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Chefs Weigh In: Is Valentine's Day the Worst?

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Welcome to Hot Topics, in which food industry people chime in on a major issue in food.

[Illustration: Eric Lebofsky]

Well, there's nothing anyone can do about it: Valentine's Day is back again. On this day — the biggest restaurant and bar shitshow day of the year — reservations are snapped up at all the best restaurants, prix fixe menu prices venture into the stratosphere, and the so-called "amateur diners" are out in full force. Every year, Valentine's Day brings plenty of grumbling from folks inside the restaurant industry as well as diners just looking for a quiet, inexpensive meal. But is Valentine's Day really all that bad? Is it the worst holiday of the year?

Here now, chefs Ron Eyester (Rosebud, Atlanta), Katie Button (Cúrate, Asheville), John Tesar (Spoon Bar & Kitchen, Dallas), Jonathon Sawyer (Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland), Amanda Cohen (Dirt Candy, New York City), and Sean Baker (Gather, San Francisco) weigh in on the issue.


Ron Eyester

Rosebud, Atlanta

Is Valentine's Day the worst?
Nah. It's actually probably the easiest because they're all deuces. It's not like you're dealing with different large groups of families and stuff like that. I would say if I had to judge difficulties of holidays, Mother's Day would be at the top of the list.

Why is that?
Are you kidding me? First of all, it's like a fucking marathon. It's brunch all the way through dinner. But Valentine's Day is pretty easy. Definitely you're dealing with some amateur diners, so maybe from a mental standpoint it can be a challenge. You've got a fairly significant demographic that only eats out a few times in a year, and because of that, they're not as practiced as I guess you would say a "foodie." So when you're not used to going out to eat, you might not know necessarily how to act. As long as the people are nice, it can be somewhat fun. But you can also get the amateurs who think they know everything about everything. They can be a little bit more difficult to deal with. But the great part about Valentine's Day, it brings in the questions that you only hear a couple of times a year like, "Do you guys have a really nice white Zin you can recommend?"

How is it with sales compared to other holidays and normal days? Do you normally do better on Valentine's Day?

A lot of restaurants take this as an opportunity to exploit their guests.

A lot of restaurants unfortunately take this holiday as an opportunity to exploit their guests. Because you do know that more people are going out to eat, and if you're looking for reservations last-minute, you're not even going to ask what the restaurant is serving. A lot of restaurants are going to take the opportunity to serve a fixed-cost menu that's probably pretty inflated. That's a part of the business, I guess. It's just something that we have never really practiced at Rosebud.

Rosebud is a neighborhood restaurant. We're definitely going to see some folks who we don't normally see, but largely our clientele will be the same. So we offer our regular menu, which is the priced the same way it is every day. And then we usually do a small, special menu of Valentine's features. Some of them might be priced a little more aggressively than our normal menu, but it's still priced according to what we're serving. We don't do prix fixe menus at Rosebud, they just don't really fit into our concept. The problem is you can only turn so many tables. I say every year I'm going to figure out a way to build smaller tables so we can have more places to accommodate people. But we never do that. So we'll have lots of parties of two sitting at tables that could easily accommodate five people.

How do you deal with reservations for Valentine's Day?
We book 'em just like we would any other holiday or dining period. We use OpenTable. It provides us with a floor plan. The earlier reservations, anything between 5:30 and 7, tend to eat a little bit faster because maybe they're going to do something else that evening. And then the reservations that are coming in after 7 or 7:30, they'll tend to take a little bit longer. Maybe they'll open a bottle of wine or linger a little bit, hopefully while they're spending money. So when we plot out the dining room, we'll take that under consideration, what tables will flip and when we can flip them. And we also know that, like any other holiday, people are gonna make maybe multiple reservations and then at the last minute they're gonna decide where they want to go.

Right, are no-shows a big problem?
In recent years, that's definitely been a problem that's becoming a bit more prolific, that's for sure. That's just something we have to deal with. Our OpenTable allows us to take guest notes, so if someone made a reservation and they haven't shown up for it, it'll go in the guest notes. So if they call back up, when we go to book a reservation, we'll see that note and then mysteriously we'll be booked that day. We just won't take their reservation. But we won't call 'em out on it unless they push it. We'll just politely say we don't have room that night. It's the most diplomatic and polite way to do it.

Finally, what else is tough about working on Valentine's Day?
Inevitably [when] you're prepping a special menu, there's going to be an ingredient that doesn't show up or it shows up and it's wrong. There's always last-minute obstacles that you have to overcome. But keep things in perspective: it's just food. Try not to get too excited about it. You've got parties of two coming in, so it's not like there's a big intimidation factor. It's all about designing a menu that you can execute. I think as I get older and more mature, I don't really try to take Valentine's Day as an opportunity to experiment with ingredients I've never worked with before. That's probably not the smartest idea to do that.

