December is the busiest month. Holiday celebrations and good cheer fill the restaurant. Office parties pack the private dining room and raucous 12-tops spend big at table 50. Record Monday nights don’t allow anyone to catch their breath as romantic couples linger and the classic last call refrain, “It’s hotel motel time, you don’t have to go home but you can’t stay here,” rings out. Then bam; it’s New Year’s Eve—the single best revenue night of the year—just when you think you have nothing left to give.
December is working doubles and seven days a week, hoping the employee holiday party will, for once, be held in January but knowing that June or July is more likely as in past years; trying to remember the last time you gave your loved one a real kiss rather than a “hi-bye I’m on my way back to work” kiss; praying that your maître d’ and everyone else keeps it together for just two more weeks. All the while, striving to make every guest happy, juggling last minute requests from regulars while somehow bringing a semblance of order to the chaos, and pushing as hard as you can to top last December’s records: covers, average check, revenue, and especially the final tally for New Year’s Eve.
This year is different. Too many of us are not working—stuck at home streaming “The Great British Bake Off”—or have left the industry for good. A huge spike in COVID-19 cases across the country is driving new restrictions that threaten those left standing and whatever hope they had for decent December numbers and a chance to buy their favorite regulars a round in person. The World Economic Forum estimates that the annual revenue for small businesses in the U.S. leisure and hospitality market is down nearly 50 percent in 2020—primarily restaurants and bars—and pegs the closure rate in this sector at 72 percent in New Orleans, 65 percent in San Francisco, and 55 percent in Washington, D.C. (Yo, Congress, where are you going to eat your porterhouses and drink your cult cabs in 2021?).
“We’ll get through December with holiday packages and delivery,” says Ryan Hardy, chef/owner of Delicious Hospitality Group. “But the key is getting to May if there isn’t any government stimulus passed to help restaurants. We’ve analyzed the weather data for New York City for the past two winters. Even with tents and propane heaters, our best guess—if we’re lucky—is that we’ll only lose 30 days of business to cold or snow.”
But surviving until May and beyond requires ingenuity, a willingness to change, and a much lower infection rate. “We prioritized the safety and mental health of our staff,” says Jimmy Yeager, owner of Jimmy’s, an Aspen, Colorado, institution for 24 years. “That meant opening for dinner only five nights a week, and no take out or delivery. Surprisingly, it has turned out to be a better business model for us. Less hours equal less stress, greater consistency, more controllable economics, and a happier staff.”
Back in New York City, Ryan Hardy pivoted to dinner packages that featured food and wine from all of his operations—frozen pizza from Pasquale Jones, pasta and sauces from Charlie Bird and affordable three-packs of wine from the restaurants’ extensive wine collections. “Our customers were and still are in the Hamptons,” says Hardy. “If we want to stay in business, we have to go to them.” His first attempt at self-delivery quickly turned comical as his team ended up completely lost thanks to their dependence on Google Maps and poor cell coverage on the eastern end of Long Island. “The next time,” says Ryan, “we sent them out with printed maps like the AAA ones my father used on family trips. Delivery is definitely here to stay for us, but it has to be just one of multiple revenue streams that ensure long-term profitability.”
“Fred and I have been cooking hyper–time sensitive food for 35 years,” says David McMillan co-chef/owner with Fred Morin of Joe Beef, Liverpool House, Vin Papillon, and McKiernan in Montreal, Canada. “Once the plate hits the pass, it has to go to the table right away. We had zero experience in take-out friendly food.” While it was initially a struggle to get their heads around take out, they quickly learned that people wanted Joe Beef food, not comfort food they could get elsewhere. “Once Fred started throwing foie gras and truffles on everything,” says David, “sales took off.”
With Montreal experiencing a second restaurant and bar shutdown that has been extended until at least January 11, 2021, David and Fred are offering holiday feast packages with wine pairings, Joe Beef classics like spaghetti homard and beef bourguignon royal au foie gras, and even an over-the-top TV dinner featuring blanquette de veau truffle at joebeefshop.com.
The Season of Giving
Indulgence and a generosity of spirit define the Joe Beef dining experience—packed tables and bar, everyone elbow-to-elbow, having a great time and sharing tips on what they’re eating and drinking while enjoying a great playlist and thoughtful service—something that we all will desperately miss until sometime later next year at the earliest.
Great restaurateurs and great restaurants are defined by this generosity of spirit. Sure, there are also some very successful, incredibly stingy pricks—real Scrooges—out there in the business as well, but they’re the exception. Most of us got in the business not to get rich but to make other people happy. That’s why restaurants and bars, December and New Year’s Eve, generosity and giving are so important, especially this year, even if we have to do things differently to keep people safe, happy, and inspired during the holiday season.
