In the months and weeks leading up to the winter holidays, we’ll be sharing tips to help restaurants prepare for the busiest time of the year. Check back for more ways to make this your best holiday season yet, and see all of our tips here!
For many people (myself included) Thanksgiving is the most important meal of the year. But what often goes overlooked are all of the hours of work that go into prepping for, cooking, and cleaning up after a Thanksgiving dinner—which can be very daunting for the non-experienced. Enter the restaurant Thanksgiving: a Turkey Day innovation that is growing in popularity among those who love Thanksgiving but don’t necessarily want to deal with the legwork involved in the preparation process.
According to Gabriella Choate, general manager of Scampo in Boston, the demand for a dining out option on Thanksgiving has only gone up since she has been working in the industry. “It’s been a very busy day in every single restaurant where I have worked, and more and more people make reservations each year,” she says. (See our data trends around Thanksgiving dining here.)
This makes sense: Thanksgiving dinner is by no means an easy meal to make. “It’s a lot of work, especially if you are one family and it’s just one person cooking,” says Aaron Bludorn, Executive Chef of Café Boulud in New York. “People don’t want to clean up or do dishes or spend eight hours in the kitchen. And especially in a city like New York—the apartment kitchens are so tiny!”
For Kyle Johnson, Executive Chef of Bourbon Steak in Los Angeles, Thanksgiving service has been one of the restaurant’s major revenue generators—especially since even now, most restaurants in his area close on Thanksgiving. “From an operations standpoint, if your competitors are closed, all of a sudden you are able to pigeonhole the market,” he says. “If there are 30 restaurants open regularly, but only seven open on Thanksgiving, you start to really gain covers simply because other places are closed.”
That said, Thanksgiving is a day that’s shrouded in high expectations—and for a restaurant, the main challenge is to live up to the hype surrounding the meal. “Every family has their best stuffing and their favorite recipes and their specific traditions,” Bludorn says. “So we always ask ourselves how we can deliver that for them and make the meal as good as it can possible be. It is very important that every guest leaves happy and full.”
Like any other event, successfully executing Thanksgiving service at a restaurant requires planning ahead, keeping your staff happy, and going the extra mile to ensure guests are getting the warmest and most hospitable experience possible. We asked chefs from across the country what they’ve learned doing Thanksgiving service—here are their best tips.
1. Create a holiday staffing schedule, and stick to it. Choate says that a few months before the holiday season, she puts out a clipboard and requires each member of the staff to sign up to work at least one holiday (Thanksgiving, Christmas, or New Year’s Eve). This sets expectations early and gives her staffers ample time to plan ahead on their holiday schedule.
2. Host a Thanksgiving meal with your staffers before service. Keeping your staff happy on a day they might usually spend with their family is very important. “We do a big Thanksgiving meal for our personal family meal—to show how thankful we are for our staff that day,” Johnson says. “It’s so important to create an environment where your staff is excited to come to work that day, because it’s a hard sell.” Plus, as Bludorn points out, eating together before such an important service builds community: “We spend more time at the restaurant than with our actual families—we want staffers to feel like they are with their other family.”
3. Make sure you are offering all the classics… Thanksgiving, Bludorn says, is a “nostalgic holiday”—and there are certain offerings that are simply non-negotiable. According to the chefs interviewed, the absolute essentials are turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie. Bludorn also remembered one year when he tried to be fancy with the turkey, making into a roulade: “The feedback is just better when we do a straight-up bird. We tried being modern, but people just want the classic. It’s important to know your guests’ expectations, and for us—people are happy when they are eating what they are used to.” Johnson says that he will specifically try and serve dishes that play on nostalgia, like his take on stovetop stuffing, with fresh herbs and chicken jus. “Dishes like that just really help to hit those warm notes with our guests,” he says.
4. …But don’t be afraid to get creative and be true to who you are as a restaurant. Johnson’s restaurant is located in Los Angeles, one of most vibrant culinary environments in the country, so he loves incorporating diverse ingredients into his Thanksgiving meal, particularly in sides like his black beans with cotija and adobo. “Johnson also offers a special steak option—as this is his restaurant’s namesake dish—and recently realized that it was more popular than turkey. “We are a steakhouse, so naturally, even on Thanksgiving, people are coming in for a thoughtfully prepared steak,” he says. “It’s important to recognize the kind of food your restaurant actually does.”
5. Don’t throw your regular menu out the window. Choate says that even on Thanksgiving, there are always guests that don’t want the traditional dishes—so the restaurant will always offer the regular menu as an option. “Not everybody loves turkey, and people nowadays have all sorts of dietary restrictions,” she says, so it’s important to have options. Bludorn adds that his restaurant always gets a reasonable number of international guests on Thanksgiving as well, most of whom aren’t celebrating Thanksgiving. As a restaurant, you need to be able to serve everybody.
6. Think about adding personal touches. Thanksgiving is all about creating intimate, comfortable moments, so think about how you can recreate the at-home experience for your guests. At Bourbon Steak, Johnson brings out a cookie cart with fresh-baked treats and glasses of milk at the end of each meal. “Thanksgiving segues nicely into the Christmas holidays, and it’s just a simple and thoughtful touch that allows us to connect with our guests and make them feel like they are in our house,” he says. Bludorn gives each guest a leftover turkey sandwich as a takeaway. “Leftovers are the best part of Thanksgiving,” he says. “But our diners aren’t going to have a fridge full of them, so we wrap up sandwiches for guests for the next day.”
7. Presentation matters. The Thanksgiving table is in many ways as important as the meal itself. Choate says that her restaurants will do special, bountiful-looking arrangements, with plenty of flowers and microgreens, to create an especially festive atmosphere for the occasion.
8. Be accommodating. Every family has particular Thanksgiving traditions, whether it’s a side or a specific preparation. Bludorn says that even though his Thanksgiving menu is a prix fixe, if someone has a special dish or service request, he will do his best to fulfill it.
9. Make the extra investment in great hospitality. “One of the biggest challenges on Thanksgiving is just keeping your guests extremely uplifted,” Johnson says. “No one wants to make mom mad on Thanksgiving, and it’s our job to really capture every single guest’s needs. Even if you need to bring on one extra staff member to really ensure that these guests are being taken care of, it’s worth it. The first misstep can snowball into a dining experience that doesn’t leave guests with the best feeling—and you don’t want to give people a bad experience on Thanksgiving.”
10. Get the word out. If no one knows about your Thanksgiving offerings, no one will show up. Choate recommends making special check presenters and putting the Thanksgiving menu on the front page of your website. And don’t forget about social media and email!
11. Order more food than you think you might need. Wasted food is sub-ideal, but running out of turkey on Thanksgiving is even worse. “It’s like running out of eggs during brunch,” Johnson says. “Make sure you really plan ahead and are getting more than enough product to feed all your guests.”
Photo Credit: Evan Sung