How to keep employees happy during the holidays

Lessening holiday stress
holiday calendar

There’s no denying that the holidays are a stressful time for folks in the restaurant industry. Large parties fill the reservation book, catering orders are up and, even for operations where the holidays aren’t the busiest season, staffing when half of the servers want time off can wreak havoc.

“During the last quarter, my stress level—as well as any owner-operator—is up 40 if not 50 percent,” says Amanda Niel, co-owner of Easy Bistro & Bar in Chattanooga, Tenn. Thoughtful planning and policies can help ease stress levels for both restaurateurs and staff (and “a good drink never hurts,” said one operator, voicing a sentiment shared by many). We asked Niel and others to share how they manage schedules and sentiment amid the holiday crunch.


Niel keeps a calendar, where staffers can see who has put in for time off. About three weeks before the holidays, she sends an email inviting requests (generally first come, first served, but tenure also is a factor) and letting staff know which days already are blocked off. She sends another email when she can no longer accept any more requests.

That openness also helps Braden Wages, chef-owner of Malai Kitchen in Dallas. “Everyone wants time off around the holidays; it’s impossible to make everyone happy,” he says. Instead of a free-for-all, Wages has staffers prioritize Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s. “People can’t be too upset as long as they get the one that means the most to them,” he says.

Work-life balance

“We try to always schedule everybody two days off in a row,” says Niel. Her reason: A person’s body gets amped up from all of the productivity of a busy night at a restaurant, and it takes a day to calm down off of the high. “Then the second day is when you do all of the personal errands you need to do,” she adds.

Tulsa, Okla.-based Billy Sims Barbecue counts equal time at home and at work among its core values—and makes sure to communicate this, even when demand is up around the holidays, says Ryan Gray, director of operations. Normally, the chain tries to maintain a 45-hour work week for managers. But when slammed by the higher-than-normal catering demand during the holidays, corporate trainers are made available to step in and help with managerial tasks.

Bareburger has to lean on its managers more during the holidays to help out on the floor, fill swing shifts or cover for a few hours here and there, says Euripides Pelekanos, CEO of the Long Island City, N.Y.-based chain. But because many of its franchisees operate multiple units, they’re able to spread the work around. “It’s easier to share people and fill gaps,” he says.


Bonuses are the norm around the holidays, but other perks boost morale, too. Super Bowl Sunday always has been slow for Easy Bistro, so Niel closes for an annual staff party. “We try to use the holidays as momentum and then celebrate in February.”

Malai Kitchen also hosts a post-holiday party, inviting workers and their families. “It’s a reward at the end of the stress. One last hoorah to say thanks,” says Wages. It’s a thank you for families for being flexible, adds his co-owner and wife, Yasmin.


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