The holiday season is shaping up to be slightly better than last year’s for restaurants.
Although customer traffic is flat or slightly down, those who are going out tend to spend more, chefs and restaurateurs are observing.
“People are dusting off their checkbooks a little more this year than in the past two or three years,” said Patrick Lyons, chief executive of The Lyons Group, a Boston-based company that operates restaurants, bars, lounges and other entertainment venues. “Instead of the C-grade wine, they might be buying the B- and A-priced wines.”
That jibes with data from consumer research firm The NPD Group, which reported flat restaurant traffic for the year but higher average checks, for a 2-percent overall spending increase.
Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of research for the National Restaurant Association, was also optimistic about the holidays.
“Dining out remains a top activity for the holidays, and savvy restaurant operators leverage that opportunity to market accordingly,” Riehle wrote in an e-mail, noting that consumers use restaurants for special meals during the holidays and that businesses hire them to cater events.
“While both consumer and business spending remains cautious, the overall business climate for restaurants is better than it was several years ago. As the economy continues to gradually improve, this holiday season is likely to also follow that pattern,” he said.
Some chefs say Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve parties have been booked earlier than usual, a sign of growing consumer confidence. During the past two recessions restaurateurs observed that guests tended to make spur-of-the-moment holiday plans.
“Christmas Eve will be booked by the weekend, a little earlier than last year, and New Year’s Eve should be booked a week out,” said Paul Fehribach, executive chef and owner of Big Jones in Chicago.
“Christmas Eve is going to be a huge day,” said Anthony Martin, executive chef of Tru in Chicago. He also observed that New Year’s reservations were coming in earlier than usual.
A more relaxed environment
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Parties, however, will be more casual this year, according to industry observers.
“The holiday party season has changed since 2008,” said Nicole Ferrer, director of sales and marketing at The Iroquois hotel in New York. “Companies are hosting smaller, more personal parties and executive gatherings as opposed to larger, full-company holiday parties. This trend became quite evident after the financial crisis. … Prior to 2008, there was significantly less scrutiny on frivolous spending. Overall, our holiday bookings have increased, however many groups are choosing to host lunches and receptions rather than full dinners.”
Brad Nagy, owner of Sotto 13, a pizzeria and small plates restaurant in New York City, said his bookings for holiday parties are “solid.”
“Most of our customers choose to do our cocktail-party style format with passed small plates, wood-fired pizza and cocktails. Our small plate menu, craft cocktails and trendy atmosphere with high-top seating is very conducive to that format,” he said, noting that his customers have told him they prefer the less formal style.
“Part of it seems to be a cultural shift we’re seeing to ‘sophisticated-casual,’ and part of it is the perception of the customer not wanting to feel like they are going over the top with a formal sit-down dining experience, which appears more costly,” he said.
A more casual mood also lends itself to in-home catering, where business appears robust.
“I have been booked every weekend through February 2014 since this October,” said Michael Lyons, owner of Accessible Gourmet in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
“The biggest change I’ve noticed is that clients want more than just great food,” he added. “They want the experience and professionalism. They want the personal touch from the chef, and they are willing to pay for the experience.”
Dennis Nosko and Christine Robinson, chefs and co-owners of A Fresh Endeavor, a personal chef service in Lexington, Mass., said their customers are combining celebrations. This year they had a Christmas/retirement party, a Thanksgiving/new job/birthday celebration, and a birthday/new baby function.
According to Deirdre McCready, vice president for special events at SBE, a Los Angeles-based hospitality company that operates about 40 locations nationwide, the key to a successful season is understanding your market and your customers.
McCready has systems in place that track not only birthdays, but also favorite tables and cocktails. She said SBE is working on a company-wide system that tracks other likes and dislikes that will allow a customer who lives in San Diego to go to an SBE property in Miami and be handed his or her favorite cocktail.
“People will spend money on things that will bring them happiness,” McCready said, and that goes beyond food and drinks. The entire experience, “from valet to valet,” has to be excellent.
“It’s not luck of the draw,” she said. “You need to know your market, you need to know your demographic, you need to do targeted outreach. … You really have to be in tune with your guest.”