Here Comes the Holiday Party: Seven Dos and Don’ts for Rewarding Restaurant Staffers

It’s January, which means restaurant operators and managers have been juggling busy holiday crowds for breakfast, lunch and dinner while also planning the employee party that typically occurs this month. With restaurant employees putting so much care into every plate and table while their patrons leisurely embrace the holiday spirit, these parties are an opportunity to truly return that hospitality to those who make it so special for guests the rest of the year. 

The labor shortage makes throwing a memorable shin-dig more important than ever this season. A recent Toast survey found that one in three restaurants had a difficult time hiring in 2022, so restaurants need to bring their “A game” to show all employees appreciation for the fantastic effort they gave between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. 

Further, holiday parties are the perfect setting for a restaurant crew to celebrate with a great venue, fun activities, a hearty meal, and a toast (or two). In a recent conversation, Boloco CEO John Pepper told me: "When we skipped the holiday party one year because we didn't think it was worth the expense, nobody said a word until a team survey the following year revealed it to be a serious cultural misstep on our part. With the exception of 2020, we've never made that mistake again. Not everyone shows up, but for the majority who do, that's where our culture of trust, loyalty, and fun are built and solidified."

At the same time, planning these events takes time and creativity, and the end product—if organizers are not careful—isn’t always stellar. With that in mind, here are seven do’s and don’ts for restaurant operators to show how much they value their team. 

1. Do show gratitude in a personal way

Operators should try to personalize the evening for each employee. Make them feel special. According to the Auguste Escoffier School of Culinary Art, fast-casual eateries and fine-dining restaurants average between 10 and 40 employees. Such numbers are not too large to create a gratitude program where small but meaningful, personalized gifts, awards, and other distinctions are delivered to every team member. At least once during the evening, each team member should be called out by name, affording them the spotlight even if it’s just for a few moments. Personal recognition doesn’t require spending money—and it often pays big dividends.

2. Do budget for a ‘destination experience’

The venue should be one that employees would love to go to on their night off. The restaurant should be one that everyone on the team is excited to go to, whether that’s for the great food, cocktails, mocktails, or atmosphere. For the after party, pick a venue to be remembered, whether the desired effect is historical ambience at a speakeasy, live music or perhaps fun activities such as bowling or karaoke. The key is to budget for destination-based experiences that everyone will fondly recall. Boloco’s Pepper also noted, “In 25 years of holding team holiday parties we’ve found that letting the staff choose the right music for them makes the biggest difference.”

3. Don’t be a ‘jury of one’

So, how does one pick the right place or places? Take these decisions out of the back office by coming up with three or four strong options. Then, ask employees at the family meal or during breaktime to weigh in on where they’d prefer to go. Even if a few employees’ favorite spots don’t win out, it’s clear the group had input rather than a “jury of one” making the choice. This more inclusive method will set the right tone leading up to the soirée.  

4. Don’t assume about booze

To expand on an earlier point, make sure establishments have non-alcoholic beverage options beyond seltzer and non-alcoholic beer. People don’t drink for many reasons, including their religion, health, general mindset, and family. The liquor-less cocktails industry is booming, and more consumers—including restaurant employees—are joining the movement daily. Treat them and other non-imbibers with a bar that makes mouth-watering mocktails to show them they are valued as much as the colleague on his third Fernet. 

5. Do provide transportation

For those who imbibe as well as those who do not, offer to pick up their rideshare app or cab ride home. This courtesy will show all of them that restaurant management cares about their well-being. Not to mention save some folks money on ever-costly gasoline. Remember, holiday parties are their personal time, so making transportation convenient and gratis is a beyond-appropriate idea. 

6. Do send them home with something to take with them

When they are on their way out the door at the end of the night, give them a gift that’s consumable, humorous or otherwise useful. This could be a traditional swag/goodie bag or—to keep it affordable—an allotment of the restaurant chef’s best dessert item such as cookies or brownies. Consider a small gift card swap with another restaurant in the area so that employees from both establishments can enjoy a meal at another restaurant. The next day, they will wake up, see the parting gift and remember the experience favorably.  

7. Don’t announce at the last minute

Finally, every employee has a life outside the restaurant, including activities with loved ones, passions and hobbies that are on their schedule. Therefore, give them plenty of time to clear their calendar for the company party, which means announcing at least a few weeks ahead of time. Further, this announcement should already have most, if not all, of the enticing party elements such as the venue(s) and activities ready to be revealed to get them excited for the party well in advance. They’ve earned this night, and it’s a once-a-year chance for restaurant operators and managers to show them they are incredibly valued. So, make the most out of the opportunity and staff morale will be merry well into 2023.