One of my favorite holiday songs is Stevie Wonder’s “What Christmas Means to Me.” (In our hometown of Chicago, we certainly have “lots of snow and ice everywhere we go” at the moment.) And though Stevie Wonder sang about the more traditional markers of December—choirs singing carols, filling the tree with lights—one of the things that the Christmas season means to me is celebrating with family and friends at restaurants.
I’m not talking about big, boisterous holiday parties—the kind that some London restaurants have been urging consumers to book since July. I’m talking about the warm, small-scale gatherings that take place when siblings and cousins and kids come into town and everyone wants a bit of a break from cooking, shopping and other holiday goings-on. These aren’t the big moneymakers for operators that office gatherings are, but I’d venture that they’re just as important.
In my family, we’ve made a tradition of visiting certain restaurants around the holidays, because the experiences we’ve had there—the food, the atmosphere, the hospitality—never disappoint. There’s a Chinese restaurant in particular that we visit a few days before Christmas, once out-of-towners are home. It’s large; it’s noisy; and it’s nothing fancy, but the service is unfailingly friendly and the menu is pleasantly diverse—and so we keep going back. And as our family has expanded, we’ve brought new folks into our holiday dining-out traditions. Why is this important for restaurant operators? Because in sharing our enthusiasm for particular establishments, we’ve helped create new fans of the brands—I hear of cousins and spouses who now make a point to visit our favourite places several times a year or whenever they’re in town.
Our small group of diners doesn’t run up enormous liquor bills (though we’re more than happy to get into the holiday spirit). We’re not ordering off special prix-fixe holiday menus, and we don’t give operators a chance to show off their party-hosting prowess. But our small-scale holiday gatherings help establish and reinforce invaluable connections with a given restaurant brand. Yes, as consumers, we understand that it’s an especially hectic time for the kitchen and the front-of-house staff. Still, though, we look for warm smiles, and warm food—signals to us that we’re as welcomed and valued as the bigger parties being attended to in another room.
So, operators, as we head into two of the biggest and most important business weeks of the year, I humbly submit this: Don’t neglect the “everyday” diners you’re serving. The hospitality you show to all guests at this time of year means more than you know.