You know you're going to have a bunch of amateurs coming in.

You know you're going to have a bunch of amateurs coming in. It's always fun to see the people who are dressed up like they're going to the prom coming in to eat. It's always fun to watch the date that went bad. There'll definitely be at least one of those if not two. There'll be the dude that thinks it's a good idea to try to get engaged on Valentine's Day in a restaurant. So I look forward to all the same things every year. They're definitely an entertaining part of what we do.

Let's face it: Valentine's Day has got to be the most synthetic Hallmark holiday known to man. It's fun to watch certain people go through the motions and other people who don't. I think it says a lot about humanity the way you see people celebrate Valentine's Day. You'll get phone calls like, "Will you be giving roses out at the front door this year?" No, we won't. Not that we're trying to seem insincere about it, but any restaurant that's giving fucking roses to their guests, they're making that money up somewhere. So I'd rather keep Rosebud more like the way we operate every day. Especially given the nature of Valentine's Day.

But if you shit all over Valentine's Day, it's not like I'm making some political or religious statement. And I guess the restaurants that do jump on board and make a shitload of money, more power to you. It sucks that Valentine's Day is on a Friday [this year]. It's great when Valentine's Day is on Tuesday or Wednesday because that's like adding an extra weekend night to your week. But the fact that Valentine's Day is on a fucking Friday is like a rainy day at the beach. We'll actually do less than we would do on a normal Friday. Maybe not revenue, but covers. [But] there are definitely going to be people who are willing to spring for a little more in the alcohol department given the rewards that lurk just beyond that drink. Or the potential reward, I should say.

Ron Eyester. [Photo: Jena Anton]


Katie Button

Cúrate, Asheville

What's Valentine's Day like for you?
We're really busy and it's nice. When you're in a town like Asheville, Winters usually are a slower time. Everybody kind of looks forward to Valentine's Day because it marks the beginning of the turn toward Spring. I know it's still mid-Winter, but it does. Everybody has way too much fun during the holiday season, goes out, and then after January 1, they hibernate a little bit. And so Valentine's Day gives them an excuse to get back into going out to eat. I think it's great. I know some people don't like it, but I actually think it's kind of nice and sweet. People go out, they take care of each other, buy a nice bottle of wine, enjoy a really nice meal.

Is it stressful to run a restaurant on Valentine's Day? More so than usual?
It's busier for sure. I think the question becomes what do you want to do for Valentine's Day? A lot of people create special menus and things like that. That can add a lot of stress. We're not doing that this year. I think that we will be offering some kind of little Valentine's-type treat to everybody for coming out on Valentine's Day just as a thank you treat. So I think it depends on which direction you go. I find it just a busy day of the year, but stressful, no, not really. We just try to do what we do well and focus and expect a busy night.

How do you deal with reservations for Valentine's Day? Do you have a no-show problem at all?
Not really, no. I guess there's longer turn times than usual, more couples. The only thing that happens is that most everybody is a two-top, so while our tables will all be full, we might not be as busy as a Friday night. It's not going to be one of our busiest nights of the year because it's mainly two-tops. Our four-tops become two-tops. But that's okay because, as I said, it's Winter. For us, either way it's nice because it's definitely a push toward more people going out, even if we're not filling all of our four-tops or six-tops full of big parties.

Katie Button. [Photo: Peter Frank Edwards/Cúrate]


John Tesar

Spoon Bar & Kitchen, Dallas

Is Valentine's Day the worst?
You know what? As a restaurateur, it's the best. Because you come out of Christmas and New Years and the Super Bowl in the dead of Winter, and Valentine's Day is revenue. I don't care what anybody says. It's a manufactured day of romance and economics. However, if you have a good restaurant that's already thriving, you don't alter the theme or the design of the restaurant. You just make it more approachable on that day for people who want to celebrate that specific holiday.

You know it's all going to be deuces that day. We do our a la carte menu and we do a tasting menu. It is a special occasion, it's romantic, and the history of Valentine's Day is aphrodisiac. We offer caviar, we have oysters and raw fish. They kind of play into our hand. I think some restaurants change their whole personality for holidays. For me, the key is to take into account the people that you're going to be feeding, but still maintain the integrity and the vision of the restaurant. That's the way I approach all these holidays. I'm not making heart-shaped squid ink pasta or anything like that. We're celebrating the customers coming to our restaurant for a special occasion, hopefully giving them what they want.

