Keeping the Boom without the Bust as the Holidays Take Over

by Katherine Sacks
Shannon Sturgis
December 2011

From the start of November straight on through January, crowds pack into restaurants as if it hasn’t been an option during the other nine months of the year. The National Restaurant Association estimated more than 32 millions Americans dined out during Thanksgiving, and December will usher in corporate parties, family celebrations, and reunions galore. But while the cash flow is great for the ledger book, keeping staff from developing that haggard look during the rush can be trying, especially when management often pulls the same tough double shifts, giving up their own family time to work the dining room floor.

While a packed reservation book is a sure-fire sign of success, great service is elemental in creating the kind of experience that guarantees return customers (and business into the New Year)—and a weary staff isn’t likely to perform at its best. To ease the pain of longer hours around the holidays, seasoned Boston restaurateurs Garrett Harker and Alexis Gelburd-Kimler (who have bitten off an even bigger bite and are in the midst of opening new restaurants during the holiday craze), offer a few words of wisdom.

1. Chat Away
Gelburd-Kimler, who recently left her general manager position at Aquitaine Boston to begin opening productions for her new 2012 restaurant West Bridge,  suggests approaching scheduling as an open conversation between staff and management. “I do sign-up sheets. Not everyone wants to work Christmas, but I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not in the restaurant,” she says. In order to build camaraderie, she explains, “have a discussion by being up front, not just saying, ‘Here’s a schedule.’”

2. Keep Your Friends Close
Harker, who helped develop many of Beantown’s current standbys with Chef Barbara Lynch before launching his own Eastern Standard Kitchen & Drinks, makes use of his locale and its scholarly population, especially during the busy season.It’s a challenge,” says Harker, who opened his newest spot, The Hawthorne, in November, “because you have that swell for three weeks prior to Christmas, and it’s all hands on deck.” Harker will fill holes in the holiday schedule with students on holiday break, as well as former employees. “We are happy to have the support.”

3. All About the Energy
After working a few days’ (or more like a few weeks’) worth of double shifts, keeping up a smile might fall to the bottom of a server or cook’s priority list (sleep and a good cocktail fix probably rank a bit higher). But keeping staff energy positive is just as important for success as a busy dining room, and in the end that good energy will make everyone’s job easier. Gelburd-Kimler suggests having a great conversation during family meal to help get the positive juices flowing, and to speak to staff with confidence and a fun tone. “If you look at me and my business partner, we are literally always jumping around,” she says. “It’s all about the energy you bring to the table.”

4. Sweeten the Pot
During crunch time, sometimes the only way to sweeten the deal is to literally sweeten it. Gelburd-Kimler makes sure to have something sweet on hand at all times during the holidays, supplying candy and treats whenever possible. And by offering staff treats, incentives, and rewards, managers can show hard work is both appreciated and rewarded. This can also offset some of the negativity that undoubtedly ensues from tough schedules. Although New Year’s Day is the only day Harker closes Eastern Standard, it isn’t a free-for-all. Instead the staff—from bartenders to busboys—comes in for a fresh start: deep-cleaning. As a reward, Harker and the other managers take their teams out for the night, splurging on everything from team bowling to dinner and drinks.

5. Make the Most of the New Year
And what about those first few weeks of January, when business may wane as diners take stock of their bank accounts after living lavishly through the holidays? Harker suggests using this time wisely. His team uses the lull to regroup during their annual all-staff meeting, where Harker interchanges development and performance-based sessions with fun speakers he knows the group will enjoy. And his staff really gets a chance to let loose during their holiday party—scheduled for the only sensible time in the restaurant business—in January, after the actual holidays are long over.