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11 tips to keep staff happy over the holidays

Restaurant operators share their best practices for keeping spirits high during a busy month

As the holidays approach, a lot of your time may be focused on decking the halls and spreading holiday cheer to guests. But if you’re going to make it through this season, it’s just as important for some of that cheer to trickle down to staff members — whether it’s through holiday parties, special perks or flexible time off.

Here, operators share how they reward — and retain — staff during the hap-happiest time of the year.

1. Create schedules with family and friends in mind
“While I expect our employees to be available to work on holidays, I also try my best to schedule everyone so that they’re able to get some time to spend with family and friends,” says Sean Hale, GM of Barrel Republic, with three Southern California locations. “I also make sure to have myself working during these times. I feel as though it would hurt morale if I had everyone work while I take time off.”

“We try to be as sympathetic to our staff’s personal needs and wants around the holidays as possible,” says senior restaurant manager Mike Donaldson from Departure Restaurant + Lounge in Denver. “Through careful planning, we are able to achieve a happy balance for our staff which is ultimately our goal throughout the busy season. This, in turn, lowers the stress that the staff is feeling and helps the restaurant to stay a stress-free, relaxed environment.”

2. Rearrange retail and bulk up staff
“During the busy holiday season, we modify our schedules so that fewer staff members work doubles; we also make our in-times a bit earlier, to create a natural buffer for the chaos of the season and ease the transition between shifts,” says Michael McCaulley, co-owner and sommelier at Tria Cafe and Tria Taproom, with four locations in Philadelphia. “We bulk up on additional staff to be prepared, as well. We also moved our gift card sales from our cafes to online, which allows staff members to focus on our guests and be present with them, rather than adding a retail component to their already busy roles during service.”

3. Have fun with uniforms
“We try to keep it fun and lighthearted at the restaurants during the holidays. So, for instance, when we host our annual Ugly Sweater party, the employees are encouraged to join in,” says Laura Ambrose, co-owner of Woodstock’s Pizza, with several locations in California. “We also encourage them to wear festive attire throughout the holiday season.”

Jason Hotchkiss, executive chef at Encontro in San Diego, has also joined in on the ugly sweater trend. “We’ll be having an ugly sweater contest through the week leading up to Christmas.”

4. Throw a party
“We host a staff party every year right after the holidays on Super Bowl Sunday,” says Xan McLaughlin, co-owner of The Park Cafe and Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen in Charleston, S.C. “It gives them all something to look forward to and they definitely let loose with their fellow staffers.”

“We throw a simple staff holiday party where we go out and do a fun activity,” says David Choi, owner of Seoul Taco, with locations in Missouri and Illinois. “I let my management team plan the party with an allowed budget, and they seem to enjoy that they can take ownership of the planning processes. At the party, it gives me an open forum to reward and recognize hard-working staff and management in a setting that’s not a mandatory meeting.”

“We do a Secret Santa event that goes on for two weeks; participants are asked to give a gift of no more than $10 each week with a clue about them; then we have a party where everyone guesses who they think their Secret Santa is,” says Michael Kristofka, v.p. of marketing at Blue Plate Catering, Chicago.

5. Set a fun work goal
“We’ve discovered that creating a fun and engaging service or marketing challenge is a huge win for our managers during the holidays,” says Courtney Beach, director of Pita Pit’s corporate store division. “This year, we’re featuring a Catering Bingo contest, where various prizes will be given to operators who successfully market to certain businesses or sell particular catering items. The goal is to get multiple Bingos on a card, or even blackout the card entirely. It's a positive way for all of us to come together for some fun and positive competition.”

6. Simplify your winter menu
"Around the holidays, the cocktail menu should not be time consuming on the back end: cocktails, syrups and infusions that require a lot of kitchen prep are a drag during very busy shifts,” says Pete Vasconcellos, bar director at The Penrose in New York City. “We keep the winter menu simple and streamlined from a labor point of view, and save the more labor-intensive fun stuff for January to March, when business slows down and we need some pyrotechnics to entice people to leave the couch and trudge over to the bar.”

7. Invite staff to participate in the community
“We provide opportunities for our employees to volunteer at our corporate partners, the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver, and host a fun, annual off-site dinner for the children,” says Jennifer Ruppert, marketing director at ViewHouse Eatery, Bar & Rooftop in Denver. “Additionally, we participate in the Care 4 Colorado Toy Drive by giving away a free Peppermint Godiva Chocolate Martini to each guest who brings a toy or makes a monetary donation to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver; hosting a competition throughout the staff and rewarding the employees who get the most donations.”

8. Reward them for a great year
"We give out staff bonuses for everyone on staff, from dishwashers up to senior management,” says Ruairi Curtin, owner of The Penrose, New York City. “It's a great way to reward staff for their hard work at the end of a busy year, and it’s a nice financial boost to keep the spirits up as we approach the holidays."

“A huge motivation for our staff to work hard throughout the busy holiday season is ViewHouse's annual employee holiday party, where we give out $20,000 in holiday gifts,” says Ruppert. “It’s the perfect way to unwind and celebrate with our ViewHouse family.”

9. Help them blow off steam
We have various health and fitness opportunities to help relieve stress like our running club and soccer team,” says Kristofka. “We also offer free registration at various Chicago races like Chinatown 5k, Day of the Dead 5k and the Shamrock Shuffle. After the race is over, we have a celebration that's always filled with food and beverages.”

10. Consider closing for a day or two
“We close all of the restaurants the Monday after Thanksgiving to throw a big holiday party for the entire staff,” says James Horn, director of operations at Añejo in NYC. “While it's a sacrifice to close the restaurants for a whole day, it's more important that every employee has the opportunity to celebrate a great year together. It also puts them in a great mindset as the holiday season heads into full swing.”

"First and foremost, being closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas Day is an absolute must,” says Karalee Fallert, co-owner of The Park Cafe and Lee Lee’s Hot Kitchen in Charleston, S.C. “People need to be with their friends and families. We could make good money on those days, but it's worth more to us that our team gets the downtime to celebrate and rest.”

"We celebrate the holidays with our team members by offering flex days,” says Michael Mabry, c.o.o. of Mooyah Burgers, Fries & Shakes. “For instance, we closed the office the Wednesday before Thanksgiving and the Monday afterward, and we have additional flex days in December so that team members can recharge and spend time with their friends and families.”

“We believe that it’s important to close down on holidays, to allow our staff stress-free time to be with their families,” says Greg Dodge, owner of the Zavino Hospitality Group, with locations in Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia. “Our restaurants demand so much time from our staff throughout the year, so the least we can do is close on holidays, which are slower days anyway.”

11. Keep the lines of communication open
If scheduling, parties and ugly sweater contests all fail you, communicate with your staff regularly to ward off any impending meltdowns. “When December comes around it’s always a stressful time for the business and at home for our inner guests,” says Steve DiFillippo, owner of Davio’s Northern Italian Steakhouse in Boston. “We make sure we listen to their needs and react to them. That is why communication is so important.”

“I think recognition of hard work through the holidays is key,” adds Vasconcellos. “We do a weekly email shout out to individuals who go above and beyond, work extra-long shifts, pick up holiday coverage for other staff or just generally keep up a great attitude. I do my best to spread the appreciation around to the whole staff.”

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