Industry Insider: Eight challenges restaurants face during the festive season

For some, Christmas is the opportunity to put their feet up with a good book and a plate of mince pies; for restaurants, however, the festive season presents the opposite experience. From managing the frenzy of bookings to cooking for hundreds of customers, surviving the ‘silly season’ is the ultimate test for restaurateurs. While the toughest challenge may be to cater to the influx of new diners, there are some other key challenges that restaurateurs will be facing during the frenetic festive season.

 1. Skillful staff

Not everyone can handle the frenzied energy of a fully booked restaurant on Christmas day. It’s for this reason that restaurateurs and managers have to make sure their staff are top notch. Ivan Simovski, manager of Mezepoli in Melrose Arch, doesn’t believe in hiring new staff for festive season. Rather, he focuses on extensive training throughout the year: “When you train every day, you’re ready for anything. It doesn’t make a difference if it’s festive season,” he says.

2. Odd customer requests

Dog with spoon

Stephanie was an expert at whipping up all the classic vegetarian dog meals: the dog-vegetarian lasagne, a great mushroom burger and naturally, vegetarian hot dogs.

Part of dealing with the sudden influx of customers is catering to their individual needs, including the strange ones. Anja Bosken, general manager of Bosman’s restaurant at the luxurious Grande Roche Hotel in Paarl, recalls a time when a family had a peculiar wish for Christmas lunch: “They requested that we cook for the dog as well. However, the dog had dietary requirements – it didn’t eat meat. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to assist, as we couldn’t cater to the dog.”

Charl Whitlock, the owner and general manager of De Kloof in Pretoria, reveals that some of their stranger requests come from guests attending corporate functions, as many of them are not accustomed to the restaurant’s fine dining style. He explains, “Typical function season requests range from well done carpaccio to ‘none of that weird stuff, just some creamed spinach’ to asking for extra spicy confit duck.”

3. Snags with suppliers

While some may have a problem with their suppliers closing over Christmas, Thierry Kabuya, the floor manager of Tasca de Belém in Cape Town, reveals that the challenge for him lies in suppliers running out of stock during the busy season.

Executive chef of Roots in the Cradle of Humankind, Adriaan Maree, has experienced similar problems with suppliers, but believes that such issues can be avoided with good planning: “Plan ahead with suppliers and always have a backup plan,” he advises, adding that it doesn’t hurt to have a good relationship with all of your suppliers.

4. Taking a break

Some establishments close during Christmas – a decision that will undoubtedly impact their revenue. Popular Italian restaurant Piccolo Italia in Pretoria always closes their doors from 22 December until the New Year, but co-owner Marietjie Gevere explains that they use their time wisely: “In the month leading up to Christmas we host big parties, including our very popular wine tasting event and office parties.”

5. Extra costs and services

Christmas events are an opportunity for restaurants to offer guests a festive experience, while enticing them to return in the New Year. As much as this pays off in the long run, the cost of services is often a challenge. “Besides the food, there’s the decorations, entertainment, kids’ activities… But, having said that, this contributes to a memorable experience for our guests,” says Anja Bosken from Bosman’s.

 6. Guests behaving badly

Charl Whitlock of De Kloof restaurant recalls having the occasional struggle with guests who had drunk too much, especially those wielding their company credit card: “For some people, the allure of free booze is too intoxicating to pass up, so they’ll insist on retaining their lunch table well into the evening despite another function arriving.”

7. Keeping staff happy

It’s tricky to pay a lot of attention to the wellbeing of staff when you have a fully booked restaurant to run. But Adriaan Maree of Roots restaurant believes that rewarding his staff for getting through the busy season is very important. “Just treat them well,” he says. “Working Christmas Eve is never nice, so we make sure to throw a decent Christmas party or a post-Christmas braai to say thank you.”

8. Balancing family time and work

Chefs, managers and restaurateurs very rarely get to spend Christmas day with their families. Anja Bosken and the staff at Bosman’s spend Christmas Eve with their loved ones, but Christmas Day and New Year’s Eve are devoted to their guests. “Families understand this after 25 years in the industry,” says Bosken. Thierry Kabuya of Tasca de Belém agrees it’s all part of the hospitality industry: “During the festive season, business and other people’s satisfaction are more important.”

What issues are you anticipating in your restaurant this season? Please share some of your challenges in the comments section below.

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