No one has to tell James Holmesthe importance of Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, or Easter.
At Olivia, Holmes’ upscale Austin, Texas eatery, those three holidays combined with Father’s Day and New Year’s Eve represent the restaurant’s five busiest days of the year.
“People want to do something special on these days, and we have to be ready to deliver,” Holmes says.
Holmes’ holiday experience is one matched by restaurateurs throughout the country. According to two decades of research from the National Restaurant Association (NRA), Mother’s Day remains the top holiday for dining out followed by Valentine’s Day, Father’s Day, New Year’s Eve, and Easter.
Still emerging from the economic downturn, these high-traffic dining days present restaurant operators compelling opportunities to seize new business and capture diners’ penchant for loosening their wallets on special occasions.
“These are the days when guests are being more indulgent and less cautious,” says Maeve Webster of Datassential, a Chicago-based firm that tracks foodservice trends.
With competition for the consumers’ attention only intensifying, more and more restaurants are looking to stand out from the crowd on these big-dollar days by delivering an experience that blends high-quality cuisine, services, entertainment, and special offers into one comprehensive, memorable package.
According to NRA data, an estimated 80 million American adults—more than one-quarter of the nation’s adults—enjoyed a restaurant meal last Mother’s Day. Dinner remains the most popular mealtime for Mother’s Day, with 55 percent of those dining out selecting an evening meal. Lunch (34 percent) and brunch (30 percent) followed as the next most popular options.
Interestingly, the NRA found that 23 percent of American consumers planned to enjoy more than one restaurant meal on Mother’s Day, a finding that further spotlights the day’s revenue potential.
“Mother’s Day is really an all-day event, which gives operators plenty of time to get people in the door and showcase everything they can do,” Webster says, adding that many operators are weaving specific elements throughout the various dayparts to deliver consistency and cost savings.
“This way you’re not pulling in a ton of new product, but keeping particular themes and ingredients going throughout the day,” she says.
To accommodate the rise in traffic on Mother’s Day, Holmes extends Olivia’s weekend brunch, typically 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., to 8:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. He also takes reservations and rents a tent to cover his patio.
“Since brunch is quicker and not coursed out like dinner, we can accommodate more people and turn tables quicker,” says Holmes, who also introduces higher-end proteins to his holiday brunches, such as lamb, and serves other special offerings, such as caviar and oysters, to create a distinctive event.
“We capitalize on people wanting to experience fine dining,” he adds.
To lure Mother’s Day traffic, many restaurants offer free or discounted items. Last year, for instance, even Hooter’s—rarely considered a potential Mother’s Day destination—offered moms a free meal of their choice up to $10. In previous years, the chain had offered 10 free wings to mothers.
Others look to differentiate themselves by introducing mom-friendly activities.
At Geja’s Café, a fondue concept in Chicago, each mom who visited on Mother’s Day 2013 received a complimentary five-minute massage while awaiting her meal. Meanwhile, Elway’s Downtown, a Ritz-Carlton–directed restaurant in Denver, hosted a bouquet-making station, which allowed families to create a customized flower bouquet for mom. The bouquet-making activity was built into the brunch price, as was a professionally photographed family portrait.
“With these experiences, families received something interactive and personal that made for a more memorable dining experience,” explains the Ritz-Carlton food and beverage director, Dewiet Miller.
In addition to the traffic and spending Mother’s Day generates, veteran restaurateur Barry O’Donovan calls Mother’s Day the most important day of the year for another reason: “Getting things right on Mother’s Day will generate business throughout the year because mom will be a decision maker when it comes to other special events for the family,” says O’Donovan, owner of the Kilkenny House Pub and Restaurant in Cranford, New Jersey. “Grabbing mom’s attention and confidence will pay off down the line.”
Nearly one-quarter of American adults flooded restaurants last Valentine’s Day, according to the NRA, with 42 percent of diners picking a “favorite” spot. Only 21 percent selected a restaurant because of its romantic atmosphere, while a slim 13 percent chose a restaurant based on special menus or promotions.
Technomic assistant editor Lauren Hallow says the high percentage of diners picking a familiar restaurant for their Valentine’s Day festivities underscores the importance of reaching out to regular customers through in-store marketing collateral and social media well in advance of the holiday.
“Let your regulars know what you’re doing,” Hallow urges.
Valentine’s Day brings numerous pressing challenges, namely the intense demand for evening dining and accommodating the influx of two-person parties in settings dominated by four-person—or larger—tabletops. For many, the solution is to stretch the Valentine’s Day spirit across various days.
For instance, Kilkenny House only seats 100, so O’Donovan promotes Valentine’s Day offerings over an entire weekend. This, he says, allows him to increase volume, but also minimizes the concentrated dinner rush that is commonplace on February 14.
“A lot of people don’t want to be pigeon-holed to this specific day anyway, so here’s a way we can address that, too,” O’Donovan says.
Elway’s in Denver, meanwhile, leverages its hotel-based location to provide a weekend package that includes dinner and an overnight stay, thereby nudging guests toward additional days.
Many operators are also thinking more broadly about Valentine’s Day, turning a commercialized day into something more eye-catching and memorable.
Last year, for example, Waffle House hosted candlelit dinners for two at nearly 150 locations across 18 states, marking the sixth consecutive year the family-dining chain has rolled out the newsworthy promotion.
And with the heart-shaped dish becoming a cliché offering, Chicago-based Frontier pushed in a different direction last year by offering a Valentine’s Day dinner of animal hearts, including cured beef heart and stuffed lamb heart.
