Hardworking bar employees deserve better than mass-produced beer and stale bowls of chips. These are nine tips to help you throw a killer holiday staff party.
"Don't look for drinks with more than three ingredients unless you are batching them," says Chris Zulueta, the bar manager at Sylvain in New Orleans. "I prefer to keep things simple as the night is supposed to be enjoyed and not a science project." He likes an easy-to-prep, seasonal take on the Dark ’N’ Stormy, the Chinese 5 Spiced Dark ’N’ Stormy, by Jeffrey Morgenthaler. Set out the recipe and a self-serve bar with plenty of (non-melty) ice; the drink is super forgiving even if you eyeball the amounts rather than rely on a jigger.
“Your local thrift or dollar store could be your best friend in this situation,” says Jonathan Webb, the bar manager at Fine & Dandy in Jackson, Miss. Scout out winter-themed mugs, snowflake glasses or even pineapple-shaped cups for something less expected. “These typically run between a quarter and a couple of bucks apiece, and you can let your staff take them home with them as souvenirs after the party.” No matter what you pick, it’ll be way better than going home with memories of drinking out of a red Solo cup.
Get everyone congregating around the punch bowl instead of the water cooler with the Pear & Pub Ale Party Punch, a convivial sip from Webb. Feel free to temper the amounts if it seems too boozy for your crowd by upping the amount of juice or beer and cutting back on the rye whiskey and rum. And prep the syrup in advance so you can easily mix the punch before the party. Serve it in a large punch bowl garnished with a round Jell-O mold ice block filled with sliced fruit.
"Magnums are great for parties because they are festive, look impressive and make you seem like a big shot," says Bill Netherland, the wine director of HMGI in Charleston, S.C. "Also, they hold twice as much wine, so if some dude from accounting brings junk, you have more wine to share." Kick off the evening with a Champagne alternative like cava, Franciacorta or Crémant de Bourgogne, then switch to an Old World red like Chianti or Cru Beaujolais. As impressive a parlor trick it is, though, this is probably not the time to attempt to saber a bottle. And keep your hand on the bubbly's cork until it's removed. There's no bigger holiday buzzkill than a trip to the ER.
“Go local,” suggests Webb, who would pick seasonal beers from Lucky Town and Southern Prohibition in Mississippi. But don’t get too crafty or esoteric with your selections. No one wants to have to pull up an app to figure out what they’re drinking or where it came from. And not everyone loves a 240-minute IPA, so get a keg (or cans) of a less-polarizing style like a lager, pilsner or seasonal ale.
Staff will need something to nosh on, and while it should be something substantial, it doesn’t have to be labor-intensive. Make (or buy) seven-layer dip, cheese and charcuterie, mini BLTs or saucy party meatballs in a Crock-Pot. And you can never go wrong with a big platter of fried chicken.
Shots aren’t completely verboten at staff parties—but not too many or anything too strong. In other words, keep that bottle of stinging cinnamon-flavored whiskey safely tucked away, and opt for Mint Chocolate Chip Shots from Brandi Austin of STIRR in Dallas. Pre-batch equal parts Baileys Irish cream, green crème de menthe and Frangelico liqueurs and chill. Drizzle chocolate sauce in the shot glasses, then add one-ounce servings of the batch. Garnish with whipped cream and mint leaves. Sub in vodka for the Frangelico if you want it a touch more potent.
Keep the red and green, Santa hats and nativity scenes at bay, says Zulueta. “I enjoy environments that are dimly lit and a bit neutral-toned, which makes the people, drinks and food pop,” he says. “Everyone loves their aesthetic when it’s a bit softer lighting, especially as a night of drinking continues.”
“Plan to do more than just eat and drink—that’s lame, and your staff will not have fun and probably drink too much,” says Jonathan Kish, the chief executive officer of Queen Street Hospitality Group, which runs several concepts in Charleston. He likes a raffle with swag from local vendors and has also rented out lanes at bowling alleys for staff.