You can't change the whole restaurant just because it's a holiday.

I feel very strongly about these issues. I talk to my staff about it constantly. We're not changing the restaurant for a holiday and we're not gouging. We're a high-end restaurant. It's a special-occasion place to begin with, so we don't raise the prices for Valentine's Day. A lot of people do, which I also think is terrible. Profiteering for holidays. And how about chefs that change their entire format, their line staff, and expect them to grasp that and execute those dishes in 24 hours? It'll lead to mediocre food. How do you execute that? No. You accent things or you put on a better caviar, bring more foie gras or put an extra lobster dish or something. But you can't change the layout of the whole restaurant just because it's a holiday. It'll ruin the experience because the kitchen's in chaos.

How frequently do you think that happens?
I think it happens at a lot of restaurants. We try to be different. We follow the map of those who are successful before us in celebrating the holiday, but maintaining their identity and not overcharging the guests. Often novices come for New Years Eve and especially Valentine's Day. There might be a young man in love with a beautiful woman who happens to like food and he's smart enough to know that she wants to go to a real restaurant. If I charge him too much or I make the thing ridiculously corny or too adventurous, he's going to be uncomfortable. You always want to make the guest comfortable.

And is it an opportunity to convert new people then?
That's it. You don't overbook, you don't overcharge, and you give them integrity and value for their money, which you don't often get on holidays. That's my philosophy. Then that first-timer will be like, "Hey, this place is really good" or "I never liked this before, but now I like it."

And how do you deal with reservations for Valentine's Day?
We do OpenTable and we refer people to call the restaurant. I'm only doing 90 covers, which is less than two turns because we have enough revenue. I just like the integrity or the control of it. We don't want to compromise what Spoon is, not even for Valentine's Day. We're not going to muck it up just for an extra $2,000 on Valentine's Day. No way.

How would that muck it up?
Well, you overbook and then people wait. I think in any fine dining restaurant you deserve to have the table ready when you get there. And you should be able to spend two hours at the table and be romantic. Otherwise, it's like okay, give me your credit card, come on in, here's some mediocre food, here's the check, here's a rose, have a good day. I wouldn't want that experience. That's a nightmare. That's called how not to get a next date.

So what is Valentine's Day like then for sales compared to other holidays and normal days?

It's one of the best holidays because we get like five days out of Valentine's Day.

It's huge. For me, it's probably one of the best holidays because we get like five days out of Valentine's Day. It starts Wednesday because you get people that don't want to go out on Friday because it'll be crowded. We've had ice storms and 40-degree temperatures in Texas — Texans don't leave the house. So last week I probably did my lowest revenue ever in the year and four months I've been open, but I'm not worried about it because I know that I'm going to do like $46,000 this week. It's a balance. You make up for it. Every week can't be to the max. I don't do this for money. Other people want me to do it for money, but I don't. I'm living the dream, as they say. Who's having a better time than me right now?

Every year there are stories about worst Valentine's Day shifts and complaints about the people who come in. Do you think that's overly cynical?
I think that's the worst approach. It's rude and it's almost immature and selfish in its notion. When you own a restaurant in this day and age when there are millions of restaurants, the fact that people want to come and see you on a holiday, you should just say thank you. It's like Restaurant Week. Restaurant Week is more of the angle you're looking at. That's truly contrived. Valentine's Day is a national holiday. It's not a day off and things aren't closed, but there's an obligation for men and women to pay respect to each other on that day. So we respect that and we'll try to do it with the most integrity.

Restaurant Week is a whole other thing. It goes back to that customer that wants something for nothing or is uneducated. Still, at that point, if you do participate in Restaurant Week, you have to buy into it. You paid $800 to do it. You're getting advertised for it. So don't complain when people come and tip 10 percent. Or don't do Restaurant Week. It's a good comparison because the customer base is very similar, and I think Restaurant Week is worse because you get people that come in and do the $45 menu and want to split it. It sucks, but they would never come to your restaurant in the first place. And maybe if you impress them, they'll come back for their anniversary or their birthday. It's marketing. You have to be a smart marketer.

John Tesar. [Photo: Margo Sivin/EDFW]


Jonathon Sawyer

Greenhouse Tavern, Cleveland

So is Valentine's Day the worst?
No. I mean, we're in Cleveland, too, so you have to temper everything with our location in the country. I think the reality of the situation is that New Years and Valentine's Day may be some people's only opportunity to afford to come downtown and eat at the Greenhouse Tavern that they read about. So, for us, it's not about gouging the customer for the surf 'n turf special for one evening that people call amateur's night. It's more important that we leave a positive impression and roll out the red carpet for the people that are coming out. So we do eight courses and we bring in opera singers. We really let the mood set itself, just opera every hour, eight courses all totally themed around aphrodisiacs and ingredients that we don't always use, and we put ourselves on a platform.