From the sports bar to the casual-family eatery, Webster says any restaurant can accommodate Valentine’s Day in unique, clever ways, perhaps even touting breakfast or lunch options for those who want to avoid the dinner rush.
“There are plenty of couples who don’t want the traditional financial blowout and are up for something more unique, so break out of the mold,” Webster encourages.
Often overlooked and lacking the traditional formula so ingrained in days like Valentine’s Day and Easter, Father’s Day remains somewhat of a mystery to restaurateurs.
“It doesn’t seem anybody fully capitalizes on this holiday,” Webster says.
Despite the mystery, the numbers show an appetite for restaurant meals on Dad’s Day. Last year, the NRA projected that more than 50 million Americans would dine at a restaurant on Father’s Day. At 67 percent, dinner was by far the most popular mealtime, far outdistancing lunch (24 percent) and breakfast (11 percent).
With the positioning of Father’s Day amid the summer grilling season, many choose to stay home and grill out. However, Elway’s found a way to spark revenue and accommodate that audience by offering a make-your-own-steak package for dad, allowing patrons to select a cut of steak and seasonings for in-store pick up but at-home grilling.
“This gives people that opportunity to be at home if that’s what they want,” Miller says.
When consumers do elect to dine out for Father’s Day, 60 percent of consumers defer to dad’s favorite location regardless of any food and drink specials restaurants might offer—an important footnote in marketing decisions for this holiday. Even so, Hallow says Father’s Day lends itself to crafty promotions tied to masculine items, such as beer, brats, and brandy. She points to the flights of scotch Father’s Day offering at Ruth’s Chris Steak House as one example.
Another particularly noteworthy Father’s Day statistic: A 2013 Technomic survey found that 56 percent of Hispanic families planned to celebrate Father’s Day at a restaurant, a substantially higher figure than any other ethnic group. Hallow says restaurants might play to this demographic with traditional Hispanic food and drink, or incorporate Hispanic flavors with items such as a chipotle steak or a pineapple-and-pork dish.
For many, New Year’s Eve has become the holiday to loathe, a day overrun by high prices and low value. Though people have an inclination to celebrate, Webster says, many are hungry for options beyond the traditional.
“Help people celebrate the holiday in a way that doesn’t force them into a situation they dread,” Webster says.
Prior to the calendar’s turn from 2011 to 2012, the NRA surveyed more than 1,000 adults about their holiday plans. On New Year’s Eve, 20 percent of respondents said they planned to visit a bar or restaurant, while 22 percent planned to order restaurant takeout or delivery before the clock struck midnight—a notable data point for restaurants looking to capitalize on the year’s closing night.
“I can see the delivery and takeout numbers growing as people look to avoid the crowds, so that can be a real opening in the market for restaurants to address,” Webster says.
Restaurants are also exploring ways to deliver earlier New Year’s–themed celebrations, which answers guests’ desires for more subdued options while simultaneously placing less stress on the restaurant operation.
As O’Donovan prepped for New Year’s Eve 2013, he drafted plans for an Irish New Year’s Eve at Kilkenny’s—an event that would allow guests to celebrate the year’s turn at 7 p.m. alongside those on the Emerald Isle. O’Donovan, whose restaurant business is typically slow on New Year’s Eve, viewed the promotion as a way to generate early traffic from his locals before they headed to late-night house parties.
A growing number of restaurants, meanwhile, are playing off New Year resolutions to attract visits in and around New Year’s Eve. Last year, for instance, Chili’s Grill & Bar rang in 2013 by adding dishes to its Lighter Choices menu and promoted the offerings with the tagline, “Eat Lighter This Year.”
Interestingly, Chili’s casual-dining competitor T.G.I. Friday’s embraced a contrary approach. The Texas-based chain launched its “Better Not, Why Not” campaign, which featured ads encouraging patrons to let loose and boasted that Friday’s was “a ‘why not’ place in a ‘better not’ world.”
“Even though there are patrons who ring in the New Year with health-minded aspirations, T.G.I. Friday’s recognized there are also plenty of diners who may be less disciplined and want to indulge,” Hallow says.
Of the five most-popular holidays, Easter is the lone religious holiday, a reality that can make some operators skittish in an increasingly PC nation. The proper marketplace positioning, however, can churn out results—particularly since an estimated 33 million Americans celebrated Easter by dining out in 2013, according to NRA data.
While many would consider brunch the dominant Easter mealtime, the NRA found that lunch (46 percent) and dinner (44 percent) actually registered as the more-popular restaurant options. Only 29 percent of consumers planned to partake in brunch festivities last Easter, while 21 percent favored an Easter morning breakfast. Like Mother’s Day, a solid number of consumers (20 percent) planned to enjoy more than one restaurant meal on Easter Sunday.
“Easter brings a somewhat surprising amount of opportunity across all the dayparts,” Webster says. “It’s not just the after-church crowd.”
With Easter being the most family-centric holiday among the top five, many operators are providing interactive, Easter-related activities for kids, such as egg painting, egg hunting, and build-your-own-sundae bars.
“These are efforts to keep all members of the family engaged,” Hallow says, adding that restaurants should not overlook couples and empty nesters, perhaps marketing meal-for-two options.
When it comes to the plate, the NRA found more than half of consumers (51 percent) seek out buffets, while 39 percent enjoy ham, 37 percent look for pastries, and 27 percent want eggs.
“To a large degree, Easter remains a rather traditional holiday when it comes to the meal,” Webster acknowledges.