As the polite receptionist at Locanda Locatelli in the West End of London took my booking for lunch in late November, she sighed almost in time to the barrage of phones ringing in the background. Before taking my phone number she added, "I'll be glad when it's January."
These sentiments will be shared by receptionists in busy restaurants on both sides of the Atlantic as they try their best to cope with the frenzy of Christmas bookings. The common consensus is that restaurateurs will not feel at all like that, rather the opposite in fact, as this three week trading period represents their biggest source of revenue for the year.
But that would not be entirely correct. What concerns the most professional restaurateurs in the run up to Christmas is how they can maximise their revenue and profitability but at the same time hold on to the identity of what they have spent considerable time, passion and money in creating. For them, their restaurants are for life not just for Christmas.
This challenge manifests itself in several forms. It is not as easy as it may appear to rearrange rooms that have been designed principally for tables of two and four to accommodate the larger tables that office parties require. Juggling the reservation lists becomes an art form not just because the precise numbers of any office party invariably fluctuate right up to the last minute but also because any sensible restaurateur will always want to keep a certain number of tables available for their regular customers.
Then there is the change in the nature of the customers themselves, not just the significant difference between the rather quiet nature of their arrival and their noisy, often incoherent departure. All the restaurateurs I spoke to acknowledged that one of the hidden benefits of the Christmas trade is that it introduces their restaurant to new customers some of whom will choose to return and spend their own money. But these neophyte customers can present the staff with interesting challenges. As one restaurateur commented, "It is almost impossible to ensure that our staff are so well trained that they are as polite as they should be with customers who ask for a cappuccino without milk or a beef bourguignon with the beef well done."
To establish more specifically the impact of the coming month on restaurants around the UK I put the same set of questions to Tim Hart of Hart's in Nottingham; to John Hoskins whose Huntsbridge Group runs four restaurants around Cambridge; to Robyn Wilson of the Bleeding Heart in the City; and to Chris Bodker, whose Image Restaurants runs Circus and Avenue in the West End.
These restaurateurs reported an average increase in turnover of 25% for the period despite the fact that as a trading month December is so much shorter than any other as the pre-Christmas season will have effectively finished by December 20th/21st. This is accounted for not just by higher numbers but also by the restaurants' policy of fixed price menus.
A significant part of this increase is also, not surprisingly, higher wine sales although invariably it is higher volume at the expense of the higher value bottles sold during the rest of the year. Hoskins, who has made a great feature of his restaurants' wine lists, reported that when smaller groups celebrate they do buy quite a lot of his fine wines while Wilson was more specific. "Last year our average wine spend increased by £3.54. So, yes, the office party does drink down although on one occasion a party of 20 quaffed the house red while the boss and his wife sat at the head of the table and drank a first growth claret."
This does not, of course, translate into the same level of profitability. Extra costs range from the obvious such as decorations (less of an issue for more modern minimalist restaurants such as Bodker's) and extra wage costs both in the kitchen and the restaurant to cope with the numbers (somewhere in the region of 10% higher most reported), to the less obvious £2,000 it costs Wilson to run an additional cloakroom because, as she explained, 'everybody has a coat, umbrella and briefcase in December'. One of the most significant costs for Wilson and many others is the brochures necessary to entice Christmas bookings – at the Bleeding Heart the 5,000 brochures cost over £4,000 – but they do, she reported, have an immediate effect. Although most of these costs can be quantified, Hoskins summed up many restaurateurs' approach when he replied, "I am sure that the increase in trade does cover the costs although I haven't examined this scientifically. Like most restaurateurs we go on 'feel' rather than 'facts'. But we have to do it all – if we don't have a full restaurant at Christmas we won't have anything like a full one the rest of the year."
Christmas naturally has profound effects on the kitchen. This is a process which begins some months in advance as chefs plan and cost a series of menus but extends to a significantly different feel in the kitchen before every lunch and dinner service in the pre-Christmas period. Surprisingly, the kitchen is initially much calmer than usual because the lunchtime orders will not start coming until later as at this time of the year everyone will not only arrive later, with little intention of heading quite so quickly back to the office, and everyone will have a drink at the company's expense. It is the same in the evening with many arriving together, having changed to look their best.
This calm is vital for the kitchen to prepare the right number of dishes either for a set menu or the anticipated proportion of dishes from a menu with a limited choice. There then follows a frenzy unmatched even in the receptionists' offices which extends to the unusual sight of the chefs on the meat, fish and vegetable section going to help their colleagues in the pastry section as this is also a time of year when everyone will order dessert or cheese.
Overall timings change, too. The lunch service tends to start later and go on later while the evening bookings invariably tend to concentrate around early evening presenting specific physical challenges for the restaurant managers as they try to clear up from a hectic lunchtime that has extended into the very late afternoon and then prepare for a significant number of new customers due imminently.
There is also the boredom factor. All the restaurateurs responded in precisely the same vein when asked about how their Head Chefs feel about this period, explaining that while they enjoy the fact that they are extremely busy, something any good chef enjoys almost as much as eating, they are less than enthusiastic about the repetitive conditions of the Christmas period when menus have to be middle of the road to satisfy both the mail room boy and the CEO, and most importantly, Wilson explained, the PA who is booking the party.
And while there is less room for creativity and exploration, the higher average spends mean not just the potential of a higher food gross margin for the month but also the opportunity to rectify any earlier mistakes. "We have no daily specials during December so that our chef and his team can feed the 10,000 customers we serve in 17 days," Wilson commented, " but at the end our chef, Pascal Even, knows he will have made up for any overspend on foie gras and wild mushrooms during the year."
As restaurants are a good example of social change I also asked these experienced restaurateurs what differences they had seen over the past decade. All agreed that Christmas is calmer now. Wilson commented that the excess of the late 1980s when it seemed customers had to be poured out on to the pavement has happily gone while Bodker's sense is that the number of office parties has dropped. Hoskins commented that a local disco-dinner at a nearby Marriott every night of December means that his staff have less pressure but a better time or, as he succinctly put it, 'more pleasant business and less vomit in the lavatories.'
And if there is one point on which all restaurateurs will agree it is that customers behave very differently over Christmas. Of their many anecdotes, two stand out. The first concerns the MD of a small but high profile design company who had obviously been out to a very good lunch before sitting down with his staff for their office evening Christmas dinner. He fell asleep over the first course and woke up as the soup plates were being cleared to say, 'Oh, are we all finished then? Shall I organise taxis?'
The second concerns a couple who adjourned to the same lavatory for pre Christmas celebrations of a non-gastronomic sort. One of the party sat on the basin and braced his or her foot on the door handle, breaking the handle and blocking their exit. The staff finally became aware of their cries for help and had to break down the door to release them. The restaurateur was to suffer more than just the cost of a new door, however, as the victims wrote a letter of complaint about what they considered was the unacceptable delay (about an hour) before they were rescued!