For the 18-strong The Alchemist group of bar-restaurants, Christmas is a year-long activity. “We review in January, feedback on dishes and what kind of enquiries site business development managers were dealing with,” says MD Simon Potts. “Menus were done by May, then we produced the marketing collateral so we can turn it on in September, when one in five Christmas bookings are made.”
December revenues equate to 10% of The Alchemist’s annual turnover. For some restaurants that figure can hit 30%. “Instead of panicking in August, it’s a process. All the energy is with the sales teams now, but we produce year-on-year accounts weekly and the board look at that. We give it a lot of attention,” says Potts.
The pressure is less intense for smaller independents. There is more flex. But, as Jonny Heyes, owner of Manchester bar-diner Common has realised in recent years, chefs need to start planning Christmas in June. “We don’t invite in office managers in spring for a showcase, we’re not in that territory, but we are looking at smaller businesses, which maybe aren’t catered to as well by bigger operators,” he says.
Dealing with changing times
After 10 years of economic sluggishness and now Brexit uncertainty (getting in early to fix Christmas prices with suppliers has been key for large operators this year), Christmas is not the Bacchanalian orgy of corporate spending it was. Group bookings are smaller, often with departments rather than whole companies celebrating, and food budgets are usually tightly capped. But it is still a time when tables – friends, family or colleagues – spend more. “People treat themselves with things they’d normally say no to, pre-dinner drinks, brandy with coffee, pudding,” says Hawksmoor co-owner Will Beckett.
How thematically all-in you need to go to take advantage of this Christmas uplift is a moot point. It is a question of customer demand, but also a restaurant’s overall aesthetic. Some restaurants, such as Sheffield’s Jöro, refuse to compromise a high-end offer for this short-term gain, and decline seasonal party bookings. “We’re not being Grinches,” says chef-owner Luke French. “It’s just not what we do. The biggest table we can do is eight and because Jöro is built out of eight-footwide shipping containers, once you’ve got eight at a table, we can barely get round to serve them. It doesn’t make sense for us.”
While its starters include a chorizo and chickpea stew and a beetroot and halloumi salad, Potts is acutely aware that The Alchemist (its set menu is £30; à la carte is also available) is a high-volume mainstream operation. “The Christmas menu will always include turkey and we try not to get too clever.” You must remember that in most office party bookings there will be people, says Potts, who dine out very rarely, “and find that experience a bit unusual”.
Keeping it simple
Both The Alchemist and the hipper Common’s set menus include turkey and steak as two of three mains options. A smoked salmon taco with pickled beetroot and horseradish nods to the modish nature of Common’s normal menu, but says Heyes: “Christmas dinner is like a roast or full English. People have a preconception of what that is and the benefits of straying too far from that are limited. Office groups tend to be really mixed. I don’t think it’s necessarily a time when people want to experiment.”
Beef is another popular Christmas ingredient and is arguably more flexible than turkey, with a wide variety of different cuts on offer to suit multiple cooking methods and budgets. “When cooking for large numbers with high expectations on special occasions, such as Christmas, the very best cuts, such as fore-rib, which has good fat marbling and a deep flavour, are certain crowd pleasers,” says Bord Bia meat trade marketing specialist Emmet Doyle.
“Conversely, leaner cuts, such as topside, silverside and top rump, are also a popular choice as they allow for easier carving and portioning, which can be helpful during a busy kitchen service, while not compromising on quality. As provenance and narrative become increasingly important levers driving consumer decisions, it’s important chefs educate consumers about where the meat on their plate is from. Highlighting the origin of the beef is a great way of doing this. For example, Ireland is renowned for its high-quality, grass-fed cattle and rich farming heritage.”
For venues with a cheffy reputation to uphold, the challenge is to thread populist menus with foodie twists. The Christmas set menu at Sheffield’s Ambulo (£40pp, with welcome fizz), includes chicken livers on brioche with dukkah, fig jam and pickled mustard seeds; and sea trout with leeks, camomile butter sauce and roe.
“There can be snobbishness around Christmas, which is daft. It’s a celebratory time of year for people who work hard all year, and we need bums on seats. If they want traditional classics, so be it. You can still put your stamp on it,” says co-owner James O’Hara.
At The Creameries in suburban Manchester, Mary-Ellen McTague agrees. She cooks with wild meat, which means no turkey, but she finds guests embrace that. “I love winter food: game, goose, making Christmas puddings and nice homemade mincemeat with venison. I like the Christmas faff and fuss.”
Hawksmoor’s approach is more open ended. Its restaurants are decorated “a bit”, they serve pigs-in-blankets, sprouts with chestnuts, a Christmas cocktail, mince pies as a Shelter fundraiser and, at select locations, a festive burger. But no turkey, says Beckett. “I’m not sure people want to eat the same Christmas meal again and again. At Hawksmoor, you can have little touches of Christmas or a really nice meal without it being shoved in your face.”
The Hawksmoors are “rammed” in December because they are naturally celebratory restaurants, believes Beckett (“It’s relaxed, you can get blind drunk and have a loud laugh”), not because they are festooned, literally or metaphorically, with Christmas baubles.