Do you think that the gouging is very prevalent?
I think it is. I know of certain restaurants that take their menu, reduce it to say four choices in each category as opposed to a traditional one, and add 25 percent to their menu price. Then they put that special on, that $100 surf 'n turf. I don't have a problem with it. I understand the industry and I understand certain people of a certain disposition are really profit-driven, so they're gougers. But for us it's more experiential and [about] building a long-term restaurant, not a quick buck.

So why did you decide to bring in opera singers and coursed menu? Why introduce something special?

If you believe it's a shitshow, it'll feel like a shitshow.

I don't know. It's my personal belief. I love the idea of embracing holidays as opposed to being afraid of them. We firmly believe in positive thinking as well. If you believe it's a shitshow, it'll feel like a shitshow. But if you think positively and really think that you're affecting people that you don't normally affect in a positive way, then of course it's going to be a fun service.

So obviously every year there's plenty of grumbling about Valentine's Day, the amateur night thing, so you think that's avoidable?
Yeah. I think if you plan it properly and your menu is geared toward embracing the holiday as opposed to shitshowing it, you can have a great experience.

What's shitshowing it?
I don't know, I haven't worked in chains in a long time, but I can imagine working at TGI McScratchy's being really awful on the holidays like this one. But I couldn't say anything else more specific. For me, the biggest shitshow on Valentine's Day is that I don't get to spend it with my wife and my kids.

What is the hardest holiday for you? The most intense?
I would say New Years is the most intense because it's a slightly foreign platform. This year, we did 15 courses for 200 people. So you saw over 3,000 plates go out of our kitchen at a very high price at a very fast pace. We call the expo counter "the matrix" on that night because the tickets are 14 courses long and the courses are pretty rapid. So that is definitely the most challenging for me as a chef and expeditor. And those dishes are all fairly new dishes that we want to see hit the menu in the coming year that we're testing for the first time. So there's always that, "Oh shit, the sea vegetable salad didn't work out. What are we going to do?"

And how do you deal with the influx of reservations for Valentine's Day?
We set longer turn times. So a two-top we give three hours, a four-top we give three and a half, and then anything over six we give four hours. We just set real long turn times, and we let people make their own reservations. And we post [reservations] really early, too. We post 90 days early, typically.

Jonathon Sawyer. [Photo: Noodlecat]


Amanda Cohen

Dirt Candy, New York City

Is Valentine's Day the worst holiday to you?
It's a difficult holiday. We don't do anything special for it. It's hard because you see people come in with so many expectations. You don't want to disappoint them and it's hard not to when people's expectations are so high. There's so much riding on this dinner.

What kinds of expectations?
I think for most people, they're either really trying to please somebody or they're trying to have sex. There's two ways to go. And that's a lot of pressure for a restaurant to have to live up to. It's very hard to make somebody's date go perfectly.

What's the reservation situation like for you on Valentine's Day?

For Valentine's Day, we are fully booked by the end of the day reservations open.

We're fully booked. We take reservations 60 days out all the time. We get booked up pretty far in advance, but for Valentine's Day, we are fully booked by the end of the day reservations open. Then we'll have people who call seven weeks out, and they're like, "Are you kidding?" And we're like, "Yes, we're so sorry." Not only do we have full reservation lists, we also have this insane waitlist. Right now we have 35 slots on it. That's more than we can actually take.

By contrast, how long does it usually take for a night to fill up?
About a month to five weeks. The middle times fill up pretty fast. But to have our 10:30 filled 60 days in advance is crazy.

And what is Valentine's Day like compared to normal days?
For us it's sort of the same. It's a little bit more repetitive because it is all two-tops. But people are usually pretty good in the restaurant and they understand we're managing a lot here. So we now have people who have waited 60 days and don't want to wait a half an hour for their table. They want to get seated. There's a lot of managing that happens. But for the most part our customers are pretty good. They understand. And, again, everybody is trying to get home to have sex hopefully.

How does having a dining room full of two-tops change the atmosphere for the front of the house or the stress level? Does it have an effect?
I don't think it makes it more stressful, but all of a sudden it's very focused. It's a very serious dining room people eating out on Valentine's Day. They're here to be with the people they love, eat the food, and then leave. We often have this really crazy, fun atmosphere and everybody's talking with each other and we're laughing back and forth with the guests from the kitchen... it's a lot more serious [on Valentine's Day].

