Cracker Barrel is giving at-home diners a chance to indulge in the chain’s traditional holiday dinners. Its Heat n' Serve Holiday Family Meal To-Go program features all the fixings, and comes chilled and packaged.

With social distancing still in play, people are planning fewer parties and gatherings, particularly for Thanksgiving and Christmas. And when they do hold gatherings, they’re going to be significantly smaller in size.

According to a Mintel survey, 52% of consumers who ordered food from restaurants during the past three months said they’d purchase a catered restaurant meal for a social gathering. Another 32% said they would dine at a restaurant on a special occasion.

Industry experts claim people are tired of cooking at home and want to dine out again. Operators can capitalize on that pent-up demand by offering them a restaurant Thanksgiving experience at home.

Operators have opportunities to generate revenue with specialized meal kits and dinners that feed up to six people, holiday to-go cocktails, housemade baked goods, and special sauces and condiments that guests can’t get anywhere else or make on their own.

Think outside the box

Hospitality consultant Larry Reinstein, CEO of LJR Hospitality Ventures, says that like everything else this year, Thanksgiving is going to be strange but there are solid opportunities to grow sales. He urged operators to think outside the box to make the holiday more special.

  • In warmer areas of the country, increase outdoor dining options, and make them look festive and entertaining. Dress up those spaces with special tablecloths, decorations and centerpieces.
     
  • Whether you’re serving dine-in or takeout customers, think in terms of smaller holiday packages that serve four to six people; these will be very popular.
     
  • Create packages that include all the trimmings, such as signature butternut squash or corn chowder soups, the roasted turkey main dish, stuffing, mashed potatoes, pan gravy, and the best, most popular sides your restaurant makes. Include staple desserts, such as pumpkin and pecan pies.
     
  • Offer signature items, including special sauces, salad dressings and baked goods that guests usually enjoy when dining at the restaurant. (Sales success is a good way to test items for a possible retail/supermarket launch).
     
  • Offer wines that are a good value and hard to find. Those selections are a great addition your menu.

“People want different fare than what they usually buy at the supermarket,” he said. “That’s why it’s smart to offer items that are ‘craveable’. Make sure your signature half-gallon of soup, classic stuffing with sausage, homemade scones and pumpkin cheesecake are prominently featured on your Thanksgiving menu,” he advises.

Trending to smaller turkeys

Nicole Behne, vice president of marketing at Hormel Foods’ Jennie-O Turkey Store, says restaurant operators would be smart to serve smaller protein options to accommodate the smaller gatherings expected this year.

“The holiday is going to look different,” she said. “People won’t be having larger family gatherings so smaller options, like boneless turkey breast, could provide just the right amount of protein for those get-togethers. Our goal is to help make the holiday as stress-free as possible for both restaurant chefs and home cooks during this challenging time.”

Think through package options, too. Smaller gatherings might require smaller birds, but could you also offer a small turkey breast to enhance the package with guaranteed leftovers for the next day?

Craft cocktails, scratch-made meals are specials of the day

Dan Simons, co-founder of the Founding Farmers casual-dining chain, is doing all of those things, and more. He believes consumers are eager to be cared for and want to experience the hospitality they’ve missed. He said demand for the chain’s Thanksgiving-to-go fare has already increased five-fold over last year. Dine-in reservations also are on the rise.

“Our goal is to meet our guests wherever they are and with whatever they need,” he says. “We’ve expanded some of our offerings for those who want to stay home but enjoy our scratch-made food and drink.

“This includes a prix-fixe menu of prepared, to-go foods and craft cocktails, and a Thanksgiving Weekend at Home option that features foods partially prepared in our restaurants’ kitchens, but finished—reheated and assembled—at the customer’s home.

“Guests can use our curbside pickup, or we can deliver the food to them. For those customers who are comfortable dining with us, they can join us either indoors or on our heated and tented patios.”

Shifting gears to gain sales

Cracker Barrel also recognized an opportunity to give at-home diners a chance to indulge in the chain’s traditional holiday dinners. Its Heat n' Serve Holiday Family Meal To-Go program features all the fixings, and comes chilled and packaged.

The meals are available in two sizes—one that feeds four to six people and another that serves up to 10. Guests pick it up curbside, take it home, and heat it in less than two hours. The meals include roasted turkey breast, cornbread dressing, turkey gravy, cranberry relish, choice of two or three sides, sweet rolls, and pumpkin and pecan pies.

As an added incentive, the chain will offer guests who pre-order the meals either a $5 or $10 gift card for a future meal depending on the size of the meal ordered.

“Thanksgiving has always been a time for us to welcome guests for the holidays,” says Michael Hackney, the chain’s senior vice president of Restaurant and Retail Operations. “We know the holiday will look different for many this year, but we are more committed than ever to our mission of pleasing people and delivering a safe experience so families can connect over a holiday meal—virtually, at home, or around our table.”

Food trends expert Nancy Kruse says consumers suffering from pantry fatigue would rely on restaurant-prepared foods, “…either for the entire meal or to supplement and jazz up what they've made themselves.”

Operators who provide these special holiday items will not only create additional revenue, but also customer loyalty. That will pay even bigger benefits when the pandemic ends and diners are back dining out in full force once more.