading daytime dining chain. “Our Cinnamon Chip Pancakes and Gingerbread Spice Donuts are two of the menu items that guests are always excited to welcome back.”

This year, during weekdays until Dec. 22, First Watch customers can receive a free, holiday-inspired Citrus Hibiscus Punch when they purchase any one of the limited-time seasonal menu entrées and mention the code “Holiday” to their server. The Citrus Hibiscus Punch features steeped in-house hibiscus tea, cranberry, orange, pineapple, lemon, and ginger with a festive cinnamon-spiced sugar rim.

Citrus Hibiscus Punch - First Watch - Holiday Juice Beverage
First Watch's Citrus Hibiscus Punch for the holidays (Photo: Courtesy of First Watch)

Santo and the Still Austin team in Austin, Texas also utilize seasonal flavors during the holidays. “During this time of year, we’re leaning into ingredients that remind us of the classic flavors of the season and warm from the inside out,” she said. “Think allspice, like in our tasting-room favorite season cocktail, ‘Tis the Season,’ pomegranate juice, as featured in our ‘Sage Spritz,’ and apple cinnamon simple syrup in our ‘Apple Brown Betty.’”

At Mister Mao’s in New Orleans, Chef Uong and her team put a unique spin on their cocktails and dishes. Their goal is to mix things up and keep everything exciting, so the restaurant stays top-of-mind during the holiday season.

“Sarcasm and witty-themed menu items at Mister Mao are terrific for us,” said Uong. “For example, our New Year’s brunch menu is named ‘Walk of Shame Brunch,’ and we will offer an array of dishes from our famed ‘Here Comes the Chuck Wagon’ – Mister Mao’s famed dim sum push cart.”

Mickey Mullins, the beverage director at The Bower Restaurant & Bar in New Orleans, thinks of seasonal flavors as an extension of the holiday cheer at a restaurant. “This year, we have focused on a holiday bar takeover, offering fun and approachable winter cocktails in festive holiday glassware,” he said. “We have a variety of options, from the more economical $13 beverages to those on the higher end at $21. It was our aim to use a variety of spirits and flavors but still offer cocktails that are complementary to our food program.”

When it comes to the “flavors” or “vibe” of the holiday season, Steven Rogers – director of food and beverage for Virgin Hotels New Orleans – said operators should stay creative, think outside of the box, and come up with something unique that will make their bar or restaurant stand out amongst the crowd.

“We really lean into experiential dining all year, and it works well during the holidays,” said Rogers. “Whether we do burlesque brunches, ‘Red Hot Holiday’ with themed décor and drinks, igloos on the rooftop, or live music during holiday meal periods, all of the experiences draw a crowd that’s looking for a bit more than a traditional holiday meal.”

Virgin Hotels New Orleans - Red Hot Holiday - Experience
Virgin Hotels' stunning rooftop space features scenic skyline views of downtown New Orleans, sophisticated craft cocktails, and a stylish yet down-to-earth vibe for its winter pop-up, Red Hot Holiday.  (Photo: Courtesy of Virgin Hotels New Orleans)

Tips: 'A Blend of Festive Cheer, Strategic Planning and Excellent Execution'

Donald Segall, director of operations at Wild Thyme Restaurant Group, who oversees the group’s venues in Sedona, Arizona, said that, overall, managing the busy holiday season effectively is crucial for our success.

“The holiday season in the restaurant business is a blend of festive cheer, strategic planning, and excellent execution,” said Segall. “It's a time when meticulous preparation meets opportunity, resulting in both guest satisfaction and, if done well, profitability.”

Segall offered the following tips for bar and restaurant operators that want to be successful during the holidays:

  • Remember That Planning Is Key – Start early, anticipate high (and low) traffic days, and have contingency plans, advised Segall. “It's also vital to engage with our customers through marketing and social media campaigns to keep them engaged and informed about holiday specials and events,” he said.
  • Stay on Top of Staffing Challenges – Keeping staff motivated during this hectic time is essential, and ensure fair scheduling, suggested Segall. “Staff appreciation events and small perks can go a long way in boosting morale,” he shared. “Additionally, we hire temporary staff to alleviate the workload as needed.”
  • Find Festive Ways to Attract Customers – Customers are drawn to restaurants that offer a unique and festive experience, according to Segall, who said this can be achieved through holiday-themed decorations, special menus, and events like live music or entertainment. “Personalized service and a warm, welcoming atmosphere are also key,” he noted.
  • Create Special Events and Offers – Segall said his restaurant hosts various events, such as holiday-themed dinners, a New Year's Eve dinner, and other events that resonate with the community spirit. “Limited-time menu items, festive cocktails, and special offers also attract customers,” he said.
  • Keep It Festive but Profitable – Segall explained that balancing festivity with profitability involves creative menu planning, efficient resource management, and effective marketing. “We ensure that our holiday offerings are not just appealing but also cost-effective,” he said. “Decorations and ambiance are crucial, but we avoid going overboard to keep costs in check.”
Donald Segall - Wild Thyme Restaurant Group
Donald Segall, director of operations at Wild Thyme Restaurant Group (Photo: Courtesy of Wild Thyme Restaurant Group)

In the End, Make it Fun!

Wyatt, of NORMS Restaurants, summed it all up with this thought for holiday success: “Plan, communicate, execute, and follow up,” he said. “Holidays should be approached very strategically because of the increase in traffic and sales. Lean on your best people to help create the plan that the team can follow during the holiday season. Effective two-way communication at every level – leave no stone unturned, inspect what you expect. Most of all, ensure that there is fun to be had by all.”

Aaron Kiel is an editor, writer and public relations professional in Raleigh, N.C. He’s worked in the beverage, tea and coffee industries for two decades, as well as hospitality and technology. He’s a journalist at heart, but he also wears a PR and communications hat through his consultancy, ak PR Group. He’s a contributing writer/reporter for Questex’s Bar & Restaurant News, and he recently worked as the editor of World Tea News with Questex’s Bar & Restaurant Group. In 2023, he was a finalist and honorable mention in the “Folio: Eddie & Ozzie Awards” for Range of Work by a Single Author – B2B.” Connect with him on Instagram: @adventurer_explorer.


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