The aroma of roasted turkey fills the dining room. It’s the talk of the table long before the arrival of the platter of tender meat, warm gravy and fluffy mashed potatoes. Holiday meals are a big deal for families and for restaurants. That’s actually an understatement for The Old Barn Out Back in Lima, Ohio.
“Thanksgiving is my No. 1 day—I normally serve 2,500 to 3,000 people,” restaurant owner Pete Williams says. With pandemic dining limits in place, the best he can hope for this year is 1,200 guests.
With 600 seats plus a banquet room, The Old Barn Out Back has more capacity than the typical restaurant. Still, Williams needed to find a way to sell more meals. This year, he put together a Thanksgiving to-go plan. It’s something he hopes to use throughout the holiday season.
Feeding holiday customer, off-premise
He has four options for a restaurant-quality Thanksgiving turkey dinner customers can enjoy at home:
- An 18- to 22-pound whole roasted turkey that feeds 10-12 people.
- A sliced turkey dinner (about eight pounds of meat) that feeds 10-12 people.
- A half-sized turkey that feeds 5-6 people.
- A turkey dinner for two.
His plan allows customers to present a full bird at the table or opt for the convenience of a sliced bird. With price points ranging from $45 to $189—including about $25 in packaging for the larger meals—all dinners come with dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, sweet potato souffle, green beans, a large bowl of tossed salad, dinner rolls, pumpkin pie and Dutch apple pie.
A similar plan is in the works for the Christmas holiday, with Christmas Eve dinners to go available from 4 to 6 p.m. Those who preorder can choose a whole prime rib or spiral-sliced ham with a variety of sides. Half-sized orders also will be available.
The plan for convenient holiday dinners played a role in another off-premise success — meal kits the restaurant will offer during the entire holiday season and possibly beyond.
A rotating to-go plan
The meal kit idea came after Williams provided 280 lasagna boxes to a factory in town. Using a three-compartment container, he filled it with lasagna, red potatoes and green beans. Each meal also included a breadstick.
“Before COVID-19, I would have built full pans of lasagna and sides for drop-off,” he says. “It adds about $2 per meal for labor and packaging, but since it was so popular I came up with a delivery meal menu that changes every week.”
The restaurant offers two entrees and a salad every week. The meals come with sides, such as potatoes, mac and cheese and dinner rolls. All are available for pickup. Here’s how it works:
- Week 1: meatloaf, chicken tenders, large cobb salad
- Week 2: beef pot roast, chicken breasts and a large salad
- Week 3: Lasagna, chicken tenders, large salad
- Week 4: chicken Parmesan, BBQ pork sliders, cobb salad
“The meals have to be easy to make in a large quantity, and they have to travel without losing their quality,” he notes. “I haven’t done it yet, but I’d like to get to where these meals can be sold frozen in my gift shop.”
Focused on marketing and service
The shift to off-premise dining during the pandemic has led to staffing and marketing challenges. This year, Williams turned to a digital marketing service that targets customers by ZIP Code. When customers search for restaurants, including competitors, they have an opportunity to learn what The Old Barn Out Back is doing. “I used to do newspaper, TV and radio marketing … now it’s almost all digital.”
Letting customers know about the dine in, takeout options and special meals has been hard work, especially for this staff. Extra hands are needed to pack individual meals. The weekly meals, holiday dinners and year-end parties mean extra labor, all while maintaining day-to-day needs for diners who choose to eat in the dining room.
“I don’t care what kind of restaurant you run, things have changed. If you run a drive-thru, you need more people to make sure it runs smoothly,” he says.
Although The Old Barn Out Back doesn’t have a drive-thru, the restaurant will create one to accommodate a local credit union’s year-end party.
“The bank will be coming onto my property and they’ll pass out chicken dinners to employees who drive through and pick up the meal packs,” he explains. “I need to have staff in place to prepare the meals and run them out to the warmers. It’s just a different way of doing business.”