And why do you not do a special Valentine's menu?
Sometimes I feel like all those specials are forcing you to spend money that you don't necessarily want to. When you do a prix fixe, you guarantee that people are going to have an appetizer, entree, and dessert. And not everybody always wants to eat that way, and this is a really special night. It feels like too much to me to force that on people. At the same time, I totally understand why people do it. They're like, okay, well you are at my table and you're going to be here for two hours and I'd rather you not share one dish and sit here for two hours.

A lot of the chefs I've talked to have been very up on Valentine's Day, which is funny because of all the complaining you hear about it. What is the reality of how people feel about Valentine's Day in the industry?
I think the build-up to it is always worse than the actual day. You kind of really dread the day and then the day happens and you're like, oh, it wasn't so bad. And then you have the 364 other days where you're like, "Ugh, Valentine's Day." I have to admit, there have been lots of years where we've been closed on Valentine's Day and I've been really excited. "Ugh, thank goodness we don't have to deal with that day."

People come with such high expectations. You don't want to disappoint anybody.

But mostly it's just because you don't want to disappoint people. People come with such high expectations. They really want to get something out of this meal. For a lot of people who do go out on Valentine's Day, this is one of the few days of the year they go out. And you don't want to disappoint anybody. That doesn't mean I think we're a disappointing restaurant, but it's just so much pressure. That's what I feel most restaurateurs feel. It's not that the customers are worse. It's just a lot going on before the evening gets there.

Do you think customers are more inclined to complain if they made reservations in advance?
I don't know. It depends how far along in their relationship they are. On the first date, they probably wouldn't complain. (laughs) Because, again, everybody wants it to go just perfectly and life doesn't happen perfectly.

Do you have any other thoughts on Valentine's Day shift?
I just want it to feel normal. If we don't put too much pressure on it, other people won't put too much pressure on it. It's a night like any other night. If it doesn't go the way any of us planned, it's okay. There's always another dinner. I assume that most people have a good time when they come here and they get to go home and either get another date or have sex. It feels like a giant orgy sometimes in the restaurant. I don't know how to explain it, but you're serving everybody and you're just like, "Oh, they all just want to go home and get laid. That's all that's happening. It's on everybody's mind in here." You can tell when they don't order dessert. Or when they take their dessert to go.

Amanda Cohen. [Photo: Daniel Krieger]


Sean Baker

Gather and Verbena, San Francisco

Is Valentine's Day the worst holiday for restaurants?
No, I don't think so. Because we're busy. I feel like it's an opportunity for people to come in and enjoy themselves. As a restaurateur, that's what you want is people to come in and relax at your spot. So it's always been a good holiday. It's always been an outlet for creativity. We're not doing anything at Verbena, but at Gather we've always done a prix fixe menu, which allows the chefs to collaborate on new dishes.

And how do you decide to do a prix fixe menu at Gather and not at Verbena?
We're younger and we're just focusing on making sure that what we're doing is as close to perfect as we can get every night. No loops yet. No hurdles.

Do you guys just get flooded with reservations requests for a holiday like this?
Both restaurants are very busy. Fully booked and that's what you want. You always want to see a full restaurant.

How do you deal with that, making the reservations? Do you have to change up your system at all?
It's mostly two-tops, so the reservations change slightly on how you set up your dining room for service. But other than that it's not too different. Timing is everything. Our front of the house staff does a really great job of setting the kitchen and the restaurant up for success. What we do every single night at the restaurant is try to make people happy. We don't try to like cram extra tables in or anything like that.

What mistakes do you think restaurants make on Valentine's Day? What are you trying to avoid when you're planning for Valentine's Day?

Some restaurant owners look at it as their payday. So it turns into a Valentine's Day massacre.

Overextending yourself. I think that every restaurant never wants to overextend themselves. That's when you run into problems is when you either put stuff on your menu that overextends the kitchen or you overbook your dining room. Maybe some restaurant owners want to look at it as their payday. I've worked for restaurateurs that are like that. So it turns into a Valentine's Day massacre.

We've had so much fun in the past. I've done so many fun dishes where it's like lamb tongue on neck and just very suggestive kind of fun stuff. Love potions and different things. It's a great time for a restaurant. I've never worked in a restaurant where it's like, "Damn, here comes Valentine's Day." I've always been so excited, and the reason I'm not so excited right now is because I'm in the opening phase of a brand new restaurant.

Sean Baker. [Photo: Gather]

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