Giving Thanks to Your Restaurant Family

It’s natural that if your staff is happy, your guests will be happy too. When the holidays roll around, it’s a good time to think about taking hospitality to the next level – not just for guests, but also for your employees. We spoke with several restaurateurs to learn how they nurture their team and learned that staff appreciation generally comes down to four things: parties or social events, communal meals, gifts, and time off. 


The holidays are a season of parties. Giving staff an opportunity to celebrate with their colleagues is one of the most common ways to show appreciation during the holidays. While some staff may live near family, others may not. Either way, it’s great to give your team the opportunity to celebrate with their “restaurant family.”

Julia Sullivan, chef owner Henrietta Red in Nashville, plans a holiday party, often around an activity. “We have a party and Secret Santa—karaoke, bowling, or skating,” she says. Keeping the party fun and safe should always be a priority. Sullivan adds, “If we’re going to take the whole staff out, we try and pay for their rides home so no one is driving. We’d hate for a celebration to turn into a bad situation. We try not to have a drinking culture at work.” She encourages people to share rides, and she doesn’t pay for drinks.  

An activity-based party takes the emphasis off of overindulging. Says Sullivan, “One of the benefits of making the party around an activity is that everyone can participate without it getting out of hand.”

What works: 

  • Choose an activity everyone can participate in.
  • Keep the focus off of drinking.
  • Make it easy for everyone to get home safely.


Holidays present an opportunity to show your appreciation and make staff meals even more special. At Henrietta Red, the pastry chef bakes 12 days of Christmas cookies. “She does something different every day – nostalgic stuff – and she takes recommendations from everyone,” says Sullivan. 

Kelly Nordstrom, Director of Training and Operating Partner at Cameron Mitchell Restaurants notes, “We always make sure that on busy shifts we provide employee meals for the teams. The chef teams plan a holiday dinner for the staff that is served on New Year’s Eve before our dinner shift. This is a great way to break bread together and celebrate our year’s success.” 

What works: 

  • Make sure staff is well fed during busy times, when they may be working longer shifts.
  • Make staff meals extra special with personal dishes or a theme.
  • Make meals feel like a celebration.
  • Incorporate suggestions from staff. 


Everyone appreciates a gift during the holidays. At Acquerello in San Francisco, chef-owner Suzette Gresham says, “We do a little Secret Santa exchange with an international family meal on our last day before the Christmas break.” She and her partner, Giancarlo Paterlini, give everyone a panettone and a bottle of prosecco, with a nice card and token of appreciation. 

Secret Santa exchanges happen at Henrietta Red as well. Sullivan says, “We suggest $20 max for Secret Santa, and we use an app called Elfster. Everyone who signs up is assigned someone to give a gift to randomly —most people do, but it doesn’t force anyone to do it. There’s high participation rate.” 

Employee gifts can take different forms. Sullivan has organized exchanges with other local restaurants, and bartered gift certificates for the managers. “That actually brings people in!” she says. She also gives personal gifts, and gifts of food. “When we close at Christmas, whatever food we can’t use, we let staff take it home so it doesn’t go to waste. It’s nice to take home a little caviar or steak.” 

What works: 

  • Use an app like Elfster for Secret Santa.
  • Set a limit to the money spent on gifts.
  • Get creative and exchange gift cards or gift certificates with another business.
  • Find something personal and meaningful to give to employees.
  • Cash is always appreciated – and so is food.

Time Off

What do people appreciate the most? For some, it’s time off. “So many restaurants don’t close, but for so many of us, it’s nice to have a break and celebrate like everyone else,” says Sullivan. Henrietta Red closes for Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. In the past two years, Sullivan has invited staff to Thanksgiving dinners in her home. “Frequently, we spend the break together. When I was a cook in NYC, I wasn’t able to go home, so I would just go to a bar for friends and family. A lot of us are transients,” she says. 

Some restaurants close for the holidays, while others remain open. Either way, there are staff members who will want to spend time with their families, and accommodating them is important. Sullivan’s advice: treat everyone like family. “We try and never say no. If someone really needs the time to go home, we try and cover for people.” 

For Cameron Mitchell Restaurants, the holidays are the busiest time of year, but management still focuses on putting their associates first and making work fun. “We are very focused on making sure that our teams get time off to enjoy spending with their families,” says Nordstrom. “We work very diligently to get schedules put together that allow our hourly associates as well as managers a schedule that will work for them to be able to enjoy the holidays.” Plus, they close Christmas Eve and Christmas day.

What works: 

  • Consider closing on the actual holidays. 
  • Be flexible with schedules to allow employees the time off they want or need.
  • Find opportunities to be together and support one another during breaks.

Restaurant Staffing and Retention


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