The post-festive slump can be a bleak time for operators, but with Valentine's Day around the corner, here are some suggestions for increasing your trade. Anne Bruce reports
However, the festival of love can be a tricky date to get right. How do you appeal to couples without overwhelming them and how do you make sure you don't alienate your non-Valentine's trade?
And at the heart of the matter, how do you make sure Valentine's Day is a red-letter day for the cash register, replenishing the coffers after dry January?
With January behind them, operators can help customers rekindle their love of eating out with appealing Valentine's Day menus, says Tony Holmes, Bestway Wholesale's sales director for retail and foodservice.
From a welcoming glass of Prosecco to indulgent desserts to finish the meal, desserts and drink are the two key considerations for caterers wishing to stir up some Valentine's passion.
Holmes recommends that operators should start promoting Valentine's Day menus on their website and via social media from early January to encourage bookings.
It's a good idea to offer a set menu price that allows you to welcome customers with a complimentary glass of sparkling wine, and encourage staff to suggest a bottle to go with the meal.
Also, offer sharing choices with both 'his and hers' appeal such as steaks, seafood and pasta, he advises, and make sure you create opportunities to upsell throughout the meal, such as Valentine's day themed cocktails, and liqueur coffees.
High-end drinks are popular with those looking to impress on their Valentine's date, agrees Rob Blunderfield, marketing manager at catering equipment supplier Parsley in Time.
"Valentine's Day is big business for restaurants. One of the busiest nights of the year, it gives caterers the opportunity to offer themed menus and speciality drinks to entice customers in," he says.
In terms of menu options, he suggests: "Sharing platters are increasingly popular. Tapas, antipasti, meze, dessert tasters or petits fours to share provide the intimacy couples are looking for in a Valentine's meal."
d Amy Burgess, trade communications manager at Coca-Cola European Partners, says statistics show that 59% of women consume cocktails during a special celebration , meaning these drinks represent a huge sales opportunity for operators hosting Valentine's Day celebrations.
She says: "Operators should consider putting together themed Valentine's Day food menus, with staff on hand to recommend drinks that could complement the meal - ranging from cocktails and mixed drinks to soft drinks and mocktail options, made using well-known brands."
Lee Hyde, Monin UK beverage development manager adds: "Valentine's Day is one of those special occasions when customers are willing to spend that little bit extra on something special. If you don't have the time or capacity to design an entirely new drinks menu, it's very easy to tweak your existing offering to add a touch of romance."
If you're running a Valentine's Day set menu, offering a welcome cocktail helps create a sense of occasion. It doesn't need to be complicated; syrups and fruit purées can be used to create simple but elegant sparkling cocktails. Also, garnishes are important in terms of creating the 'wow' factor, so keep fresh fruit and herbs on hand such as strawberries, raspberries and mint.
And don't forget the non-drinkers; adult soft drinks and mocktails are a fast-growing market, so take advantage of this demand. A couple of stylish and great-tasting mocktails will go down just as well as the alcoholic beverages on your menu and offer an excellent profit margin.
fany Mogg, wine supplier manager at Matthew Clark, says that February, including the Valentine's period, accounts for 10% of yearly Champagne sales.
But as it's the month where people think pink, why not go for a rosé Champagne? Or sparkling wine, which has all the bubbles minus the cost.
For those couples that can be overwhelmed by wine choice and language, make sure you have really popular styles on the menu that they will recognise, and won't be embarrassed to order. Wines like Pinot Grigio, Sauvignon Blanc, Merlot and Rioja are the 'go-to' grape varieties for most, Mogg recommends.
Let's not forget that we are in February, so it will be cold and dark, and a great red wine with depth and spice and tannin may well be the order of the day.
Henry Stephenson, managing director at catering equipment supplier Stephensons, says novelty is key to upselling drinks: "With the huge popularity of Prosecco as a special occasion drink, an example of going the extra mile would be to serve this sparkling favourite in a broader-bowled Prosecco glass. This new style of glass is believed to allow the fragrant beverage to nose better and therefore increase the drinker's enjoyment of the wine's aromas."
Heather Beattie, vogue brand manager for supplier Nisbets, agrees that Valentine's Day is a time when customers are looking for novelty on sweet treats as well as drinks. Novelty presentation of desserts - for example, heart-shaped arrangements, is certain to increase the appeal of your menu offering with couples looking for a romantic dining atmosphere, she recommends.
On the desserts front, chocolate is also key to a Valentine's menu, says Robert Harrison, sales director Gourmet-Northern Europe of chocolate maker Callebaut.
e company's research has revealed that desserts present a key opportunity for operators - 78% of people would be more likely to treat themselves when out for a special occasion, while a third of consumers think there should be more desserts targeting special occasions on menus. Make it a chocolate dessert and two-thirds of people would be more likely to order it, he recommends.
The research suggests that 40% are prepared to pay up to £30 more per head when celebrating a special occasion. And, 94% of people would be likely to return to an establishment that made them feel special.
Harrison continues: "With chocolate the food of love, it continues to have a hold over diners and will often be the deciding factor in whether or not to order a dessert - ignore this at your peril this Valentine's Day."
Andrew Scott, managing director of hospitality consultancy Victus, adds that remembering your non-Valentine's diners is also vital at this time of year.
He says: "It's important to continue catering for your day-to-day customers. If you normally attract larger bookings or groups of families and friends, then use that as the basis of your Valentine's promotion. It may take a little more hard work, but the pay-off will be greater in the long run if marketed properly as you build and retain a loyal customer base."
Implement deals and discounts for three or more; or design your dishes so they can be shared among an entire table. If evening events are within your brand, market it as a singles dinner with ticketed seats, he suggests.
Valentine's is a growing market and an opportunity for caterers to shrug off the January slump. Just make sure it's appealingly presented and that what you are doing remains the right side of syrupy sweet.
Playing Cupid with DoubleTree by Hilton Dundee general manager Richard Ellison
What are your top tips for maximising sales around Valentine's Day?
Understanding the profile of an event such as Valentine's Day is paramount. You need to capture the imagination of a customer to secure a booking.
Ensure that marketing around the event is targeted for the booker - highlight the positives around exclusivity, romantic touches and privacy, and demonstrate that you really understand the customer's needs.
Valentine's Day is all about the additional spend on site. When the customer arrives for their experience can they upgrade their bottle of wine, purchase Champagne pre-dinner, or enjoy after-dinner cocktails?
What are the best-selling products around Valentine's Day?
Tasting menus and/or sharing platters go down well. Gin or vodka-based cocktails are also a hit, plus cocktails that appeal to both sexes. It's nice to share the same drink and both parties, no matter who is ordering, will enjoy a light-based cocktail over an acquired taste such as a brandy or whisky-based combination.
What kind of promotions work best?
Those that include everything! Provide a package that includes the meal, plus a leisure or spa experience and the room included.
What can you do to attract single people or the anti-Valentine's trade?
Attracting a singleton requires your marketing to take away all aspects of fear for the booker. Ensure that the customer knows exactly what to expect on the evening and ensure you verbalise how they will feel.
Venues that are open plan, with grazing-style street food, encouraging people to mingle, work well. Experiences that customers can share with each other, such as cocktail demonstrations, also helps to add an extra level of enjoyment to the evening.
What are couples looking for from a venue on Valentine's Day?
Always make sure that your offering is original and different from the competition. Concentrate on what your venue does best and maximise this.
On Valentine's Day it's all about the couple. Ensure your front of house team remembers this and provides an effective service without being obtrusive. Offer the opportunity for couples to impress each other and enjoy the privacy of each other's company - be the host of their special day.
Coca Cola European Partners
Parsley in Time