Stephen Jardine: Time for crackers and customers!

Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
Stephen Jardine. Picture: Jon Savage
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THIS is the time of year every restaurateur loves and loathes in equal measure. The booking sheet is full and business is booming, but then so it is for everyone. For the next ten days, eating out is an obstacle course with office parties providing booby-traps every step of the way.

Let’s start with the customers. Most are present out of duty, or in the hope that pulling a cracker with the boss will enhance their promotion prospects over the next 12 months.

Food is the last thing on their minds. After all, we are just days away from the biggest feast of the year and every household is groaning under the weight of satsumas and liqueur chocolates.

For 50 weeks of the year, restaurant choices are based on food, service and atmosphere. In December, all that goes out the window and we select our party places based on grim compromises and what’s available when Kelly from HR starts trying to book a table for 47 in late November.

Then comes the food. Last week, a secret chef revealed to me the horrors of turkey with all the trimmings. “I hate it,” she said. “We would never normally have something like it on the menu, but in December a kind of customer tyranny means we have to serve it day after day. It’s a nightmare to do because there are so many bits and pieces to get right, and that’s before worrying about it being moist and tasty.”

If the kitchen is disenchanted at this time of year, that’s nothing compared to the atmosphere front-of-house.

At my Christmas office lunch last year, the weary restaurant manager asked us to take our drinks through to the lounge. That seemed an outrageous request until we realised it was 6pm and they needed to reset for dinner. At this time of year, there are no split shifts or breaks in service, just an endless stream of customers and crackers.

That wouldn’t seem so bad if the volume of customers was reflected in the tips. Instead, the bigger the party, the smaller the gratuity seems to be.

All of this helps explain why there are signs in some places the traditional office Christmas meal may be on the way out. In the US, several major firms have cancelled traditional dining out in favour of something different. A Dallas company is taking its staff to a shopping mall and giving them cash to spend on themselves. Other companies have set up volunteering events to allow workers to socialise and give something back to the community.

That may be true to the seasonal spirit, but it will never catch on here. The office meal is as much a part of Christmas now as the Queen’s Christmas message.

And even in this age of social media sharing, the nightmare of the office night out will soon be a distant memory until this time next year, when we do it all over again.