Everyone knows that staying on top during the festive season means planning ahead, from back to front of house. What’s the best approach to menu planning and staffing, and can you hit two birds with one stone? Madeline Woolway found out.

When planning to operate on Christmas Day, whether it’s for lunch, dinner or both, there are back of house and front of house concerns to take into consideration, and it’s important to exercise a holistic approach.

O Bar and Dining in Sydney’s CBD has offered Christmas lunch and dinner for two years and planning for the third has been well underway for months.

“The first year wasn’t too bad; we were busy but not as manic as last year. This year, bookings are coming through already and we’ve been planning for three months [as of October],” said Darren Templeman, head chef at O Bar and Dining. “We always book out about a week before Christmas, there’s generally a late flurry and there’s higher demand for lunch than dinner.

“When I had Atelier [in Glebe] we started doing Christmas day lunches. There wasn’t as much demand in the suburbs. People seem to either stay home or go out to the waterside or city. We’d fill up, it just wasn’t high demand.”

Without bookings it’s impossible to adequately plan and execute a successful Christmas day. Knowing how many covers will be put through helps with both menu development and staff rosters.

“When you’re going to be doing 350 plus covers over lunch time and then maybe another 150 for dinner, bookings are totally essential,” said Templeman.

While most will agree that bookings are a must, there is more than one way to organise them.

At O Bar and Dining guests can book for any time over lunch and dinner, while at the Tweed Heads Bowls Club (THBC), which is also approaching its third year trading on Christmas day, there are two lunch sittings.

“We have sittings at 12 and one o’clock because we’re on the border [of Queensland and NSW], so there’s daylight savings,” said executive chef, Brad Whittaker. “Either way, we do bookings only and it fills up really quickly. It means we can plan well in advance and don’t have any difficulties on Christmas day.”

At Atrium, in Crown Perth, bookings are also required, but are offered over breakfast, lunch and dinner times, and also book out well in advance.

“In total, we generally serve almost 2,000 diners on Christmas day across the sittings,” said Chris Harris, Crown Perth’s general manager food and beverage.

Menu planning

Although venues need to provide restaurant quality meals that can’t be replicated at home, Christmas menus aren’t about experimenting or breaking boundaries, even at a fine dining establishment like O Bar and Dining.

“It’s got to be more family orientated, and pleasing across the board: something for mum, something for dad, for nana, for granddad, and for the kids,” Templeman said.

“It’s a different crowd, you have to be more conservative. Because we’ll do about 250 plus people in just an hour and a half slot at lunch time, it has to be quite functional, like larger roasts. You have to find dishes that work in your favour, without leaving the diner feeling like they’ve been jibbed; we do a large Turkey Ballotine for example. It’s not about being avant-garde, but people are still spending a lot of money, so you have to keep the quality high.

“We play around with desserts though. We have a Christmas pudding ice cream instead of a standard pudding. Basically we keep the festive English flavours but lighten it up – given it’s quite possibly going to be 35-40 degrees – and add a bit more whimsy as well.”

“We keep it traditional,” said THBC’s Whittaker. “In the bistro we have ham, turkey, chicken and seafood. We’ll do something just a little bit different, like roast the chicken with pesto. In the Blue Room restaurant it’s a little more upmarket, so we’ll use lamb rack for the roast.

“We serve about 2,500 people through Christmas events and we do about 2,500 servings of ham, turkey, and Christmas pudding. You try to be a bit more creative, but our market is still looking for a traditional meal, just restaurant quality.”

At Atrium, where the focus is also on providing a meal that can cater to range of needs, from fussy eaters to fine diners, the buffet style service makes it easy to ensure everyone is included, regardless of dietary requirements. Here, variety is key, but not at the expense of tradition.

“When we think Christmas, we think seafood. That’s why we serve lots of oysters, prawns, clams, mussels, crab, squid, salmon and so on. It’s also about tradition, with meats like honey glazed ham and roast turkey breast,” said Harris.

“In December alone we serve 2,000 kilograms of roast turkey, 1,200 kilograms of ham and about 8,000 plum puddings, these would have to be our most popular dishes, along with more than 1,600 kilograms of prawns and almost 48,000 oysters.”

The obsession with seafood spans from coast to coast.

“Seafood entrees are imperative. Everyone loves to have prawns and smoked salmon. You also need some vegetarian options in there, but seafood for the entre and meat for the main course – whether it’s turkey, pork or chicken – seems to be everyone’s perception of the Christmas lunch meal,” said Templeman.

At THBC Whittaker also makes a point of replicating the mood.

“In the Blue Room we’ve done the main course like a share plate. There are three different proteins and the accompaniments on a platter. Each table gets a platter and then everyone can help themselves. It creates that family atmosphere; you know ‘can you pass the plate down?’” he said.

Staff planning

“Staffing at Christmas is really interesting. We ask for volunteers, then we do first in best dressed and we rotate,” said Whittaker.

“We roster and prepare well in advance. That’s why we do the buffet in the brasserie. When you’re serving 300 people you need to make your menu easier to serve. In the kitchen we do our preparation before Christmas day. Our pastry chefs have the desserts done the day before, so they don’t come in. We probably end up with about two thirds of our normal team.

“In the end no one really wants to work on Christmas day, even with the penalty rates. So for the staff that are working, we try to make it a really fun day. The managers bring in gifts. We want it to feel festive for the guests, but also for the team.”

Templeman follows the same rules at O Bar and Dining.

“I always say ‘let me know as soon as you have plans’. I can’t promise them anything, but I try my hardest. People who had it off last year know they will be on this year. And I try to balance it out too. So they either work a lunch or a dinner, not the whole day,” Templeman said.

“It’s a nice atmosphere. Once the lunch time crowd has cleared out, we sit down and have our staff lunch as a family. We pull crackers, have our turkey and a little glass of wine, then get ready for the dinner service. The staff all get Christmas presents. You have to make it a little bit a special, it’s not a normal day at work in the end.”

Trading profitably

When all is said and done, does it make good business sense to operate on Christmas day? In short, yes it’s profitable, but it’s more a case of Christmas spirit.

“If we can put through 500 covers a day, it’s well worth the while. Even after you cover all the wages, you still make a little money,” Templeman said. “But Michael [Moore, O Bar and Dining’s owner] doesn’t like to make a huge amount on Christmas Day. In the end it’s about everyone having a nice time.”

The same attitude applies at THBC. “It is profitable, but we look at it more as a service to our members. That’s why we go out of our way to make it a nice day,” said Whittaker.

“Last year we got about half a dozen single bookings. We could have easily just stuck them in a corner. Instead we asked if they would mind sitting with a family. Then we spoke to some of the tables and asked if they would mind someone sitting with them. Some said no, but the people that agreed had a great time. It’s good community spirit, even if it is a little more work for us.” 

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