This season's holiday bookings are looking merry and bright

Independent operators are hoping to capitalize on a return of both work and social gatherings, now that Covid is well behind them.
Rreal Taco
One of Rreal Taco's holiday bars is taking shape. Staffers have been decorating a little bit at a time. |Photo courtesy of Rreal Tacos.

With the holiday season now officially in play, independent operators are saying party bookings are up this year—but consumers aren’t celebrating the same way they once did.

Gone are the days when an employer might want to buy out the whole restaurant for a holiday party for 200, said Michael Schlow, founder of Schlow Restaurant Group, which operates the Alta Strada concepts in several states and Nama Sushi and Nama Ko in Washington, D.C.

This year, bookings are coming in with smaller groups of 12 to 40, he said. Many are parties for people who work or play together, but who may not necessarily be including a “plus one,” he said.

It’s a trend Schlow really started seeing even before he pandemic. “The big sit-down holiday dinner went away a little bit,” he said. “Probably around 2018, I started to see a change to ‘gatherings,’ a big cocktail party with heavy hors d’oeuvres. Much more casual, much more lively.”

If they haven’t already, this is the week many operators are expecting holiday bookings to really take off.

OpenTable data indicates that year-round dining has been flat (down 1%) year over year, but consumers have been dining out on holidays, with bookings up 9% on Valentine’s Day, and up 6% for Mother’s Day this year.

And December is the month for taking advantage of those holiday dine-out occasions. Last year, three of the five biggest dining days for groups of six or more were in mid-December: Dec. 10, 16 and 17, according to OpenTable.

This year, Hanukkah starts earlier in December (Dec. 8), which could get festivities started earlier.

In Atlanta, the five-unit Rreal Taco chain is positioning to take advantage of what COO Miguel Hernandez sees as a willingness to gather in groups again, post-Covid.

For the first time, the chain is going all out to decorate its bars with over-the-top holiday decorations, a curated Mexican and American playlist and specialty drinks as LTOs, like the Baby Jesus, with Liquor 43, Borghetti Coffee liqueur and cinnamon simple syrup; or the El Rudolph, with 1800 Coconut tequila, evaporated and condensed milk, Coco Lopez, vanilla extract and nutmeg.

“Last year we didn’t do holiday bars because people were still trying to stay away from each other” because of Covid, said Hernandez. “But this year, people are more open to gathering in public spaces.”

The staff has been tasked with decorating their bars, and workers are having a blast adding more and more each day—which customers have been documenting on social media, generating excitement, he said. “My manager just called and said he bought all of the lights at Home Depot. All of them,” said Hernandez.

Rreal Tacos has also allocated a marketing budget of about $20,000 to “blast it across the internet.”

“You can’t just put up decorations and expect people to come,” he said. “It has to be all of it, the music and the drinks. We even have little Santa hats for people to wear. We’re going way extra to take people out of the norm.”

Washington, D.C.-based Knead Hospitality + Design typically has a strong events business around the holidays at its 10 venues, and this year is looking pretty good, with 70 to 80 events each week, said founder Jason Berry. Knead’s portfolio includes the restaurants Succotash, Mi Vida, The Grill, Gatsby, Bistro du Jour and Tu Taco.

This year, the company has bumped up its events staff from one to three. Berry said the key to capturing that party business this season is simple:

“The number one reason people can’t book with a restaurant is they don’t get a call back quick enough, and it’s as silly as that,” he said.

He recounted his own experience trying to plan a party in 2022 for he and his husband when his daughter was born. “We called six places and only one returned our call,” he said. “We spent $20,000 on that party.”

Knead’s events team works on commission, which keeps them hungry to return calls promptly to make the sale, he said. Any party of 10 or more is handled by the events team.

This year, Berry said consumers are a little more price sensitive and Knead is willing to work with guests, if they’re also flexible on space and cuisine.

“Too often, restaurants have their minimums for space, but they don’t have it broken down by day or time,” he said. At Knead concepts, they’re more likely to be flexible with parties scheduled on a Monday at 6 p.m. compared with a Friday at 8 p.m.

New York restaurateur Danny Meyer earlier this year pointed to the fact that guests are dining earlier in the day, saying 6 p.m. is the new 8 p.m. That’s also true for holiday parties, said Amanda Kehr, director of events and guest experience for Union Square Hospitality Group, which Meyer founded.

“7-8 p.m. is out, and 6-7 p.m. is certainly in,” said Kehr. “It’s not that it’s no longer desirable, but if there’s a choice where before they might have chosen 8 p.m., now they choose 6-6:30 p.m.”

In New York City, Monday is the day no one wants a holiday party now that so many workers are remote, added Kehr.

For USHG, which includes iconic restaurants like Union Square Café, Gramercy Tavern, and the newer event-friendly Manhatta, party bookings are up this year, compared with 2022. Last year, because so many workers were still remote, lunch parties were slow and some companies pushed festivities to January, said Kehr.

This year, lunch parties are back and USHG’s prime event days were booked fully after Labor Day. The secondary dates disappear in September and October. Now only a few less desirable dates are still open, which Kehr sees as a return to pre-pandemic scheduling.

“We are fortunate in that we have a lot of really loyal guests who like to spend the holidays with us,” she said. “We anticipate it being very busy. It’s all hands on deck.”

And, while some years guests ask for something new and different to spice things up when it comes to holiday parties, this year it’s all about returning to tradition.

“It seems like everyone’s looking to get back to comfort,” said Kehr. “This year, they want normal, comforting.”

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