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!
The holidays are one of the most joyous times of the year — and that probably has a lot to do with the fact that dining out is at the top of everyone’s agenda. Coming up with a special promotion or event during the holidays is a great way to bring in more revenue, but more importantly, it’s an opportunity to build more intimate connections with your guests and their friends and family, and to translate people into lifelong customers. Take a look at four holiday promotions we loved, why they worked, and how you can make the most of your own seasonal campaign.
Jewish Christmas: Zahav (Philadelphia)
What It Was: Zahav is an Israeli restaurant, and a common Jewish tradition is to go out for Chinese food on Christmas. The restaurant’s co-owner, Steve Cook, thought it would be fun to bring the tradition to life at Zahav for a few nights around Christmas.
“We wanted to do something fun and kooky as a lead-in to the mini-vacation, since we close on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day,” Cook says. “Typically on Christmas, Jews eat Chinese food and go see a movie. So I thought, let’s ditch the Israeli food for one night, rent a big screen and projector, show a movie, pop popcorn, and do our take on Chinese food. It’s a chance for us to not take ourselves too seriously and also for our staff to let their hair down.”
Why It Worked: “It captured people’s imaginations,” Cook says. “It’s a good excuse to celebrate when people are in the mood to celebrate. The staff has a lot of fun because they are cooking something totally different. We get to build a really strong relationship with our customers. The joy of the event during the holiday season is what really carries it through.”
Take-Home Holiday Feast: Hugo’s (Los Angeles)
What It Was: Los Angeles (and increasingly—the country as a whole) is full of picky eaters with a number of dietary restrictions. So Hugo’s, a health-conscious restaurant with a few locations in the city, decided to construct a holiday dinner that would work for everyone, while still tasting as hearty and comforting as a home-cooked meal.
“The biggest thing we emphasize is the versatility of the meal,” says Leslie Brunner, the restaurant’s head of community relations. “We have meat-free, dairy-free, and gluten-free options. It’s not easy for people in those categories to find a meal with holiday flavors. That’s part of the magic of what we do: our chefs make something that tastes so good that it doesn’t matter what your restrictions are. You don’t feel like you are missing out on anything. Now we’ll have people tweeting a few weeks before we launch the special, saying things like ‘Only a few weeks away!’”
Why It Worked: “It’s a meal that feeds anybody, and that’s a big deal around the holidays,” Brenner says. “You don’t know who is going to be sitting around the table, if they’ll have an allergy or a restriction. Everyone can sit at the same table and feel included this way. And we are providing the whole feast, so it’s not like someone has to cook three different kinds of mashed potatoes for all the different dietary restrictions. There’s a real need for that kind of meal.”
Discounted Wine: Roka Akor (Chicago)
What It Was: Despite the holidays generally being a boon for the restaurant industry, Roka Akor owner Benjamin Uvodich noticed that his neighborhood in Chicago, River North, was on the quieter side. “We wanted to draw in as many of our regulars back in,” he says. “People know us for our great wine—our list is always fun and fresh—so for those people who come in and purchase bottles, we wanted to offer an extra incentive to come here versus host their party elsewhere. Instead of handing them a gift card, we are incentivizing them to come in with a percentage discount. What it means is that people come in and spend a little more on a bottle of wine than they would spend otherwise.”
Why It Worked: According to Uvodich, the restaurant’s standout, constantly-changing wine list had become a big motivation for repeat customers—so, “the fact that we were offering a promotion on those wines became a huge reason to come in,” he says. Plus, he adds, “In this area, wine is universally popular. It’s the perfect item to offer a discount on.”
Carol-oke: Bub City (Chicago)
What It Was: Bub City has a long-time tradition of doing live band karaoke, so when it came time for the holidays, doing a seasonal version was a no brainer for the restaurant. “Christmas Eve is a time most people have off, and they’re often looking for group activities, so we thought it would be a fun thing to incorporate with the season,” says RJ Melman, owner of Bub City. “It’s a night that is not the busiest for a lot of places, so we thought to bring in this great group activity and give people a chance to have fun with it. We have a big list of carols people can sing — or they can choose from other country songs — and people can win prizes, like last year we gave out concert tickets.”
Why it Worked: “Christmas Eve is a great night to do an activity like this,” Melman says. “There are plenty of people who will have an early dinner with their family, but there is not a lot of activity after. Karaoke is the perfect way to bring in people who are looking to do a little bit more with their evening and don’t want to go home yet. Our neighborhood has thousands of people, and a lot of hotels, so we bring in a good crowd. Karaoke is also popular in general, and singing carols is especially nostalgic for people. I don’t know anyone who doesn’t know the Mariah Carey version of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You.’”
How to Organize Your Own Promotion
1. Always keep your unique sales proposition in mind. Think of what the compelling reason would be for a customer to come to your event, or sign up for your promotion. Many restaurants run promotions over the holidays: what about yours will get people in the door? If there’s any time of the year to put your absolute best foot forward, it’s the holidays.
2. Focus less on your bottom line. This seems counterintuitive, as the revenue aspect is, of course, important. But Cook says that his restaurant’s best ideas have come out of “starting with a great point of view and working backward,” as opposed to trying to come up with an event that will make the most possible money. If you focus on building a really fantastic promotion, the revenue will flow in accordingly.
3. Evolve your promotion. Listen to feedback and don’t be afraid to evolve year to year. Brunner explains that her restaurant’s most successful promotions are the ones that have been the most flexible to change. With the holiday meal promotion, she says, “We started out a bit too carb-heavy, so we balanced the meal out with vegetables, and then we changed our packaging to keep the meal hot—that evolution is important.”
4. Have fun with it. The holidays are all about loosening up and celebrating the end of the year — make sure your promotion reflects that. “People like our promotion because it’s a lighthearted way to spend the holiday,” says Melman — so don’t be afraid to have fun.