By Amelia Levin
Holidays can be a tricky time for hospitality professionals and certainly a busy one, but not necessarily in a bad way. Many chefs and managers will tell you they knew what they were signing up for when they got in this business: working on major holidays sort of comes with the territory. You might even get lucky and earn prized overtime pay or bumped up gratuity.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t celebrate on different days or in different ways. But what if you want to take off a holiday or two? We caught up with a few ACF members for their take on this sensitive balancing act.
Elxis Dodson, Wine Cellar Jacksonville and Black sheep Restaurant, Jacksonville, Florida; 2015 ACF Southeast Region Student Chef of the Year.
ACF: As part of the new generation of chefs, how do you feel about taking time off on holidays? Is there a stigma around requesting those days off?
ED: I personally feel that requesting time off is a little taboo because you know you’re going to be busy, especially at a smaller restaurant like ours. But I enjoy being busy and like the challenge. And, it can be money in your pocket, as well, if you get overtime pay during the holidays. After 40 hours I can earn overtime. But I have friends who work in four-star resorts and they get time and a half or even double the pay just by working on holidays.
ACF: What are your hours this year for the holidays?
ED: We have the regular hours on Christmas Eve but are closed on Christmas Day. On New Year’s we have a rooftop bar that’s open with tickets available and we do a lot of catering – that’s where a lot of the revenue comes in during the holidays. We have many holiday parties during the season. One weekend we had 200 box lunches on a Saturday for a holiday brunch. After the holidays we usually have a staff bowling party in January to unwind with our friends and families.
ACF: Do you have any crazy holiday stories?
ED: In 2013 we were prepping for Christmas Eve at my old restaurant and were supposed to be really busy – we had 350 people on the books with no walk-ins available. I came in a little early, before 3 p.m., and walked into the kitchen, and the sous chef was soaking wet. He just shook his head and pointed to the back kitchen where we do our prep work and it was completely flooded. I asked what happened and he said that one of the sprinklers went off and flooded the back kitchen and even part of the dining area. All of the prep was ruined and we open at 5:30. So we mopped up what we could, redid all of the prep work and the Fire Marshall came right before we opened to inspect. Luckily, we made it. It was stressful but it can be exciting to push yourself and see what you’re able to do under pressure.
John Zehnder, CEC, AAC, executive chef, Zehnders, Frankenmuth, Michigan.
ACF: As chef at one of the largest independent restaurants in the country, what’s your opinion on asking for holiday time off?
JZ: We’re in an industry where you work holidays. I don’t know any other chefs who have asked for those days off. But since we are closed on Christmas Eve that gives everyone the opportunity to celebrate a little early. We also offer a 4- or 8-hour shift on major holidays and we pay time and a half. The front of the house staff especially want to work because the holidays are good tip days. Given that flexibility and the pay, most people actually volunteer to work. We are a town of just 3,500 but on Christmas we’ll feed 5,000 people – we are a tourist destination for Christmas and even have the world’s largest Christmas store that’s the size of five football fields. When you have seniority you can get a day or two off so sometimes people will pick between Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s. With a staff of 550, we tend to be more flexible than a lot of other operations that have a much smaller staff.
ACF: What other services do you offer during the holidays?
JZ: We offer brunch with Santa on two different days leading up to Christmas and we also have a lodging facility with 160 rooms and suites and two 30,000-square-feet waterpark. Everything is centered around families and kids. We’re sold out all of Christmas week. On Christmas Day we open at 10:30 a.m. And close at 8 p.m. The majority of our staff is younger so they often want to work for the extra money, and since we have Christmas Eve off they can still plan some festivities.
ACF: Do you have any crazy holiday stories?
JZ: Christmas Eve about 10 years ago I got a call 6 at night that two of the fire extinguisher lines broke. Because no one was in the kitchen, it flooded the restaurant. The walls were soaked and in the lower level area, where we have a kitchen and some dining rooms, there was 3 to 4 inches of water. The problem happened on the third floor and the water had run down and in between the walls. We had over 4,000 people on the books for the next day. Right away we called our insurance company and they found a restoration company for us. This massive crew of people came in and worked all Christmas Eve to get everything cleaned up and I helped mop up what I could just in the knick of time. I never saw the bill from the insurance company but my understanding is that they charged triple time for everyone who was there. Now every Christmas Eve I dread getting another call like that.
ACF: Do you do anything to celebrate the holidays with your staff?
JZ: Usually in early January we will have a big party. We close the restaurant and play bingo for prizes and money, have a big dinner and awards presentation for our 900 employees and spouses.
Ted Polfelt, CEC, CCA, executive chef, Jefferson Street Management Company, Roanoke, Virginia, and culinary instructor, Virginia Western Community College.
ACF: Do you find your staff would rather not work on holidays?
TP: I work for an independent restaurant group and we don’t pay time and a half on holidays, but I still find most people don’t mind working on those days – it’s part of what we do in this business – and guests tend to tip more on the holidays. We have a a younger staff, and I know for other restaurants it can be more difficult for older staff members with kids. We try to be flexible, though, and try to close early on Christmas Eve after lunch and do our best to take care of our people.
ACF: What are your hours like around the holidays?
TP: We’re open 364 days a year and as a smaller restaurant group the holidays are important to us from a business standpoint. We can make upwards of $10 to $40,000 in just one day if we stay open.
ACF: Do you do anything to celebrate with your staff and your family at home?
TP: On New Year’s for those who are still working we’ll have a champagne toast. At home, I have three kids and have been married for 10 years and we’ve always celebrated Thanksgiving the Tuesday before or find other ways to make the holidays work for us. I find many people in this business do the same things to make the holidays work for them.