NATIONAL REPORT The elves may still be hammering away in Santa’s workshop, but restaurant chains are already rolling out their Christmas treats and gift offers in hopes of making the holiday a merry one for investors.
Seasonal specialties like eggnog, gingerbread or peppermint-flavored items are already on the menus of several concepts. Others have unwrapped new gift possibilities, including a revamped line of Tim Hortons coffee-themed merchandise available from an online store and T-shirts featuring Burger King’s wooden-faced mascot . The shirts adorned with the King’s mug will be sold in department stores under one of several licensing deals disclosed by the burger chain last week.
Other chains are already pushing new gift card programs, including a cardless, totally online version announced last week by Pizza Hut . Sodexo’s new program allows buyers to spend the money charged on the Esteem card at 35 retailers as well as the contract company’s facilities. Red Robin has a new third-party card that’s being sold in Safeway and Kroger supermarkets.
California Pizza Kitchen has tweaked its program to provide the buyers of gift cards with what amounts to a commission. For every $100 that is loaded onto a card as a gift, the buyer gets a $20 credit, executives told investors.
Similarly, Burger King is offering the buyers of its Crown Card a chance to win one of 500 Wii video games, a hot seller for the past few Christmases.
During CPK’s conference call, chief financial officer Sue Collyns noted that the traditional peak holiday shopping season, from Thanksgiving to Christmas day, is shorter than the usual “sprint” by a week this year. Meanwhile, many retailers have voiced fears that the crucial sales stretch will be weakened by economic conditions, prompting many to begin merchandising their holiday wares alongside Halloween or even back-to-school items.
Some restaurant chains are apparently following that cue. Jack in the Box, for instance, reinstituted its Egg Nog shake on the same day it commenced a limited-time offer of a Thanksgiving-inspired Pumpkin Pie shake. It touted the premium drinks ($2.49 for a 16-ounce serving, $2.99 for 24 ounces) as a season opener for “grinches out there who aren’t quite ready to stuff the turkey and deck the halls.”
Chick-fil-A started mixing its Peppermint Chocolate Chip Hand-Spun Milkshake last week. The announcement noted that the beverage, priced at $2.89 for a 20-ounce serving, marks the first time the regional chicken chain has offered a special flavor of shake for the holidays.
Financial analysts have warned that the holiday season could be a tough one for the restaurant industry. Asurvey conducted in late October by RBC Capital Markets  found that 49 percent of consumers planned to cut their dining out for the following 90 days.
Meanwhile, some consumer advocates and government watchdogs are warning shoppers to forgo buying gift cards because the issuing store or restaurant might go bankrupt after the holidays. Among those advising against the cards’ purchase was Connecticut attorney general Richard Blumenthal. In a piece published Sunday in the Hartford Courant, columnist George Gombossy wrote: "With the tough economic times, Blumenthal said, it's highly likely that many more restaurants will close after the holidays." The column was headlined "Gift certificates: Too risky for consumers."
A“bah, humbug” mentality seems to be settling even over Santa Claus. The 700-member Amalgamated Order of Real Bearded Santas recently convened a series of meetings to brainstorm ways of surviving what promises to be an economically stormy holiday.