Why Mother’s Day is the most hated day in the restaurant industry

May 12, 2023, 1:00 PM

people at restaurant eating on mother's day pictured...

NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 09: Customer dine at a restaurant's outdoor dining near a "Mother's Day" sign on Mother's Day amid the Coronavirus pandemic on May 09, 2021 in New York City. People and families enjoy Mother's Day in anticipation of coronavirus restrictions being lifted on May 19th according to an announcement by New York Governor Andrew Cuomo last week. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

(Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Mother’s Day is one of the busiest days for the American restaurant industry. It also has a reputation among waiters and restaurant staff as one of the most grueling days on the calendar.

“Every server knows that working on Mother’s Day is hell. In fact, if I die and go to hell, I completely expect it to be Mother’s Day. 365 days a year,” wrote Darron Cardosa, in his book “The Bitchy Waiter: I’m Really Good at Pretending to Care.”

What’s so bad about it? From big groups that show up in waves (“most of us are here!”), to food-fussy kids and grandmas to splitting the check dramas and coffee-cup lingerers, restaurants hate this holiday. This year is expected to be particularly challenging as high inflation and rising menu prices give some restaurant-goers an extra sense of entitlement.

“The anticipation alone can make you anxious,” said Joe Haley, an abstract artist who works as a server at a Quincy, Massachusetts, Italian-American restaurant. It gets “jam-packed. People are calling at the last minute for a reservation, there are other people who made multiple reservations so Mom could have her pick and they never cancel… people who take out their mother once a year tell you ‘Nothing can go wrong!'” he said.

But it does. With big tables, a few late arrivals can kick a kitchen into chaos. “And every family has at least one black sheep or in-law who can’t be relied upon to save their lives. Mother’s Day: I dread it,” Haley added.

Chefs, servers and owners said that this year guests have set their expectations high: Special occasion meals in a time of rising food prices. In a post-pandemic world, luxury — or rather the appearance of luxury and excess — is “in.” Across the country, customers will get aggravated if their $30 eggs Benedict isn’t dolloped with caviar on Sunday.

Tastes have changed, literally, since Covid, said Chef Art Smith, who has been personal chef to Oprah Winfrey and Jeb Bush. He will be serving hundreds of Mother’s Day meals at his four restaurants including his Homecomin’ at Disney Springs at Walt Disney World.

The people who visit? “They’re drinking more. They want more carbs — If it’s mac and cheese, it has to be the cheesiest. But they want salads, and they want more veg sides, too. They just want more.”

A busy day for restaurants

The National Retail Federation forecasts that Mother’s Day spending will reach $35.7 billion this year, with a record $5.6 billion alone spent on a meal or outing, up 6% from last year. It’s the second-busiest day in the restaurant business, eclipsed only by Valentine’s Day, according to online reservations site OpenTable.

Mother’s Day presents “an operational challenge,” said Shawn Walchef, owner of five Cali BBQ eateries in the San Diego area. “It’s the busiest day of the year and also the day guests have the highest expectations. He foresees some fuss over tables on the patio — “In Southern California, everyone wants to sit outside.”

For many restaurants, this is the first big holiday since 2019 that hasn’t been overshadowed by the pandemic. “It’s a lot of people getting together who haven’t seen each other in a while,” said owner Binh Douglas, who opened Main Prospect in Southampton, New York, about 18 months ago.

He expects that guests Sunday will be spending about 40% more than usual, and that a third of the adults will add the $19.95 “bottomless mimosa” to their meal. Fortunately, egg and seafood prices have come down in the last few weeks, he said.

Rising prices

But inflation has left its mark on Mother’s Day brunch. At the Breakers in Palm Beach, Mother’s day brunch in The Circle restaurant is $250 per person (up from $160 in 2019) with unlimited Champagne cocktails and a harpist who goes from table to table.

At the family-packed McLoone’s Boathouse in West Orange, New Jersey, also home to a waterfront buffet, brunch has gone to $54.95 from $49.95 in 2019.

Pricing is touchy. “Your Mother’s Day meal can’t be obnoxiously expensive,” said Derek Axelrod, co-owner of Manhattan’s Upper East Side T bar restaurant. Their Mother’s Day menu will likely be upwards of $100 person, but won’t turn much of a profit, he said. They’re counting on liquor sales to do that. Meanwhile T bar is adding touches like a fois gras, cranberry and chicken parfait to the menu.

Servers and owners are also under pressure to “push the lobster.” Seven different restaurants at the Venetian Resort in Las Vegas are serving Mother’s Day meals that include lobster (The resort’s round-up of all its Mother’s Day menus notes that a subsequent gondola ride is an additional $39).

Ophelia, a rooftop restaurant near the United Nations in New York, solves the “luxury” problem neatly by offering a menu in which Mom gets it all: fried quail egg, lobster, filet mignon, waffles and smoked salmon — but be warned: it’s a $59-per-person presentation of “petite bites.”

In Naples, Florida, the hamburger at the Veranda E restaurant on Sunday will be brought under glass, and a cloud of smoke will rise up as it is uncovered. “That’s new for us,” says owner Mary Brandt, who will have four generations of women from her family at the restaurant.

To maximize profits and seating, chain restaurants are changing, too. Ruth’s Chris Steak House, which has locations in about three-dozen states, is opening several for breakfast or brunch on Mother’s Day; at the Fort Worth location, there will be wild blueberry pancakes. And some Red Lobsters are giving Moms a coupon for 10% off their next meal — even including off the Ultimate Endless Shrimp Feast.

So, book now, and tip your server. Of all holidays, Mother’s Day is considered so stressful for workers that the National Restaurant Association recommends that owners ensure that their servers are “fed and properly hydrated” and should be given a “combat-duty” bonus — especially the mothers on staff who work the shift.

Server Joe Haley, in Quincy, has a better idea: “Why can’t you people just make your Mom breakfast?”

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Why Mother’s Day is the most hated day in the restaurant industry