Rather than crowbar Christmas foods into their menu, for some restaurants it makes more sense to simply do what they do well. “Turkey curry and stuffing bhajis? Crackers on the table? In the end, we decided to just do our South Indian thing but adding specials like Keralan duck stew and lamb shank, which appeal to diners looking for a festive treat and which don’t need to be priced outside our customer’s comfort zone,” says Euan Sey, owner of Brighton’s Curry Leaf Café venues. “We’re up for a bit of tasteful tinsel but we leave the turkey and crackers to others.”
While some see value in creating imaginative hybrid menus (London’s Cajun pub, Plaquemine Lock, will this year serve turkey and shrimp gumbo, candied yams, pecan pie with Christmas pudding ice cream) others, like the northern Porta tapas restaurants, prefer to stick to their standard menu and – while swerving the ‘work’s do’ market, specifically – accentuate the vibe of their venues during party season. “We work the idea it’s a fun place – no reservations, no turkey, no Christmas hats, but a good place to combine dinner with an informal, maybe boozy night,” says co-owner Ben Wright.
That chimes with, arguably, the most profound recent change in the Christmas market. The sit-down meal is still popular but most city centre venues, and particularly those with large bar spaces, now also offer standing canape, buffet and bowl food packages. “People are looking for more fluid, social experiences,” says Potts.
Seafood supplier Royal Greenland says that fish and shellfish are good options for upmarket Christmas buffets, especially when seafood is displayed whole. “Snow crab legs and claws look amazing, as do Canadian lobsters. ‘We eat with our eyes first’ is a very valid saying,” says senior chef and new product developer Jan Zoutenbier.
Over at Common, Heyes will be busy splitting up spaces to accommodate such groups. “We offer sit-down but the majority of bookings are buffets. It’s more cost effective for companies [buffet £19, sit-down set menu £27]. Also, it allows you to actually have a party, rather than a meal.”
Increasingly, restaurants are vying for Christmas trade with new wave experiential leisure activities (crazy golf, bowling, karaoke, darts), and have, therefore, become more flexible in accommodating standing groups; allowing large parties to take whole spaces; laying on DJs, etc. For smaller teams of co-workers, The Alchemist offers interactive cocktail classes. “It’s horribly Instagrammable but that’s what people want, a little social currency. People are searching ‘quirky’ Christmas party ideas on Google, so we’ve done some SEO work trying to direct people to our space,” says Potts.
Unsurprisingly, another significant change this Christmas is the focus on meat-free and vegan menu options. Even the shortest set menus –most offer three, maybe four choices at each course – come complete with interesting vegetarian dishes: a harissa-roasted squash flatbread (The Alchemist); salt-baked beetroot tart with goats’ curd and pear-endive salad (Ambulo); lentil, pesto and butternut squash wellington followed by winter fruit crumble with soy custard (Common).
The Vegetarian Society estimates that the number of people in the UK who maintain a vegetarian or vegan diet 100% of the time still holds at 2-3% of the population. However, the amount of noise around more sustainable eating choices will likely see far more than that go for the meat-free choice. The Vegetarian Society has created a wide range of contemporary Christmas recipes including terrine of chestnut and fig with beetroot layer; whole roasted cauliflower with broccoli and walnut stuffing and grilled brassica leaves; and paprika jackfruit with crushed winter vegetables, Brussels sprouts and vegetable crisps.
The higher than normal volumes required can make sourcing in a conscientious manner a headache. Responsibly produced farmed fish can be a good option, as supply and size tend to be more consistent. Co-founder of Fundamentally Sustainable Food Jane Dick recommends farmed Norwegian Atlantic halibut. “These come directly to us, so no wholesalers,” she says.
“Global Aquaculture Standards ensure not just environmental protection but everything from feed composition to how they are handled. And a 200m-deep icy cold Norwegian fjord is the perfect habitat. In Scandinavia, halibut are celebrated and often the first choice for celebrations. Our sterling white halibut is perfect for groups at Christmas.”
Accommodating low-carb, gluten-free and other dietary preferences is also essential, says Potts. “It’s so prevalent and expected, now. As ever, you’re trying to make [the customer experience] as frictionless as possible.”
Despite such evolutions, the mechanics of Christmas remain the same. It is a period which requires thorough meta-organisation and forward planning. Is all the kitchen equipment working properly? Does everyone know their rotas weeks out? Have restaurants got enough crockery, cutlery and glassware to cope with surges in demand? When its big Manchester and London sites are doing “canteen-style numbers” of 100-150 people at four sittings a day, the effort The Alchemist puts into drilling its kitchens will come into its own. “They’re set up to do big numbers,” says Potts, confidently.
There are tricks to maintaining composure and quality during this maelstrom: steering people to set menus (less easy now customers have so many options); serving sides family style so only one main component needs plating in the kitchen; or, perhaps, serving duck rather than turkey as Porta’s sister venue, Joseph Benjamin, does in Chester, are options. “Even cooked perfectly, turkey is not the moistest meat and you can’t cook it to order so you’re reheating slices, which get dryer and duller. We’ve found a middle ground: confit duck with traditional accompaniments. It’s a bit ‘restauranty’ but identifiable, Christmassy and practical,” says Wright.
The impact of such clever efficiency can last beyond December, counsels Beckett. “In the four weeks to Christmas, thousands of people go to Hawksmoor who haven’t been before. You absolutely want them to leave feeling, ‘that was great’. The best marketing you can do for January is to nail December.”