'Tis The Season: Christmas Planning

Getting ready for the demands of the Christmas holidays has never been easier with the foodservice guide to prepping, planning and making a profit during the festive season.

The busiest time of the year is near upon us. And now is the time for restaurants, cafés and venues to get all their partridges, turtle doves and French hens in a row. To help you make the most of the festive season, foodService spoke to chefs and restaurateurs from around the country to find out the best tips and trade tricks to ensuring a happy and profitable service for all.

Whether considering the menu, the décor or staffing, it pays to plan ahead. Executive chef of the Epping Club’s fine dining restaurant, Rawsons, Nick Whitehouse says, “As a premium corporate function venue, we start working on our Christmas menus three to four months in advance. When putting these menus together, we have to consider things like seasonal produce that will be available and what people want to eat given the temperatures around Christmas.”

The more time a venue gives itself, the better prepared it will be. This is particularly important given that diners require flexibility from restaurants and cafés like never before. Whitehouse says, “There are plenty of functions taking place at The Epping Club around this time of year so we also need to ensure we present a well-balanced, yet delicious menu that caters for dietary requirements. 85 percent of our menu will be gluten-free to accommodate.” This also help to build next year’s business as many first time guests will return or refer friends.

For Henry Honner, owner of Camberwell’s Juno & May, as the Christmas season moves at such a fast-pace, another consideration is the length of the menu. He notes, “We write a slightly shorter menu that ensures we can maintain the integrity of our dishes while doing large volumes.” And writing a menu that is also “heavier on prep times but shorter on service time” saves time and money.

For many restaurateurs, being busy is no excuse for a slip in standards. Johnny Di Francesco of East Brunswick’s 400 Gradi says, “We get incredibly busy so we need to make sure we’re meeting demands for guests and their orders.”
Accordingly, quality control is vital. Whitehouse says, “[At Rawsons] we have to ensure that everything goes out just like it would on a quieter day. We rely heavily on collaboration between our front and back of house to ensure consistency in food and service quality.”

Honner agrees, “There is an enormous amount of trust people put in you when doing their end of year bash or even just a final catch up between friends before Christmas. And people always compare the Christmas party to the years’ before so there is plenty riding on the outcome.”

When it comes to designing the menu and choosing the menu, it’s important for venues to consider both what guests need from a celebratory spread, and to keep the costs down. Whitehouse says, “Our demographic loves something traditional around Christmas, but with a little slice
of adventure.”

For Honner, it is also important to celebrate with our more recent customs. He says, “It is tradition in Australia to have fresh seafood in Summer and perhaps that is why we see a big spike in these sales at this time. Meat and lots of it also do well. Many people at Christmas time are not regular restaurant customers, and will tend to order more familiar dishes so we try to accommodate this, but we always try to give them a little something on the side that is interesting because we can’t help ourselves.”

And at 400 Gradi, “any pizza is a crowd pleaser.” But Di Francesco also adds that dishes designed to share, like platters and tapas-style foods, are a great idea as they give “guests the best of everything”. He continues, “Charcuterie is such a European tradition, and I love seeing groups come in and share their food – it’s a great blending of international celebration with an Australian Christmas, and we love it.”

Any business will know that finding and keeping staff for the end of year rush can be tough. Honner says, “Every restaurant is short staffed at Christmas. That’s hospitality. We try to build our staff levels up before Christmas. We also manage people’s expectations of this time of year. No one asks for time off because they know the answer is going to be no. The plus side is that uni is on holidays and we can get a top up of casuals to help with the load.”

To cope with this uncertainty, Whitehouse says that his time has “designed our Christmas menu with not only flavour in mind, but to flow well when we are under pressure, to make it as easy as possible on the team in the midst of a rush.”

It is also important to keep communication open with staff so if there are any issues or problems, restaurateurs or managers and manage expectations as well as ensure that we have enough staff on call at all times. Di Francesco adds, “We have a lot of international staff working throughout the Gradi Group, so for a lot of the team, the Gradi family is their one and only family in Australia. That means being together at Christmas – even if we’re working – is a way for family to spend it together; so it’s a really great place to be.”

Given the high volumes of guests and ingredients coming through the doors during the silly season, it is as important as ever to follow the right food safety plan to ensure a save and clean environment. Regular checks are crucial, as are using the best and right pieces of kitchen equipment. Whitehouse says, “No matter how busy the day is, we always make time to ensure the food that is being put on our customer’s tables is of the highest quality, and has been prepared and followed all the stringent protocols we have in place.”

The Christmas rush also can be a blessing in disguise. Honner says, “Some problems disappear at this time, because food doesn’t hang around long enough to cause us any issues. Food storage rules also tend to be followed or enforced because if people don’t store food in the right place then no one can find it when they are in a hurry. The biggest issue is probably fridge temperatures as it’s a hot time of year, and the activity means doors are always opening and closing. You just have to keep your eye on the temp read outs and keep reminding staff to be quick in and out of cold storage.”

It is inevitable that bars and restaurants will see guests indulging themselves during an end of year get together. There are different ways in which venues can protect themselves. Front of house must be up to date in their Responsible Service of Alcohol training. Di Francesco says, “We do a refresher for all our staff in the lead up to Christmas because we’re aware that there’s the potential for an increase in the number of people who have been drinking throughout their afternoon and, prior to making their way to us, dinner. We want to make sure our staff feel equipped and comfortable to deal with all situations.”

Honner also sees good-sized portions of food for guests as necessary. It is perhaps obvious, but “if they don’t eat enough, things can get messy.”

It is also important to have a conversation with the client organising a Christmas or work function ahead of time. Honner says, this is “so they can help out with managing the drinking of their own work mates”. And if someone has to be refused service, “then it is good to have at least some of the clients on board.”

So whether you have help from a team of elves or one, this guide has all the tips for driving business and taking the stress out of the silly season.