According to Terry Larkin, group general manager for wholesaler JJ Food Service: “Christmas is no longer about meat and two veg – diners are fussier, choosier and more demanding than ever before.”
So what are the catering opportunities for operators over the Christmas period and what factors should they be considering to boost festive takings?
Whether it’s a conventional menu with a twist or a more comprehensive offering, many operators will be trying something different for Christmas this year. The traditional party menu is still the preferred option for many pubs.
However, other licensees will be thinking outside of the festive box to come up with something a bit different to inject some excitement into the typical Christmas offering.
At Michelin-starred pub, the Masons Arms in Knowstone, Devon, chef-owner Mark Dodson is keen to avoid forcing Christmas on customers too early, avoiding festive season party menus.
Instead, local partridge, venison and wild duck are all featured on a seasonal menu. “We offer seasonal dishes, but something that is not totally Christmassy. If you start serving turkey on 1 December, people are likely to be fed up with it by Christmas Day,” he says.
Appeal to smaller gatherings
North Yorkshire’s Ye Old Sun Inn, in Tadcaster, is also shying away from branding its pre-Christmas offering as a party menu this year.
Instead, chef-owner Ashley McCarthy is offering a three-course, set price Christmas Spiced menu alongside the pub’s December specials.
“We’re out in the sticks and can’t compete with the likes of Marriott [hotels], which can provide a whole evening’s entertainment with a disco and wine on the table,” explains McCarthy.
“People want to get as much for their money as they can and demand for a party menu here has dropped significantly over the years. We now provide something that appeals to smaller gatherings.”
Young’s pub, the Grange in Ealing, west London, hosts private functions on most nights during December.
The pub, which benefits from a number of different dining and function spaces, has a tried-and-tested year-round buffet menu, which it retains for Christmas bookings.
Licensee Barbara Smith says: “We use buffets for the many functions we host throughout the year and know them so well that we stick with the same formula over Christmas, when we’re busy, as we know we can offer a quality product.”
Buffets are an effective way to cater for large groups of people and can provide an opportunity for innovation.
Move over sausage rolls and chicken nuggets – Thai-infused noodle salad, miniature boozy fish and chips, and chorizo and Stilton bruschetta feature on the Grange’s buffet menu.
Horizons’ data (Horizons Menurama Winter 2015) shows that while traditional sandwiches on menus have declined by 20% since 2010, wraps and burritos are bucking the trend.
According to Paul Howard, sales director for Mission Foodservice, wraps are a great way of incorporating a number of different cuisines into party food menus.
“New regional dishes and flavours such as dukkah, laksa and nduja are all growing trends becoming popular within wraps, reflecting consumers’ changing tastes. All of these can easily be incorporated into any party food menu,” he says.
The Queens Arms in Corton Denham, Somerset, offers a comprehensive range of Christmas events and deals, including a number of dinner and accommodation packages.
Winter Warmer stay-and-eat deals are available during November, December (excluding 23 December to 2 January) and January, offering a two-night stay with a five-course taster menu and glass of bubbly on the first night.
There is also a Christmas three-night package spanning Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Boxing Day plus a Twixmas deal for dinner, bed and breakfast between Christmas and New Year.
The pub also has a nearby holiday let, offering a 10% discount on food and drink in the pub, which has proved extremely popular and attracts extra dining customers over the Christmas period.
At Ye Old Sun, a range of Christmas-themed events are on offer, including a gingerbread workshop. “This is one of the pub’s longest running and most popular events of the year,” says licensee McCarthy. “It started as a one-off and has now been running for nine years. We couldn’t take the workshop away now.”
The Masons Arms is offering a Christmas meats masterclass in early December. The event sold out so quickly that a second class has now been added.
Menu planning and promotion is a challenge at the best of times, but even more so when chefs are trying to finalise their festive offering.
The importance of the occasion, coupled with an often premium price tag, means customer expectations are never higher than they are at Christmas.
Break with tradition
One of the key questions when planning a festive menu is whether or not to stick with a traditional offering. While JD Wetherspoon has scrapped its Christmas dinner this year, opting instead for Christmas-based options such as a ‘gourmet’ burger with bacon, brie and cranberry and turkey pie with stuffing, other operators continue to preserve the customary turkey and figgy pudding.
The Masons Arms has seen a move away from more traditional Christmas choices, with venison and a chocolate dessert significantly more popular with diners than turkey and Christmas pud.
“We’ve offered venison for the past couple of years and it’s beaten turkey hands down, with two thirds of customers opting for it,” explains owner Dodson. “About 80% of customers also opt for a chocolate dessert over Christmas pudding on Christmas Day,” he adds.
Other pubs, however, are still getting a high demand for traditional menu options.
Last year, Cheshire’s Ring O’ Bells, in Chrisleton, offered six main courses on its Christmas Day menu, with 95 of the 100 covers served opting for turkey.
The Grange also finds that festive menu choices are still overwhelmingly traditional, with some tables continuing to place orders entirely consisting of turkey and Christmas pudding.
To counteract this, licensee Smith looks to combine a mix of tradition and innovation by serving traditional Christmas fare in innovative ways.
“I sit down with our head chef and look at current trends, even if our core offer stays the same. We serve parsnip purée with our roasts and we’re also experimenting with 10in-high Yorkshire puddings, which are a great talking point,” she says.
Gail Bridgeman, campaign and activation manager at Bidvest Foodservice, acknowledges the continuing importance of turkey as a Christmas menu item but advises licensees to offer diners some degree of choice.
Bridgeman explains: “Turkey is still the number one main course choice for Christmas dinners. Over the past few years however, duck, grouse, stuffed paupiettes and vegetarian options have been gaining popularity – particularly for those who are attending multiple celebrations.
Therefore, providing a quality, concise menu, which includes turkey and one or two speciality items is key.” Bidvest Foodservice’s fresh meat range, Farmstead, has added some speciality items to its collection in time for Christmas, including three-bird-roast paupiette and Gressingham duck with port and wild mushroom Charlotte.
JJ Food Service is also offering pub chefs a range of frozen fish, seafood and meat products to complement its Christmas offering. “For red meat lovers, we recommend roasting our Welsh lamb shoulder (bone in) as an alternative option to turkey,” says the company’s Larkin. Also recommended is the company’s lamb neck fillet for shish kebabs and pork belly (bone in), shredded, for sharing.
To cater for the growing number of vegetarians – often the ones who make the dining out decisions – Bidvest Foodservice has also launched some tasty options that won’t make them feel like an afterthought. These include green pesto roulade with a slow-roasted tomato sauce, smoked applewood & red onion soufflé in a filo pastry shell and a mushroom & red onion confit Charlotte.
However, it’s clear there’s little point devising an original Christmas food offering if nobody hears about it.
Attract the crowds
Using your own website and keeping active on social media are ways operators can get their venues noticed. It’s also important to use the right type of advertising and think about what sort of audience the menu is aimed at, with venues having to consider whether they’re wanting to attract mainly corporate or leisure customers.
Larger corporate clients tend to book spaces for their functions earlier, while leisure customers will look later and are often interested in booking weekend slots.
To encourage booking of earlier slots in December, the Ring O’ Bells is offering guests a 10% discount on food for bookings taking place during the first two weeks of December. Lots of late Christmas parties now take place in January. Consider doing some marketing around post-Christmas parties and have some special deals to entice customers who have missed out on earlier dates.