Plan for a busy winter party season
The winter holidays are just around the corner. Even though the weather is still warm and no one has finished their gift shopping yet, people are eagerly booking parties for fourth quarter. Pizzeria owners say there has been an uptick in bookings for catering orders and private dining room rentals, so they are making sure their calendars are full and their staffs are ready.
It’s never too early to start promoting a pizzeria’s catering capabilities or facility rental. “Late summer and early fall is where the bulk of the holiday party planning and promoting begins,” says Niki Miller, director of events for Uptown Hospitality Group in Charleston, South Carolina. “Everyone wants to eat, drink and be merry.”
Among Uptown Hospitality Group’s restaurants is Uptown Social, which serves pizzas crafted by Anthony Falco, International Pizza Consultant. The restaurant hosted over 200 events during the first half of 2022, and Miller expects the winter holiday season to be very busy, with every Thursday to Saturday booked, plus an occasional weekday event.
For the holidays, the group outfits the venues with lights and garland. That lends some holiday spirit, and makes the place photo-worthy. “In our social media posts, we tend to post past seasons events and the amazing memories that were made as well as showcasing our festive décor,” Miller says. “These posts always get clients excited and thinking about planning their next event.” Miller also reaches out to the previous year’s clients early, giving them first choice of booking again.
For some, the challenge is getting people to think about throwing the party downtown, which in many cities is still sparsely populated during this phase of the pandemic. The restaurant Zero Zero is located near Moscone Center, San Francisco’s convention and events center. So while the Neapolitan pizza and cocktails restaurant attracts business travelers, that industry has not completely recovered from the pandemic interruption.
To remedy this, Zero Zero is working to attract non-convention events of all sizes. “We are a fun, casual, affordable event space that has great California Italian food and friendly service,” says chef owner Bruce Hill. “We feel really confident in what we offer.”
Zero Zero invested in technology that allows guests to take a virtual 360-degree tour on the restaurant’s website. People can view the two full bars, the various table configurations and the different sized spaces within the restaurant. “We did a revamp of our event materials just to make everything clear and concise,” Hill says. “We have three different packages for large parties, and we do custom one-offs as well. We just always try to be amenable to people’s requests.”
In addition to social media and other tech-related ways to engage with customers, local efforts are effective too. Andy Saray, chef and owner of Parm Pizzeria in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, says he reaches out to other small businesses, from the deli that provides proprietary ingredients to local offices of insurance companies, for winter party reservations. “I’ve always been a fan of being aggressive with marketing and going out to small businesses,” he says. “We’ve been promoting each other since COVID, supporting each other, because a high tide raises all boats.”
Parm has a mobile pizza oven for private events, and as the weather cools, events will take place at the new permanent location of Parm Pizzeria, which opened in July, and at other venues. Saray says he is willing to take on these small events, as these event planners are enthusiastic about throwing a party this year. “People are willing to pay more than they ever have been, which is awesome,” he says. “They don’t mind paying but you have to make sure you capitalize on one, the experience and two, the service.”
People also don’t mind booking early. Dave Lombardo, director of operations for Bardo’s Bar Pizza, Lombardo’s Hospitality Group in Boston, says the group already has substantial bookings for the fourth quarter, and expects more to come. “We are anticipating this season to be similar to last spring in which catering bookings came with high velocity at the last minute,” he says.
The service methods are changing, as customers are gravitating to grab and go items. “For us, that doesn’t mean grocery store prepared food packaging, but elevated food presentations that are individually portioned and presented,” Lombardo says. “For example, instead of a big charcuterie board where guests are building their own plates and sharing tongs, we are doing mini mason jars portioned and packaged individually with the safety of guests front of mind.”
Staffing is always a challenge, including during the upcoming party season. As a result, Lombardo says, the group is being more selective with bookings. That helps protect the team, and it also helps Bardo’s Bar Pizza and the entire Lombardo’s Hospitality Group to maintain quality in product, service and execution. “To maintain that level of hospitality we need to be thoughtful in our booking process,” he says. “The events we do will be spectacular, but instead of doing four to five a day we will only do two to three a day.”
Catering helps offset labor costs, says Sammy Mandell, owner of Greenville Avenue Pizza Company (GAPCo), with three locations in Dallas. “The staff gets in early to do prep work, but when you are doing prep you are not generating revenue and you start the day negative,” he says. Instead, they can prepare the large catering orders. “You have the opportunity to generate revenue prior to the store being open to help with some of those costs.”
A few years ago GAPCo hired a catering manager who spends time with customers that place these large orders. That way, there is a staff member offering cheesecakes and cookies and other extras, instead of overburdening a cashier who is working on regular orders. “We’re really trying to do everything we can to elevate the guest experience,” says Mandell, who in March also became a World Pizza Champion. The restaurant also purchased a vehicle that holds 90 pizzas at 190 F, and is a good marketing tool. “Our catering manager cruises around in that. It’s just another avenue that shows how far you want to take your catering.”
Nora Caley is a freelance writer who covers small business, finance and lifestyle topics.