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Last Friday morning, Jaki Downs got a call about the Hamilton’s open-flame policy.
“Can you be more specific?” the event manager for the downtown restaurant asked the caller, who was organizing an upcoming party at the downtown restaurant. “Because technically our open-flame policy is we don’t do it.”
“It’s actually part of the performance,’” the guest said.
“OK, you’re going to have to give me some more information on that,” Downs told him.
Long story short: “There may be a fire eater that wants to come in here,” she says. “Waiting for an email back to find out exactly what that means.”
That was just another day in the holiday office party season for Downs. Another group wanted to know whether they could have “aerial bartenders” serve drinks while hanging from the ceiling. “Let’s just say the kibosh was put on that one,” she says. “But these are the extravagances we’re talking about that people would like to do.”
Downs is working 14- to 16-hour days this month to oversee all the holiday parties at Old Ebbitt Grill and the Hamilton, which host the most private events of any of the 14 Clyde’s Restaurant Group properties. The two restaurants each have an average of five to eight events booked per day this month—everything from small seated dinners to happy hours at the bar to 600-person parties. Companies spend anywhere from $25 a head for a small luncheon to $100,000 for a blow-out buyout. That’s no doubt more than many of the guests at those parties make in a year.
With that kind of cash being thrown around, private events are big business for the restaurant industry in D.C. And December is their busiest month. While many companies cut back after the 2008 financial crisis, the consensus among restaurant staff I spoke to is that the office holiday party is back. (Although the excesses may still not be quite what they once were, depending who you ask.) Either way, one thing hasn’t changed: Lots of open bars mean lots of opportunities to embarrass yourself in front of your boss and colleagues.
“What’s so interesting about the holiday party is that it essentially combines all potential areas of employer liability, all within three hours,” says Capitol Lounge and Vendetta co-owner Jimmy Silk.
But it’s not like that’s stopping anybody: “We’ll do parties back to back to back throughout the day,” Silk says. There are so many holiday parties going on throughout D.C., especially the second week of December, that if his restaurants don’t book, “we’re going to be really quiet because everyone else is at a holiday party somewhere else in the city,” he says. “The goal is to just book, book, book, book.”
Silk estimates that about 35 percent of the restaurants’ business during December comes from private events, which cost anywhere from $1,000 to $15,000. At Carmine’s, it’s 60 percent, says CEO Jeffrey Bank. In December, the Penn Quarter Italian restaurant, which has nine to 13 private rooms depending on the configuration, typically sets aside only 200 seats for regular diners, compared to the 750 usually available. (The profit margins are the same whether the seats are filled with partygoers or regular diners, Bank says. The advantage of the events is the certainty of filling those seats.) Holiday event revenue is already up 15 to 18 percent this year over last.
At Lincoln Restaurant and Teddy & the Bully Bar, about half the December revenue comes from holiday parties, says owner Alan Popovsky. Both places see two or three buyouts of the entire restaurant per week during the first three weeks of the month. Companies pay an average of $20,000, but as much as $30,000, for buyouts, he says. Not only are buyouts easier to execute for the restaurants, but they can bring in 10 to 40 percent more profit than a regular night.
While holiday party business has bounced back, Popovsky says it’s still not where it was before the 2008 recession. It wasn’t uncommon for companies back in the day to go over budget by as much as 25 to 30 percent, he says. “Now, they have no problem coming up to our managers and saying, ‘Cut it off.’”
Popovsky is also seeing companies tone down the glitz. (Obviously, the people wanting aerial bartenders didn’t call him.) “Ten years ago, a company used to do Champagne fountains and chocolate fountains and things like that. And now they don’t,” he says. “Most companies want to show a level of restraint…They might up the brand of Champagne, but they don’t want it coming out of a fountain.”
Popovsky and others cite law firms as their top clients during holiday party season. Other frequent event bookers are the groups you might expect in D.C.: lobbyists, real estate companies, trade associations, nonprofits, and media groups.
