Imagination and planning can make the difference between your festive season being a roaring success or a dismal failure. Fiona Pavely offers some tips for making your Christmas a cracker.
If you've left it until the twelfth day of Christmas, you've left it about five months too late - for planning your Christmas menu, that is! With the sun set firmly on summer, and autumn now officially upon us, it is time to start thinking about the pub trade's busiest period.
"Christmas can be a tremendous success or a miserable failure," according to Catherine Chauvet, food development and marketing manager of the 4,200-strong Punch Pubs chain. She added: "The very best Christmases are the ones planned well in advance. You can make a lot of money, and at very best it can springboard you into a successful New Year."
So, if planning is the key, one of the first places to start is the menu - get that right and, if you'll pardon the festive pun, food sales will snowball into increased revenue from wet sales and repeat business. "I'm always amazed that at the beginning of December some pubs still haven't thought about their menu, extra staff cover and arrangements for beer. Then there are banking arrangements, extra glasses and crockery - and, New Year," said Catherine.
What to put on your menu depends on the space you have available in your kitchen, according to John Laite, eastern area manager for Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries. His company is operating three Christmas menus this year for its pubs to account for kitchen size.
"Some pubs don't fare so well with food sales and others simply don't have the kitchen facilities to cope with the same menu variety as others, so some pubs take a more pared down offer," he explained.
Many publicans are devout believers that preparing fresh is the only way to ensure quality. However, during this frantic time, you may wish to consider the odd cheat or two. Emile Tissot's foodservice sales controller, Ian Anderson, advised: "Try versatile ingredients to be used for different menus. Where possible use frozen foods that will maintain longer shelf-life if you do over order and, as always, keep things simple."
After two years of trying more "innovative menus" Wolverhampton & Dudley Breweries has plumped for a traditional turkey menu this year after feedback from its house managers.
"I think it is what customers expect to see," John Laite said.
Likewise, seasoned licensee Patrick Moore is a firm believer that customers expect "good traditional fayre at Christmas". Having recently moved to the Froize pub in Chillesford, Suffolk, Patrick is staunch in his belief that pricing is critical for a Christmas menu.
"I believe that a Christmas lunch is essentially little more than a glorified Sunday roast, and as such, pricing should never go above £25," he said.
But even if you do decide to serve turkey and all the trimmings, there are still some considerations to bear in mind, according to Catherine Chauvet.
"Remember that a 12lb frozen turkey will take four days to defrost in a refrigerator and 1/3 of that will be bone weight. Ask your butcher to bone and roll the turkey for you, or just buy the crowns (without legs) for ease of carving," she said.
Talk to suppliers such as Larderfresh which is offering a raw boned and rolled fresh turkey this Christmas, filled with a pork, orange and sage stuffing.
However traditional turkey may be, alternatives are growing in popularity for Christmas.
"The typical turkey menu overload can be a real turn-off to some customers and it can also leave you with excess stock after the season is over. So look for some alternatives," advised Wilf Pearce, trading director of 3663.
One such alternative to turkey is goose or duck and 3663, for example, is offering Cherry Valley honey roast half duckling this season.
But while the carnivores are happily tucking into their protein - be that turkey, goose, duck or something more adventurous - the importance of a good vegetarian option cannot be underplayed.
Catherine Chauvet said that, with so many products available, publicans have no excuse as they are "spoilt for choice".
Her own personal favourite is a spinach and ricotta chestnut parcel from Jugg Foods. Meanwhile, suppliers such as Emile Tissot offer a range of vegetarian specials that are ideal, such as leek and mushroom crumble, tagliatelle nicoise and mushroom nut fettuccine.
"Christmas is a critical time to prove to your vegetarian market that you can create more than a nut roast," Emile Tissot's Ian Anderson said.
If you do opt for a more traditional main course, you may want to consider a lighter dessert to finish the meal. Catherine believes, however, that publicans can become overzealous with detail: "I always feel that mince pies are an unnecessary extra - who has room for a mince pie after three courses? Why not offer satsumas instead?"
Thinking in a similar vein, rather than doggedly serving mince pies after his Christmas dinner, Patrick Moore encourages customers to socialise by setting out a table with all the "bits and pieces that customers would pick at after a Christmas meal in their own home".
The table is laden with oranges, nuts, cheese, chocolates and even a bottle of port and sherry - all this is included in the price.
"Christmas should be a jolly time, and there is nothing worse than leaving a restaurant after Christmas lunch feeling that you've barely spoken to anybody," Patrick said.
And the formula seems to work, judging by his bursting restaurant and over 50 per cent of his customers returning year after year, despite the fact that Patrick does not really advertise his menu.
With the clock ticking, it's time to get out the diary and get planning to make this Yule a cracker!
Countdown to Christmas
- Organise any promotional activity, e.g. door drops, local newspaper adverts, point-of-sale, newsletters, external banners and chalkboards
- Communicate all menus to staff
- Be aware of what your competitors are offering. If they are advertising, pick up a flyer. This way you have the option of doing something that may appeal to a different market
- Promotions commence and bookings start
- Organise staff rotas, recruitment and training of new staff if necessary
- Order party packs, tree and decorations
- Staff selling tickets for the all-important Christmas draw
- Decorate premises
- Bring staff up to date on all menus, operational procedures, promotions etc
- Make sure you apply for a special Order of Exemption in plenty of time
- During this busy period, take the opportunity to offer your customers an enticement to bring them back in the New Year. A free bottle of wine with every table of four booked in January from Monday to Thursday is a good one. Alternatively, you could offer a free course. Get your offer printed in plenty of time, so that you can hand them out to your Christmas diners.
- One last thought. Don't forget February 14. Why not suggest diners book a table to celebrate at your pub?
Source: Catherine Chauvet, food development and marketing manager, The Punch Pub Company