What restaurants need this holiday

Illustration: Shutterstock

reality-checkDear Santa,

How’s it going, Fat Man? Bet the reindeer are glad they no longer have to haul your ample personage around, now that you’re using third-party services to deliver gifts. 

Presents—actually, just mine—are why I’m reaching out. Did you get the list I entered into the new iClaus app? I need to change the specifications on one, Item #597, so I get the Cessna with red leather seats, not the beige.

While we’re on the topic of me, maybe we can talk about the gift that would make yours truly happiest of all—next to the Super Bowl skybox, of course. Could you bring restaurateurs back their minds?

It’s not as if I’m asking for a starting spot on the Yankees again. All you’d have to do is stamp three words onto the industry’s collective consciousness: Closed. On. Sundays.

You can skip any operator affiliated with Chick-fil-A. It’s been a mantra of that chain since the days you weighed 147 pounds. For 51 years, through changes profound and slight, the brand has never wavered from the policy except in a handful of instances where stores opened to crank out sandwiches for first responders and victims of catastrophes.

The closed-on-Sundays rule made no sense from the beginning; for decades, almost all Chick-fil-As were located inside shopping malls, which are normally packed that day.  When the chain started expanding into nontraditional locations such as college campuses and airports, where Sunday traffic has to be addressed, it refused to budge from the policy, no matter how much money or outright begging was served up. If the host site couldn’t accept the practice, Chick-fil-A wouldn’t sign the deal.

Founder Truett Cathy told me he instituted the policy because of religious reasons but soon discovered it had a significant business benefit. Because managers and employees could count on spending part of the weekend with their families, Chick-fil-A became a choice place to work.

Parents would steer their children toward a job there because they respected Cathy’s underlying convictions about Sundays, family and faith. What could be a more wholesome setting for a young person? Plus, Skip or Buffy would be available for Sunday dinner with the family.

The practice became as much of a signature for Chick-fil-A as waffle fries and chicken sandwiches, a true component of its DNA and a significant reason for the brand’s phenomenal success.

It’s that commitment to genetics you need to tie with a bow and slip down the chimney this year, Man in Red. Restaurateurs have been thrown atop a giant Tilt-A-Whirl by developments outside their four walls, and sensibilities are being tested. Technology is remaking the business. Ditto for the off-premise boom, and a labor situation that would make Superman cry if he canned the Clark Kent gig and opened a small cafe. 

The impulse to fundamentally change a concept, right down to its DNA, is hard to resist with those sorts of pressures and shiny new objects coming into play. The Red Robin chain is a case in point: “In our race to build to-go, we lost some focus on what made Red Robin Red Robin,” said CEO Denny Post.

Think about it:  Anyone on your naughty or nice list could order a meal from an unfamiliar place via a third-party app, have it delivered by someone unconnected to the restaurant, and get no sense of the source brand other than what’s hinted at by the food and packaging. The customer has no mental picture of what the concept is like.

That’s providing cover for operators to forget what their restaurants are all about. What’s the big deal about staying open on a Sunday to snag more business? Does it really matter?

Casual-dining chains proved how essentially it matters with their strong results for the third quarter. Big brand after big brand posted big gains in sales and traffic. The common feature: an observation from management that the operation had found its way back to its roots and what it stood for, whether that meant Riblets and $1 cocktails for Applebee’s, a move away from discounting for Outback Steakhouse, or a greater aura of value for Chili’s.

So, Santa, do all restaurateurs a favor and spread the message of not operating on Sundays, so to speak. And I’ll do better than the cookie I usually leave for you: How about a Chick-fil-A coupon? Christmas is on a Tuesday this year. 

Oh, and please pass along a message to every restaurateur on the nice list: Happy holidays and wishes for a lucrative new year from the naughty listees at Restaurant Business.

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