Event prices often go up in December, and as a result, more companies are starting to book their holiday parties in January instead. “A restaurant can be a lot more flexible in January than it can in the holiday time,” Popovsky. “It’s not a new thing, but it’s becoming more in vogue…We have a record number of buyouts in January.”
Many January parties are also for bar and restaurant employees who are working the other parties during holiday season. “With the bar and restaurant industry blowing up as it has in the last two to three years in D.C., you have many more holiday parties for bars and restaurants, and those all take place in January,” Capitol Lounge’s Silk says.
So just what are companies spending all this money on? Restaurant event coordinators have seen it all: DJs, bands for live karaoke singalongs, caricaturists, fortune tellers, magicians, casino tables, mixology classes, and more. Silk says he’s had Barack Obama and Joe Biden impersonators, too.
P.J. Clarke’s Director of Private Affairs Emily Hines says the restaurant’s D.C. holiday office parties tend to have more of a “program” than those at the New York location. “They’ll either have a slide show or a raffle giveaway. Some do a funny roast about the company,” she says. “In New York, it was just a large cocktail party, and people just drank a lot.” Still, those raffles can get extravagant, with prizes like iPads, $500 Amex gift cards, or TVs.
“I have at least three clients this year who’ve said that they would need to drop off gifts early in a secure location,” Hines says.
And there’s a good chance there will be photo evidence of any shenanigans. At P.J. Clarke’s, photo booths are huge this year, Hines says. Meanwhile, Downs says a service called Social PIX is in at the Hamilton and Old Ebbitt. She explains that some groups hire a model to walk around the party taking photos from an iPad contraption, which are then streamed to the company’s social media accounts, the restaurant’s social media accounts, and screens around the room.
Many companies have upped their music game also. Rather than bands catered to corporate events, the Hamilton now sees more companies booking bands that might otherwise hold concerts at its music venue. And whereas most months the Hamilton Live hosts around 25 shows, there are only three or four in the first three weeks of December. It’s far more profitable to use that space for private parties. “When somebody wants to spend $50,000 to have their Christmas party, we can hold the music for the night,” says Clyde’s Restaurant Group Managing Director David Moran.
Good music, however, doesn’t improve the dancing.
“You get to see some Elaine Benes from Seinfeld dancing,” Moran says.
“Actually, last night, it was the entire legal secretary pool doing a full-on line dance,” Downs adds.
Helping prevent too many incidents whispered about at the water cooler the next day, Clyde’s Restaurant Group actually bans shots at all private events. (Restaurants can lose their liquor license for over-serving guests.) It also requires clients to hire its security team for events of more than 200 to 300 people.
“When someone else is buying the drinks, they go down a lot faster, and you order more,” Moran says. “Sometimes it gets a little challenging because the person will say, ‘OK, just let me have 10 Maker’s Mark neat…’ Our liquor license and our ability to do business all year round is way more important than one event, so we need to be smart about it, and we want everyone to have a good time.”
It’s not just the restaurants on the hook if things get out of control; it’s the companies hosting the events. At H Street Country Club, Silk recalls one guy who got a little out of hand playing a Xbox Kinect. “He kicked, and his shoe went flying off of his body and it cracked our 44-inch television screen,” Silk says. “So that caused an issue because they didn’t want to pay for it.” (Fortunately, the restaurant has a damage waiver attached to every contract.)
But aside from that, holiday office parties are more for lovers than fighters. Silk estimates he’s been involved in 250 office parties over the years. He’s never seen a fight break out, but he’s seen plenty of public displays of affection. “Whether that’s against HR code or not, I have no idea,” he says.
Likewise, Popovsky has noticed an uptick in romantic encounters in the hallways—or the restroom—during the holiday office party season.
“You’ll see people making out,” he says. “And we don’t even have mistletoe here.”
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Photo by Darrow Montgomery