While it’s tempting to fall back on the tried and true for holiday menus, taking a fresh approach can help draw in diners and up the feel-good factor during a special, nostalgic time of year. Here are four ways to generate excitement during holiday-season meals, as told by operators who have implemented them with success.
1. Put a local spin on tradition
Appalachian Food Services at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., hosts an annual lunchtime Thanksgiving meal the Wednesday before the actual holiday. “[We have] a commitment to sustainability, and one way that commitment is met is through local purchasing,” says Pam Cline, director of food services. “Last year’s Thanksgiving meal featured sweet potato casserole made with North Carolina sweet potatoes, local roasted turkey and mashed potatoes made using local red potatoes.”
2. Appeal to a shared interest
For German-born Achim Barrow, senior director of operations at The Army Residence Community in San Antonio, Christmas is one of the most special times of the year. When he noticed that many of his residents—all retired military personnel—had been stationed in Germany at one time or another, he decided to host a two-night German-themed holiday celebration called Weihnachtsfest. The menu features German beer and gluhwein, and a dinner inspired by recipes passed down from the grandmother of Barrow’s wife, Silke.
“Generally, the residents rush in, sit down, eat and go home,” Barrow says. “I broke that tradition those two nights. They were still sitting there three hours later, which was a first. I got pulled to all the different tables; we talked about their times in Germany and where they were, what Christkindlmarket they went to. It became personal and not just a dinner.” Diners end the night with a sweet treat as a parting gift: Last year, it was a pound of traditional German Christmas cookies; this year, it is christollen, a sugar-dusted bread studded with dried fruit.
3. Offer a fun freebie
Appalachian State’s Thanksgiving meal attracts faculty and staff in addition to students, thanks to the value involved, Cline says. “It is a good deal with meat and two sides for approximately $7, which does help drive traffic,” she says. “Last year we gave out a coupon for a free piece of pumpkin pie with the meal, and that sweetened the deal.”
4. Involve the community
Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff invites local senior citizens to share an on-campus holiday meal for its annual Thanksgiving in the Community event. “We arrange bus transportation from the local senior center, work with student groups to help host our guests, and sit and dine with them,” says Casey Fisher, director of strategic planning and marketing for campus dining. “We serve a lot of folks who claim this is their favorite meal of the year.”