If, like me, you are one of life’s natural curmudgeons, you will have observed Halloween’s rise with a weary eye. Once a minor nonsense of interest only to children and Americans, it is now a full-on adult event. For retailers, it is the third biggest shopping occasion after Christmas and Easter, generating a staggering £450m – up from just £12m in 2001.
Halloween 2015 was my personal awakening. Sat in a bar in Manchester on a Saturday night, I watched dumbstruck as it filled with mummies, witches, several zombies and a doctor in blood-soaked scrubs (I presume he was in fancy dress and hadn’t just finished in A&E). It was, in every sense, horrifying.
But the hospitality industry cannot afford to look a gift horse in the mouth, no matter how infantile the nag. Halloween falls on Tuesday this year, offering a potential midweek windfall. You could even run a long Halloween weekend from Friday the 27th.
The dilemma, however, particularly for small independents that pride themselves on a quality product, is how to navigate Halloween in a dignified manner that does not erode their brand. Opportunistically, serving a normal menu with the word ‘Halloween’ at the top will not impress, nor will some half-hearted wordplay restyling standard dishes ‘monster mushrooms’ and ‘freaky furters’. Instead, if you intend to keep it classy, you have to genuinely commit and approach Halloween laterally and creatively.Here are 10 ideas:
■ Think frightening food. Not childish plates of spaghetti ‘worms’, but an upmarket, offal-y tasting menu of items adults recoil from: brains, tripe, tongue, trendy fish-head curries, insects.
■ Go for hipster horror. Showing cult slasher movies and booking a DJ to play obscure Italian horror film soundtracks could be more effective than thematically overhauling your menu.
■ Have a stake night. Borderline cheesy, but everyone loves steak and you could do something gothic and interesting (in advertising it, on the night), by serving rare, bloody steaks punctured by wooden stakes. Throw in a pumpkin starter, some slime (salsa verde, chimichurri), a suitably out-there dessert (Google Gelupo’s blood pudding gelato), and you have a menu that stops short of ludicrous.
■ Be competitive. Instead of creating a one-off spooky kids’ menu, flip it. See who can create the most ghoulish pizza face.
■ Get poseur with your pumpkins. Rather than cheap cobwebs, toy spiders and witches’ hats, decorate the room with huge candles and pumpkins. Using readily available templates, you can now create extraordinary pumpkin lanterns. Get the kitchen on it.
■ Serve chilling cocktails. Without descending into novelty (think: red wine, cherry juice, lychee eyeballs), there is plenty of effective Halloween work you can do in cocktails. With the sphere of corpse revivers, zombies and the Bloody Mary; the cocktail world has already done the work for you.
■ Embrace vile style. Asking staff to dress up is fraught (it should be a conversation, not an order), and leaving it to them could be a disaster. Remember: they should look like a team. Keep it simple (Victorian undertakers; Dracula, things that mainly involve wearing black), and supply key props, so it’s cohesive.
■ Follow the Mexican way. El Dia de Muertos – Mexico’s day of the dead – is a riot of colourful sugar skulls and traditional foods (tamales, sweet pan de muerto, candied pumpkin, etc). It is a rich source of inspiration if you want to give your Halloween a cooler feel.
■ Make deranged desserts. Commission hyper-realistic cake art (lifelike human organs, limbs, etc.), for a dramatic end to the service.
■ Give Halloween the heave-ho. Ignore it. Ban it. Make your anti-Halloween stance a selling-point. There must be a market for that. If nothing else, you will earn my undying respect.
Tony Naylor writes a regular monthly column for Restaurant magazine. To subscribe, click here