“It’s all about giving, it’s my greatest form of fulfillment and it’s what we all do in this business,” says Michelle Bernstein, chef and co-owner of Miami’s super hot Cafe La Trova. “During the four months the restaurant was closed, I cooked for Feeding America, Guitars Over Guns, and Miami-Dade Public Schools, and I’m still doing that even though we re-opened in mid-November.”
A Different Dinner Experience
A collaboration between Michelle, her husband, David Martinez, and Maestro Cantinero (head barman) Julio Cabrera, Cafe La Trova evokes memories of El Sacrificio, Julio’s father’s bar in Matanza, Cuba; features Michelle’s creative Latin menu that joyfully honors Cuba and her Argentine homeland; and is guaranteed to be lively and sexy, even with reduced seating, thanks to the ever-rotating house band and the bar back who rocks his horn every night from behind the bar. “It’s a wonderful escape the moment you step through the door,” says Michelle. “The design, the music and the food take you somewhere special.”
Mindful of her own and her staff’s safety, New Year’s Eve at Cafe La Trova this year will be smaller and more intimate, with Miami’s 50 percent occupancy restriction on indoor seating and their own policy of not booking any parties larger than ten. “But still,” says Michelle, “the music will be amazing, the dancing will be respectful, and we’ll offer prix fixe menus ranging in price from $85–175 per person that feature the Latin food everyone loves.”
David and Fred close all of their restaurants for three weeks over Christmas so that they and their staffs can be with family. Ryan Hardy, even prior to the recent imposition of another indoor dining shutdown in New York, had decided to close his restaurants for New Year’s Eve and instead focus on creating New Year’s Eve dinner delivery packages priced from $50 to $300 that will definitely include his signature Tuscan Fried Chicken (find the recipe here).
Christmas week is the busiest week of the year in a resort town like Aspen, perhaps even more so this year with so many urban refugees working virtually and plenty of fresh powder expected in late December. Jimmy Yeager hopes, if the current mandated 10 p.m. curfew is lifted later this month, to offer five staggered mini-seatings on New Year’s Eve priced $150–300 per person.
Bring the Celebration Home
Tiffanie Barriere, a beverage teacher and consultant known as The Drinking Coach, is staying at home. Eight years behind the stick at One Flew South—perhaps the world’s best airport bar, in Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport—have made her appreciate the importance of speed, plenty of ice, and a great playlist when it comes to creating the right festive atmosphere—whether in a busy bar or at home. “It’s all about who you’re with and what you do on New Year’s Eve,” says Tiffanie. “That sets the tone for the new year. And this year you better dress up. Put on cocktail attire and get fly. Enough with the house shoes, sweats, and fuzzy socks!”
The reality is that most of us will be at home, celebrating New Year’s Eve within our bubble, trying our best to be great hosts—if just over Zoom—right up until the moment the ball begins to drop in an eerily empty Times Square. Here’s how the pros like to celebrate an at-home New Year’s Eve in a good year—adapt for your bubble and your virtual get together and stay safe as we break into 2021:
1. Tiffanie Barriere
“Lots of tequila—shots or margaritas (find the recipe here)—it’s such a happy beverage, and lots of fried chicken—it’s good hot, good room temp and great cold out of the fridge at 3 a.m. And definitely lots of Stevie Wonder, lots of ice—since nothing kills a night faster than running out of ice—and then a midnight toast with a bottle of Gruet Sparkling Wine from New Mexico.” — Tiffanie Barriere
2. Jimmy Yeager
“Be the best host by making sure that you set the right example by having the most fun. Relax and have a great time. It’s important to only invite people you really want to be with. And good champagne helps. Billecart Salmon Rosé is a favorite, but you can never go wrong with Krug if that’s how you want to roll. For a sexy playlist, if it’s just the two of you, go full on Coltrane, Etta Jones (not James, even though she’s awesome too), Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Madeleine Peyroux, and maybe even some Burt Bacharach.” — Jimmy Yeager
3. Ryan Hardy
“Music and lighting help create a great mood. Buy lots of candles, make a great playlist and don’t sweat the small details. Cook ahead or order delivery, batch the cocktails, just don’t spend all your time in the kitchen, spend it with your loved ones and friends having a good time.” — Ryan Hardy
4. David McMillan
“Cook way outside your comfort zone. Plan ahead so that you don’t back yourself into a corner with lots of last-minute prep. Get that goose or duck you’ve always fantasized about and Google the hell out of it. Better yet, go up into your parents’ or grandparents’ attic and find a Christmas issue of Gourmet or Bon Appetit from the 1980s and cook one of those feasts. Make it a family and friends event—all hands on deck helping out—and then do what I do and read aloud a long Robbie Burns poem at midnight by candlelight.” — David McMillan
5. Michelle Bernstein
“Keep it small. Be with your loved ones, forget the negative and embrace hope. And give to your neighbors or your community in some fashion. I always make a huge spread of fried chicken and biscuits or my mom’s arroz con pollo (find the recipe here) so that I have enough to share with 8–10 of my neighbors.” — Michelle Bernstein