Controlled Mayhem- The Holidays and Your Food Business



The food and drink industry is challenging in many ways, but nothing will test the knowledge and patience of even the most seasoned entrepreneur quite like the holidays.


When I had my shop, this was the time (September) I'd begin planning my schedule, menu, order cut off times, and holiday food and craft shows.

I realized last week that I'm rusty- the applications for holiday shows went out in August this year- the deadline the first week of September. So I'd recommend planning should really now begin in August.  Yeah, August- I know.  But entrepreneurial planning and goal setting is so vital to a healthy happy business.


Want the Holidays at your small business to be merry and bright?  Take the following into consideration:


Show Selection and Scheduling


You could spend every weekend from Halloween to the weekend before Christmas doing holiday shows- but do you really want to? How do you choose a show?  When do you stop?


Check yourself using my holiday show checklist:


Is the show curated:  Free-for-all shows with no jury system or panel are nice because no one's feelings get hurt. But being nice can get expensive. The issue that arises in free-for-all is that there is no filter. Do you want to be 1 of 20 vendors selling herbal tea? Probably not.

Get your money's worth:  Now you've been selected as a vendor, don't shy away from asking if you'll be the only baker/soda/coffee/etc. vendor. The show organizers should answer you truthfully, and if you're going to be out of shop and with paying extra labour for the day, make sure you're profiting, being seen, and at very least, break even.

Attendance and reputation: Ask your business pals which shows in our city are reputable.  A good show will advertise thoroughly for weeks in advance, include you in the process and send you frequent communications leading up to show day.  Great shows I’ve done here in Ottawa include the Cheerfully Made Markets, The Punk Ottawa Flea Market, and Idle Hands.  Newer shows in Ottawa I’ve heard great things about are the Freewheeling Craft Markets and 613 Flea.

How many is too many: Only you know the answer to that.  Ensure you’re not overextending yourself and your staff as the holidays approach.  What do you hope to get out of the shows- Exposure?  Pre-orders for the Holidays?  Fast Cash?  Set your goals and book accordingly, but wisely.






Show Planning


Some of my tried and true methods:


Find your shiny star: As your business grows and the holidays get closer, you may not always have the time to be the face of it. Do you have a “peacock” on staff? I did when I had the bakery. This employee would rock every show he represented me at, sell out, and come back with organizers and fellow vendors alike swooning. If you have a peacock, use them.  It’s also good for you as an entrepreneur to delegate big tasks like this one.

How is attendance and what is the estimated attendance: You don't want to come home with boxes of spoiled product, but at the same time you don't want to be the guy who runs out in the first hour. Take a look at the Facebook event listing (I usually look at the “interested” rather than attending) and divide it in half. You can also ask your organizers what estimated attendance is. When planning your show inventory, you should also take into context your “break even” inventory. (See number 4)

The holiday twilight zone: stop doing shows by mid December. You'll thank yourself as the party and luncheon orders/reservations pour in and things get crazy. You won't have time for “extracurriculars”

Your “break even” point: When I did holiday shows it was to collect pre orders and showcase my holiday offerings.  If you are using the show as a platform to advertise, your financial goal must be to at least break even.  Translation:  Make your Money back.  It’s simple to figure out. Add up the following to get your break even number: table fee for the show, cost of transportation, labour for the day (even if it’s you- pay yourself!), cost of materials, cost of printed materials you bring, cost of your meal or lunch for the day. This will also help you determine the amount of product to bring with you to make the event worth your time.  How many units of the product should you bring to break even?  Take a minute to do the math and you’ll have greater confidence of your inventory and pricing on show day.





 Controlled Mayhem


As the big day approaches, people get more and more wound up. Details are overlooked, guests forgotten, last minute gifts snapped up. Heres how to control the cyclone that awaits you.


Set a cut off date. Post it in November and stick to it. I personally always liked December 21. Give lots of heads up on your social media platforms.  Order cut offs will keep production humming and the quality of product consistent.  Don’t stretch yourself too thin- no matter how tempting it is.  Ultimately it will just cost you more.

Set your holiday hours and post them in November.  What time will you close Christmas eve?  New Years?  Having your holiday hours clearly outlined will prevent frustration.  Make a cute design and pin to the top of  your social media.

Set a discount  (5-10%) for early birds and create a holiday order/reservation form online and in hard copy for your shows. Post far and wide at the beginning of November. Your policy- all pre orders are to be paid upon their placement if they're over $50. This ensures you won't be chasing those who haven't paid closer to December 24- you won’t have time- trust me.  There’s also the added benefit that people who have pre paid actually show up, and you can use the early payment to help out in your inventory cash flows.

If you have a niche market, anticipate what I used to call a “google rush”*.  As I owned the first vegan bakery in the city; around December 20 I’d have an influx of first timers looking to accommodate relatives and guests with dietary restrictions.  I’d increase my retail inventory around December 20 to make sure anyone who popped in could get some goodies- and I could get their money.

Inventory.  Pre order holiday specific items such as red and green sprinkles, your labels, special wrapping, hard to get inventory items around halloween.  Yes, halloween.  The last thing you need is to be running all over the city looking for a special item.  Plan ahead and reap the rewards.


To Stay Open or Not Stay Open


This hotly debated topic is really all dependant on the kind of business you run and what you’d like personally as an entrepreneur.  What will work best for you and your staff?  Some things to consider:


What kind of business are you: If you’re retail food like a shop, in my personal experience it’s not worth it to stay open December 24- January 1. Folks are out of town and overfed. Every time I attempted this- even one year when I did a new Years promo with Champagne cupcakes- I fell flat.  Consider this and your client base.  That being said, if you’re a restaurant, re opening December 26 - 31 is a smart and common move.  Folks are in the mood for excess and to spend. 

Who are your clients:  Do you attract a lot of out of towners?  If Out of towners will want to see what you’re about.  Consider staying open and maybe closing for a holiday for a couple weeks in January when things are quiet , the tourists are gone and even the regulars are hesitant to spend.

Staff and morale:  Do you have staff with children and/or out of town family?  How many will be available to work the holidays? A happy loyal staff who are being treated well is priceless.  Take them into highest consideration on the holidays.


Speaking of Your Staff


It’s going to be busy and some long days and nights await you and your staff.  To ensure harmony in your businesses kitchen, this is what I’ve learned.


The power of $50:  Ordering a pizza, picking up a box of coffee, bringing in fancy treats or meals from another business you love will boost morale.  Without your people, there isn’t a business, so treat them right.

Time off for the holidays: ensure your staff members with the farthest to go to get home get to leave first.  Other factors include those with kids or elderly parents expecting them.  Ask your staff in October what their holiday plans are and do your best to accommodate everyone.  Hire temporary seasonal help who are staying in town for the holidays if necessary.

Make it rain: did you have a profitable holiday?  It’s all thanks to your staff.  Consider tossing them some cash  or a few paid days off as a way of saying thanks.

Let them play DJ:  There’s no faster way to zap someone's morale then forced Holiday music.  They're working hard, let them listen to what they want. Keep the morale and energy positive.


There's no foolproof method to get through the holidays in one piece, but careful planning and measuring results can relieve some of the pressure you’re sure to feel. Like most big times of year in the food business, it’s all about controlled mayhem.  Rest well, eat well, and make sure you don’t overwork yourself. Most importantly- take time for yourself too to go and enjoy your family, friends and the holidays.


Xo M.