Christmas always comes early for caterers, as pubs, restaurants and hotels need to plan well ahead if they’re to capture the maximum number of advance bookings. If you’re not ready to meet these customers’ enquiries via phone or email, you’re effectively referring them to competitors locally who have got their offer in place – and that’s no way to start your festive season.
Happily, corporate bookings appear to be building back up from the low point of the 2008 post-crash festive season when office parties were almost universally cancelled, and many of the operators we work with now report an uplift in the number of bookings and the spend per head. Similarly, with consumers feeling less financially constrained than they did a few years ago, more are choosing a local pub or restaurant for a festive catch up with friends and family.
Many operators will already have finalised their festive menus and packages and will have bookings in the diary for November onwards. Marketing your offer is vitally important and it’s worth spending a little time and money to produce a brochure or leaflet that spotlights your festive offer at its best – the prize, of large parties filling your dining area for up to six weeks during November and December, should more than justify the outlay.
Festive menu planning isn’t straightforward, but get it right and your tills should be ringing louder than the bells on Santa’s sleigh by Christmas Eve. Sadly, getting it wrong can be costly: for many pubs, restaurants and hotels, this is the busiest time of year, so if you don’t hit target GP on the hundreds of meals you serve during this period, you’ll be missing out on a serious chunk of revenue and spend the next 11 months trying to claw it back. Better by far to get your menu calculations right from the outset.
Essentially, the rules that apply for the rest of the year hold true for the festive period: know your market, know your kitchen’s capabilities and, most importantly, know your costs. Talk to your catering suppliers well in advance and share your festive catering ideas with them: they should be able to advise on issues around availability and pricing on any of the ingredients of your planned menu and perhaps suggest some tweaks that will improve the profit it delivers.
As ever, there’s a balance to be struck between creating a menu of mouthwatering dishes that showcase the very best your kitchen can produce, and the reality of recreating them, consistently, day in day out, when that kitchen is at its busiest of the year. Ambition is a wonderful thing, and without it the food service industry would stagnate, but think carefully about what you commit to over Christmas; it’s perhaps not the best time to be introducing new dishes with any level of complexity. Your customers won’t be ‘wowed’ by food or service that fail to live up to the promise of the brochure or website that encouraged them to book with you.
Food purchasing discipline is as important at Christmas as at any time, if not more so. Again, talk to your suppliers to make sure you understand the most effective way to source the ingredients for your festive menu. A turkey crown, for example, may be much better value than a whole bird, and paying a premium for salmon fillets could prove a better option than boning a whole fish in-house.
One of the biggest trends in the hospitality business has been the growth of casual dining and, while the popularity of the traditional turkey dinner endures, there’s also a demand for informal options at Christmas. Operators who can offer a canapés and drinks package, or a selection of sharing platters with a festive twist, could find them a source of incremental revenue over Christmas, particularly if they can make good use of ingredients across all their menus.
So, if you haven’t yet finalised your festive menus, make doing so a top priority. Be ready for early bookings, market an offer that you can deliver consistently to a high standard, and make sure you buy wisely to achieve your target GP. In this industry, we’re too busy giving everyone else a happy Christmas to enjoy the festivities ourselves – so let’s at least make sure we’re well rewarded for our efforts.
John Pinder: managing director, Lynx Purchasing