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SETTING THE HOLIDAY TABLE - A New Role for Restaurants

Good, bad or indifferent, the reality for the holidays is that they mark some of the busiest days of the year for restaurants. To our guests it may simply reflect their desire to truly relax and avoid the hustle of pulling together their largest family meal of the year, it might reflect (another whole topic) their lack of skill or desire to cook, or it might simply be a interest in the local restaurant’s interpretation of a special meal. To the restaurant employee it becomes “another day” in a busy operation and one more instance where they are unable to spend time with their family. On the business side, this might be one of the few opportunities over the next two months to generate some sales since aside from those areas that are a shopping destination, people are somewhat reluctant to spend their discretionary income on dining out when there is a struggle to find the money to buy gifts.

The question is “how do we make something very positive out of this restaurant reality”? Restaurants live in a different climate today. Our role has sped past simply providing nourishment. We are now in the business of providing appropriate nutrition, looking out for guest health, accommodation of special dietary needs, a source of entertainment, a center for food education, a resource for rewarding guests when others outside the restaurant ignore their contributions to society, a place where individuals celebrate each other, and now a substitute for the family table. This is not a burden, it is a much broader role that allows restaurants to play an integral part in people’s lives and in turn create the chance for us to survive and occasionally thrive as a business. It behooves us to add this reality to the training that we offer employees – they need to be on-board and we need to create a reward system that recognizes their efforts and sacrifices.

It is now the role of restaurants to re-create that family table that was depicted in the Norman Rockwell painting of this American tradition. This cannot be simply another dinner out – it must be special and memorable. It must be our pleasure to provide this for every guest who chooses to share his or her family time with us. This may be cliché and seemingly unrealistic, but this is our role. So – how can we create this experience and feeling in our restaurants and do so with a real sense of caring?

A quote by: Sarah Henry in her novel: “A Cold and Lonely Place” sums up the answer to this question: “Sometimes home is where you’re at, and family is who you’re with.” Restaurant people, as I have previously mentioned, are some of the most thoughtful and caring people that I know – yet when asked what distresses them most about working in the business, the answer is almost always universal. What upsets them most goes beyond the hard physical work, beyond the hours that they must commit, even beyond the 5% of guests served who can be rude; the primary stressor is an employees inability to spend quality time with his or her family – especially during the holidays. As restaurateurs and chefs we cannot ignore this fact. The employee may be physically present but their hearts are miles away with their spouse, children, parents, siblings and friends. This feeling cannot be put aside, it is there and will, without a doubt, impact on the employees’ ability to put on a smiling face and provide that exceptional guest experience. So how can we take advantage of the wisdom in Sarah Henry’s quote?

The answer should be a focus of those in our human resource worlds, a topic of discussion and planning in manager meetings, and a commitment on the part of owners. We are, after all, in the service business. James Heskett from the Harvard Business School once said: “if you are not serving the guest directly you must serve those you are”. To provide that level of guest experience that fulfills our new business reality we must insure that our employees feel good about their role and feel that their time away from family is taken into account.

There are some excellent examples of ways that restaurants can, and in many cases have built on the premise of Sarah Henry’s quote. Re-creating opportunities for the “restaurant family” to break bread and celebrate each other with great food, comfortable family meal environments with all the trimmings, toasts to this and their biological families can go a long way. This should be built into the holiday schedule and focused on with the same enthusiasm and attention to detail that we put into the guest experience. Employee turkey’s and other products as a bonus for their families to enjoy at home is a small price to pay with a big return. Thank you cards from owners and managers and even in-kind donations to local charities and people in need that carry the names of your staff members will help them to sense the spirit of the season. Scheduling staff for shorter shifts on holidays so that they can spend time with their families is a considerate approach, especially for those with young children. I am sure that with a concerted effort, each restaurant can come up with their own ideas on how to turn lemons into lemonade.

On the guest side, building that environment of celebration will become real when an appreciated staff exudes the warmth of the holidays and a sincere approach towards service. Give it some thought this holiday season as we set the table for guests in our busy restaurants.