Valentine’s Day is fast approaching. With romance in the air, it pays to remember that the way to anyone’s heart is through an enjoyable restaurant experience.
More than half of millennials say their ideal Valentine’s Day gift is an “experience,” according to OpenTable. That means it’s time to start thinking about everything from the food and drink menu to tabletop treatments to reservations to tie-ins with other businesses – think florists, theaters or hotels.
As a restaurant operator, what can you expect? Last year, about 85% of adults planned to celebrate Valentine’s Day, and about 75% of those people expected to dine out or order restaurant food. Even with inflation driving up costs, consumer spending remained high, according to restaurantdive.com. A similar pattern is expected this year.
Valentine’s Day is the second-highest dining-out day of the year (Mother’s Day is first). With a large dining audience, it may be a good time to test new menu items or culinary trends. Foods and flavors successful at the start of the year are poised to benefit your business all year long.
And, this year, Valentine’s Day falls midweek – Wednesday, Feb. 14. This gives operators a long runway to create a strategy. Specials can start the weekend before and last all the way through the following weekend.
Start With the Menu
You should be thinking about your menu well in advance, says Kevin Green, a Gordon Food Service Culinary Specialist. “Are you going to create a special LTO meal for two? Will you tweak the regular menu? Anything is possible, but you have to consider staffing and kitchen capabilities.”
Here are a few on-trend menu additions our experts believe patrons could love at first sight.
Peaches. This stone fruit has re-emerged as a flavor chefs love to experiment with and diners are sweet on. From wrapping inside a thin crepe to topping a mound of ice cream for dessert to everything in between, peaches are a surprise treat. Try adding them to a burrata cheese board, or grill them to accompany fish, pork, beef or lamb.
Mushrooms. With so many varieties, there’s a mushroom for everyone. Toasted crostinis smothered with enoki mushrooms and gravy can be an appetizer or a meal. Meanwhile, maitake mushrooms in a browned butter-caper sauce elevate a steak, shiitake mushrooms and Swiss chard are a simple side with a wow factor, diced button mushrooms are a great add-in to tomato-based pasta sauce, and many Asian-fusion dishes include mushrooms.
Small plates. A romantic dinner for two gets even more intimate with small plates. “Revamp an appetizer just for Valentine’s week,” says Doug Clayton, a Gordon Food Service Customer Marketing Manager. Enhance the mood with things like Southern crab cakes or romaine hearts filled with Mediterranean tomato sauce and olives, or even a dessert dish like passion fruit topped with white chocolate shavings and mango chunks.
Raise a Toast to the Drink Menu
Beverages generate higher margins than other menu parts, so let drinks help pour on the profits. Spirit-free mocktails and traditional cocktails, beer and wine can be a big part of your allure.
Non-alcohol mocktails. Dry January is barely in the rearview mirror, and many guests want to maintain a healthier lifestyle. A 2021 Gallup poll shows 40% of people don’t consume alcohol, a number that has grown in recent years.
Mocktails to the rescue. And why not? A 2022 survey of 10 markets (including the United States and Canada) shows low- and zero-alcohol drinks are a $10 billion-a-year business.
The creativity, eye appeal and flavor of mocktails are a treat for sober sippers. Consider alcohol-free mojitos, mai tais or seltzer spritzers. Garnish drinks with fruit slices, herbs or flowers. Add specialty sugar, smoked salt, cocoa powder or crushed candy to the rim. Serve with block or round ice cubes. Drink possibilities include:
Cocktail/beer/wine pairings. Any operation with a bar program already understands the importance of a good drink menu. On a special occasion like Valentine’s Day, it’s a great idea to suggest the right drink to accompany food on the menu.
Whether it’s a date night for long-term couples or a night to create a romantic spark with someone special, Valentine’s Day is a time to splurge. Offer a bottle of wine to be shared over an intimate dinner. Serve a special beer – perhaps a red ale – that fits the meal and the occasion. Sweet, colorful cocktails will turn heads, especially if they are prepared tableside.
Make it Fun With Decor and Extras
Valentine’s Day is a special day. Grand gestures and small touches let guests know it’s not just a meal out, but an event. Decorate tables, take reservations, craft fixed-price food or drink specials for two, create partnerships with nearby businesses, etc.
The tabletop sets the mood. Red tablecloths. Festive placemats. Special dishware, champagne flutes or utensils. Floral centerpieces. Tealight candles. Anything that creates a romantic vibe will make an impression. And it can go beyond the table to other parts of the dining room. Think about lighting or a special playlist.
Reservations for the win-win. Elevate the evening by accepting reservations. It allows guests to reserve a special table or time. It also helps your staff manage a busy holiday. Create a 6 p.m. and an 8 p.m. seating so you spread out the kitchen rush and approximate how many guests you’ll be serving.
Specials, anyone? People splurge on special occasions, but it’s always good to know prices up front. A fixed-price three- or four-course meal sets expectations for both the consumers and your team. For a set price you can offer flavored caviar, a Valentine’s Day martini or mocktail, a choice of entrée (roasted pork loin medallions on a bed of creamy spinach and white beans or a sous vide chicken breast with Korean gochujang sauce and pickled vegetables), and a slice of red velvet cake for dessert.
Partnerships make perfect. As part of a holiday package, team up with a local florist or chocolatier to provide flowers or sweets for the occasion. Allow them to provide a coupon for a follow-up visit to buy flowers or candy. “This also works for local hotels or theaters,” says Gordon Food Service Culinary Specialist Jason Mortus. “Work with them to provide a room discount or a ticket package to see a show after the restaurant visit.”
Generate Excitement With Marketing
None of these ideas work if your operation fails to market itself. Signage in the restaurant and table tent messages invite people already sitting at your tables to return for a special celebration.
“If you know your target audience, there are lots of marketing options out there,” Windau says. “Social platforms are the most common – advertise on your website, tease your specials on Instagram, Tik Tok or Facebook. Beautiful images attract attention and build anticipation.”
One marketing plan that doesn’t take much effort is word of mouth utilizing your team. An energized staff can spread the word among friends and family. Their excitement is contagious and can be more engaging than other kinds of marketing.
We’re Ready to Help You Succeed
Preparing for Valentine’s Day is hard work, and you don’t have to go it alone. Gordon Food Service specialists and Sales Representatives have years of experience and are ready to help.
We can help create LTOs or design a menu that avoids out-of-stock or pricing challenges. Using a “good-better-best” mindset, our experts can suggest entrées that work for your operation. Green, a Culinary Specialist, shared some examples:
Good: Grilled Italian Herb Chicken, served over Fresh Pasta Tossed in a Pancetta Bolognese. “This dish can be used across all concept levels, it is easily executable using “scratch-plus” items. This offers bold flavors and hits on some trends in the dining market.”
Better: Medallions of Beef, Smoked Chocolate Bordelaise, Bloody Mary Tiny Green Beans, Rosemary Roasted Redskins. “This dish offers flavors that will spark interest. Very bold flavors, using key terms people look for on the menu.”
Best: Black Tie Scallops – Pan-Seared Scallops, Black Truffle Risotto, Lobster Veloute.
“This is that one dish that will give a high price point with a great margin. It also screams flavor and opulence.”