Planning LTOs Now for Holiday Success


Limited-time offers (LTOs) focused on food and customer events can drive traffic during the holidays and beyond.

The calendar says autumn and the countdown is on to the holidays. But before operators blast off into the busiest time of the year, it’s smart to take a moment and think about what’s ahead. Working out a complete holiday plan for your limited-time offers (LTOs), will not only benefit business during the last quarter of the year, but also during traditionally slower weeks in January and February. 

Gordon Food Service Commercial Segment Manager Doug Owens suggests breaking this work into two components: mapping the holidays and focusing on the guest experience. The first part requires filling your calendar with step-by-step plans geared toward maximizing sales. If that’s not enough reason to build out a plan, consider how a well-crafted plan can provide valuable data that can be used to enhance operational efficiency, better understand customers and drive higher guest counts.

Mapping out holiday LTOs

It’s common to have ideas about holiday LTOs or specials months in advance. With the holiday season approaching, it’s time to firm up a plan of attack, Owens says. Here are six steps he recommends:

1. Selection. Choose the items to be featured during the holidays.

2. Testing. Create each item to determine kitchen production capability. Make sure your staff is comfortable with the LTO before the holiday crush.

3. Costing. With ingredients and production needs identified, conduct a cost analysis. This will show how much the product will cost to prepare, what the margin will be and ultimately allow a price to be set.

4. Action. Select the LTO start and end dates.

5. Marketing. Schedule a plan to communicate the LTO to customers, thinking backward from the date of execution. If the LTO will be featured during Thanksgiving week, alert guests a few weeks early. 

6. Training. Educate staff once the marketing plan is finalized. Just as the kitchen team needs to be coached in how to prepare the LTO efficiently, the front-of-house staff needs coaching on how to present these unique offers. Schedule a staff tasting prior to offering an LTO. Waitstaff should be able to describe the flavour profile with confidence. 

Data dishes out the details

Having a plan in place not only keeps everything on schedule; it also makes the evaluation more meaningful. “Sometimes operators are so involved in all parts of their holiday business—recipes, LTO development, training and marketing—that they forget to consider data-driven decisions,” Owens says.

For example, if one of the LTOs is a chocolate cheesecake with peppermint bark, the operator needs to be able to tell how that item affected business. Did the cheesecake sell really well on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, but not on other weeknights? Was it popular during lunch but not dinner? Letting the data speak instead of being guided by remarks from customers or the excitement of servers can reveal details beyond casual observations.

“The data may show that portion sizes were too big,” Owens notes. “And you might reach that conclusion by seeing data that shows the sale of one piece of cheesecake at a table with four guests.”

Going forward, data-driven findings help in two ways: They enhance critical thinking about the next LTO, whether it’s next week or next month, and provide documented facts that can be used for next year’s action plan.

A marriage of products and guest experience

There are lots of reasons to use an LTO, from testing new flavour profiles to showcasing items that might get added to the permanent menu. But holiday LTOs can be more than just a special cheesecake dessert, cinnamon-spiced drink or leg-of-lamb entrée, Owens says. The LTO can be an event—a special occasion people can get only at your operation.

“There’s no better time to engage, get feedback and try to build market share than when you have a bigger and more diverse audience than you regularly get,” he explains. “If possible, don’t limit the LTO to just the food; it can be about the food and the experience.”

During the holidays, a wine-, beer- or bourbon-tasting event, or possibly a vertical tasting of spreads, appetizers or shareable plates can provide a unique format to drive new business. Experiences like these are another great place to collect data. A wine-tasting could provide details about customer preferences, result in pairing suggestions or attract an entirely new clientele and lead to quarterly wine-related events.

Done during the holidays, group events centred on guest recognition and community relations are a great way for operators to show some spirit. 

“I’ve seen restaurants pay tribute to their local ambulance service; I’ve seen a firefighter dinner on a Monday night,” Owens recalls. “Just make sure it’s authentic and consistent with how you represent yourself all year.”

Firehouse Chili on a weeknight—with a discount for firefighters or a donation to the local fire hall for every bowl sold—won’t cut into your weekend guest counts but will be a gesture of goodwill to the community.

“Events like this are a great way to make sure your regular customers don’t get overlooked during the holidays when you have so many new or once-in-a-great-while guests,” Owens says.

What’s next? They’ll want to know

Even though you’re focused on the holidays, don’t forget to talk to your LTO-captive audience about the upcoming months. Whether you add a notice inside the cheque holder, create a placard near the hostess station or have servers talk it up by word of mouth, operators should be initiating the next experience.

“Your restaurant needs to remain full and busy after the holidays,” Owens says. “Customers always start to think about their finances after the holidays, and you need to remind them so they’ll think of you when it comes to discretionary spending.”

Why holiday LTOs matter

Restaurant operators are always looking for the next big thing. LTOs can help:

  • Appeal to customers. Holidays draw in regulars and occasional customers. Having an LTO adds something special to the menu neither have ever seen.
  • Build data. Tracking LTO success helps draft a history for comparison and improvement. Did the timing of online marketing boost sales? Should the portion size have been bigger/smaller, etc.
  • Collect feedback. Because LTOs stand apart from the regular menu, guest satisfaction feedback can be targeted (Yelp, Facebook or comment cards). Always ask: What did you like about and what would you like to see more of?
  • Test future items. Seasonal items like pumpkin pie will sell during the holidays. But your data may show an appetizer or entrée is so popular that it’s worth adding to the main menu.
  • Midweek sales. It’s OK to run LTOs earlier in the week. Driving incremental sales helps on the days with smaller crowds, and provides an experience that can increase weekend traffic.
  • Post-holiday awareness. The LTOs that draw holiday guests provide an opportunity to speak about your plans for January, February and March. Maybe “Beer Month” is just ahead. Let them know of Valentine’s Day plans.

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