Should You Increase or Decrease Restaurant Staffing During the Holidays?

Close up view of a holiday table setting with red and green decorations and placard showing a reserved space
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Depending on your restaurant, the holidays could either be one of the busiest or one of the slowest times of the year.  Some community restaurants can turn into holiday meeting places when families are in town – sentimentality encourages dining out.  Some successful eateries turn into ghost towns during the holiday season, despite regular numbers in the surrounding months.

This unpredictability can lead to heightened stress levels among restaurant owners, especially since each year can vary as well and it can be hard to prepare for such volatile conditions.  One of the hardest business decisions to make is how many people you should keep on staff during the holiday months, and whether you should boost or cut hours for your different workers to prepare for more or fewer customers.  Here are a few tips on determining whether it’s a smart idea to increase or decrease restaurant staffing during the holiday months.

1. Look at Past Years

While your numbers obviously shift from season to season, the most reliable predictor of how well your holidays will go for your restaurant business is how you fared in seasons past.  Especially if you have been open for several years and can look back to multiple historical data points, examining what your take was in the holiday months in years past can be a very powerful tool.  Of course, there is always unpredictability, but you can learn a lot about your regular customer’s holiday dining habits by looking back at your books.

If you haven’t kept diligent enough books over the years to be able to pinpoint your weekly income and expenses for past holiday months, you can always rely on your own memory and ask your staff for their general impressions of how busy the holidays have been in recent years.  But, these qualitative approaches are no substitute for hard data. It is worth it, for upcoming years, to start keeping detailed notes about how you fare during the holidays.

2. Start Conversations With Regular Customers

You probably have at least a few regulars at your restaurant that you are on a “small talk” basis with, and it’s always easy to talk to your diners about the holidays.  In the weeks leading up to the holiday season, make a note to yourself to start conversations with everyone you feel comfortable chatting with, and probe into their holiday dining intentions a bit.  Depending on your comfort level and the relationship that you have with each diner you chat with, there are a few ways to approach gathering information casually and effectively.

When talking to customers that you know well, feel free to be direct.  Ask them if you will be seeing them over the holidays, and if they would come in for their favorite food if you stayed open at full capacity.  For customers you don’t know as well, probe a bit more cautiously.  Ask your acquaintances if their family is coming into town, and if you will be seeing them over the holidays.  As long as you keep a casual tone and remain conversational, the subject of the holidays should make it easy enough for you to strike up a non-offensive line of questioning.

3. Ask Your Online Community

If you have worked to build up your online presence, now is a great time to exploit the connections you have made and leverage your online communities for direct feedbacks.  Send out a poll to your mailing list, and ask if your recipients are likely to eat out or visit your restaurant during the holiday season.  People love polls, and they are a fun and non-confrontational way to collect data that can help inform your staffing decisions.

You can use your social networks to gather data as well, though it’s a good idea to be a little less direct on your Facebook page and Twitter account than you would in a direct email.  You can ask directly, “Who will we see at our restaurant this holiday season?” or make a similar post. Just remember that social media users don’t take fondly to “spam,” and you shouldn’t post about the subject constantly or be too aggressive in data gathering.

Making the Final Call

After collecting data, looking over your books, and thinking over your staffing decisions, ultimately you will need to make a final call about whether or not you should increase or decrease staffing numbers for the major holidays and the entire holiday season.  Don’t stress too much about making the wrong call: schedules can always be changed to some extent, and you can always learn from your mistakes.  Entering the holiday season next year, start gathering data earlier, asking more questions earlier, and thinking about how to make the most of the holidays season for your business long before the season starts, and you can hope to make the right choice in years to come.

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Rafi Cohen, a graduate of Baruch College & Brooklyn native is the Co-Founder @ Orders2me, an online ordering platform that gives restaurant owners all the features they need to grow their business in the digital age.

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