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Restaurants not jolly about Christmas weekend

Many operators fear lost sales because of the holiday's timing

Ben Benson didn’t need to look at a calendar to know Christmas 2010 was going to be on a Saturday. Everything seemed to go wrong this year. The economic recovery didn’t happen, the hot New York summer kept him from getting much use of his patio. Why would he expect Christmas to fall on any day of the week but the worst one?

“For the first time in 28 years, we’ll be open on Christmas and New Year’s,” said the owner of Ben Benson’s Steakhouse in Midtown Manhattan.

“The Saturday of Christmas week usually is our busiest night of the year, and I just could not afford to give that up, especially with the economy being what it is,”  he added.

Many restaurant operators are echoing Benson’s sentiment.

Although staying open for Christmas means paying staff extra to work during the holiday and potentially dampening morale for workers used to having the day off, restaurants on the edge of profitability are thinking seriously about whether they can afford to take the day off this year.

“It will be difficult for many [restaurants] to manage,” said Joe Rogers, an officer of Bruce Carey Restaurants in Portland, Ore., which operates Bluehour, Saucebox, 23Hoyt and Clarklewis.

Since many restaurants make most of their money on weekends, losing a Saturday can be a big financial hit, he said. Carey also pointed out that, with New Year’s Day also being on a Saturday, they’re really losing two weekend days.

On top of that, New Year’s Eve is usually a great midweek bonus, but since it falls on a Friday this year, and Fridays are usually busy anyway, they won’t be getting that extra busy day this year.

Jack Bardy, co-owner of The Beehive in Boston, says the restaurant will be closed on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day as usual, but it’s going to hurt.

“We have a very large portion of the public here in the city that goes out for the holidays. Mid-week, that is a great shot in the arm for business. Hitting on the weekend, I definitely think restaurants are going to suffer,” he said.

“In this day and age, weekends are the only good nights for us,” echoed Zarela Martinez, chef-owner of Zarela in New York City.

“We usually open on Christmas Eve but close on Christmas day, and we will do so again this year,” she added.

But Russell Bellanca, owner of Trattoria Cinque and Alfredo of Rome, both also in New York City, said business should be better than last year, when Christmas was on a Friday and so many people left town early.

This year, Friday should be a good shopping day, and so restaurants in tourist and shopping areas should do well, he said.

Todd Rushing, a Partner in Concentrics Restaurants in Atlanta, said his restaurants normally didn’t do much business during the week around Christmas, anyway, and that the weekend before would likely be a good one because school vacations don’t begin until the end of that week this year. That would keep people in town, shopping and eating, he said.

Cecily Sorensen, corporate communications director for Jacksonville, Fla.-based Firehouse Subs, said the timing of the holiday would likely hurt the 400-unit chain.

“Since we close the restaurants early on Christmas Eve, losing Friday night’s business is also a downside,” she said.

“Christmas on Saturday hurts business something fierce for several reasons,” said Emlyn Thomas, general manager of Pensiero Ristorante, a fine-dining restaurant in Evanston, Ill. “First, we lose a Saturday completely, as we are closed [on Christmas]. Plus Friday is Christmas Eve, so that won’t make up for losing a whole weekend.”

He did note, however, that the large Jewish population in the surrounding area helped sustain business during Christmas and that the restaurant’s traditional Italian Feast of the Seven Fishes was a solid draw, too.

“The real kicker is that the next weekend is New Year’s Eve and that falls on a Friday, which means Saturday will be nothing [business wise], and we will get no uptick from having a midweek New Year’s Eve.”

Contact Bret Thorn at [email protected].

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