Valentine's night might seem like a great opportunity to boost business on a flat February Monday, but the experts would urge careful thought.
For a start, the great British romantic is not a pushover. Only a decade or so ago, for instance, pink tablecloths and the ubiquitous rose-seller were all it took to seduce the average couple, but today diners have more experience of eating out and tend to be less kitsch.
"Diners in general have become more sophisticated," agrees Steve Brown, director of the Restaurant Consultancy in Edinburgh (www.therestaurantconsultancy.com). "I remember in the 1990s when the menus on Valentine's night would have descriptions such as: ‘served in a loving pool of raspberry coulis'."
It's still worth tweaking your menu for the big day, but make sure it isn't overplayed. One easy twist is adding dishes to share - particularly when it comes to chocolate-based puddings. Brown also advises having a back-up menu using similar ingredients, in case a table of businessmen arrive.
Which raises the fact that not all restaurants are attractive to the Valentine's night market. As Brown points out, most Valentine's lovers are looking for a treat, or somewhere intimate. If that doesn't sound like you, he suggests you could go for the single market instead. "What about hooking up with another organisation - for instance you could host a speed-dating evening."
A downside of going all-out for couples is that you could end up turning fewer covers - especially if you have lots of tables that take four people. Similarly, you don't want to alienate your usual clientele - or diners who may not have tuned into the Valentine's furore.
One thing you can do is to assess your bookings as they come in and prepare accordingly - although Modern Love can test a restaurateur's powers of discretion. "In one restaurant that I worked in we used to get a lot of tables for three," says Brown.
Chris Brown, director of consultancy Turpin Smale (www.turpinsmale.co.uk), offers a last warning: "Be careful and don't take too many bookings. February can be a quiet time of year and a one-night peak, especially if they are all tables of two, can play havoc with a front-of-house and kitchen team that is in ‘off peak' mode. I learnt the hard way when managing Fourways, one of Bermuda's largest and finest restaurants."
five steps to the perfect valentine's night
Assess your market Don't presume your restaurant will attract the type of customer who wants to celebrate Valentine's night - most romantics will be looking for soft lighting, intimate surroundings or somewhere upmarket
Manage your bookings Make sure you don't take so many bookings that you overwhelm your kitchen or front-of-house staff at this traditionally quiet time of year. Similarly, look at your table formats and decide whether a restaurant of couples is desirable
Market it carefully If you do decide to target the Valentine's crowd, think of it as an opportunity to attract a wider market. You may pull in people who don't usually visit your restaurant, so make sure you harvest their contact details for future promotions. Consider the demographics and make sure you and your staff market the evening to the right people
Don't get too cheesy Today's diner tends to be a bit cooler when it comes to impressing the opposite sex. By all means write a special menu with sharing dishes and special ingredients, but don't overplay it. And consider having a back-up menu with the same ingredients for those two businessmen who turn up out of the blue. Similarly, don't change your menu too much in case you have to use up unordered ingredients throughout the rest of the week - it'll be a turn-off for your regulars
Consider other customer opportunities You may find your business can turn a trick on the big night by catering for non-Valentines customers - businessmen, families and non-romantics. If your restaurant is better suited to attracting the singles market, consider hooking up with, say, a speed-dating operator. Or you could buck the trend completely and have an anti-Valentine's night