The labor-intensive, costly meal doesn't necessarily drive huge profits on the day, but, for restaurants that stay open on Thanksgiving, it's a big marketing opportunity to position the brand alongside the most hospitable holiday of the year.
— Erika Adams
Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill has got Thanksgiving covered. The three-month-old restaurant, located in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington D.C., is gearing up for dinner service on the holiday from 1pm to 8pm, after a morning spent packaging and sending off pre-ordered Thanksgiving to-go meals.
Owner Donald Carlin wanted to cover Thanksgiving from multiple angles because it was important to position the new, upscale neighborhood restaurant as a welcoming place on the holiday. “When it comes to Thanksgiving, it’s a very neighborhood-esque, family gathering type of holiday,” Carlin said. “And, because our menu leans very American, we thought it was important for people to think of us that way.”
Plenty of restaurants stay open on Thanksgiving, from national chains like Applebee’s and Denny’s to independent neighborhood restaurants like Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill. (Plenty close, too: fast casual chains like Shake Shack, Chipotle, Sweetgreen, and Cava are all shutting down for the day.) The decision to stay open largely boils down to the marketing benefits. While it’s not always a hugely profitable day — higher operational costs can outstrip the higher revenue from the special menu — restaurants ranging from the neighborhood bistro down the street to nationwide dining chains are benefitting from the association with the hospitable themes of the holiday.
The Draw of Dining In
At Dyllan’s Raw Bar Grill, Carlin expected to do more take-out orders than dinner reservations on the day, but the demand turned out to be for the opposite. “The response [for take-out orders] has been good, but the response of people actually coming in and wanting to eat in the restaurant has been even more interesting,” Carlin said. “A good portion of it is tourists who are in the area who have never experienced Thanksgiving before in America. We’ve had several reservations where people have called us up and asked, ‘Are you doing Thanksgiving? If so, we want to come in because we’re from overseas and we want to have a traditional Thanksgiving meal.'”
On Thanksgiving, Carlin expects to send out between 40 to 50 pre-ordered meals, and he estimated that the restaurant will book about 120 dinner reservations.
“We thought it would be more neighborhood-driven, people who are in the area or college kids and their parents coming down to visit because they couldn’t go home, that sort of thing,” Carlin said. “But it’s actually going in a different direction.”
While revenues will be higher on the holiday compared to a normal service, Carlin doesn’t think that he’ll turn more of a profit than usual after accounting for all of the extra operational costs on the day, from the packaging of the to-go orders to the more labor-intensive prep that goes into the meal. The restaurant typically operates with a 6 to 8 percent profit margin, and Carlin expects the day’s profits to fall in a similar range.
Scaling the Dinner
In 2006, Del Frisco’s Restaurant Group experimented with offering a Thanksgiving dinner at its Double Eagle location in midtown Manhattan. The day was a huge success, explained Thomas Dritsas, senior vice president and corporate executive chef at Del Frisco’s. It ended up as the catalyst for the system-wide Thanksgiving dinner that Del Frisco’s runs now between all 37 of the company’s Double Eagle and Grille restaurants.
“As behaviors have changed, a lot of people tend to go out and enjoy each other’s company versus staying in the kitchen and slaving around a stove and then having to clean up everything afterwards,” Dritsas said. “That was the initial conversation. It ended up working out brilliantly.”
Dritsas and his team started sourcing for the dinner six months in advance, scheduled out prep for the meal weeks ahead of time, and rented out extra equipment in the kitchens to prepare all of the food. “Cooking off 75 to 85 to 95 turkeys is no easy feat,” Dritsas laughed.
Some of Del Frisco’s locations book out on the day now, but leadership closely monitors volume in each of the restaurants to make sure they aren’t over-promising on what they can deliver. When scheduling staff for the day, shifts are broken up into smaller chunks of time so that employees aren’t overworked.
“That’s one of the things our CEO is really hesitant about,” Dritsas said. “[Our guests] are putting a lot of faith in us on a special day. We’ve got to be able to deliver on the experience without making them feel like we’re just a business. We’re there to make money, of course, but we’re there to provide an experience that only happens a couple times a year. It’s a memory.”
Del Frisco’s declined to comment on how profitable the day is across its restaurants, but Dritsas said that revenue and cover counts are secondary measures of success behind the quality of each customer’s experience. The team closely monitors every feedback channel that Del Frisco’s is plugged into in order to best gauge how the day went. “Did every guest leave with a memory, and would they have the intent to return?” Dritsas said.
French Meadow Cafe, a decades-old restaurant that’s a staple of the dining scene in Minneapolis, Minnesota, started opening on Thanksgiving seven years ago. The restaurant’s interim executive chef, Beth Fisher, said that the decision to offer a Thanksgiving meal came directly from customer demand. “Lynn [Gordon, founder and owner] was in her restaurant on Thanksgiving, when it was closed, and the phone was ringing off the hook. She was like, ‘This is crazy. Let’s just feed these people!'”
This year, Fisher estimates that the restaurant will do between 400 to 500 covers during the reservations-only dinner, taking place from 1pm to 7pm. Last year, French Meadow tallied 420 dinners served, and this year, the restaurant has two new event spaces that they’ll be opening up for more seating. Fisher also added a ‘Plantsgiving’ meal to the menu to better serve the restaurant’s vegetarian and vegan customers.
Fisher expects to see higher revenues on the day (“Everybody will be ordering entrees, and not everybody orders entrees every day,” she said), although she wasn’t sure if that would translate to higher profits once all the costs were calculated.
“We just want to make sure that everybody was happy, that we didn’t have any complaints, that all the food was hot, that the staff isn’t beat up,” Fisher said. “And that we’re all back at work and happy the next day.”