Restaurant employees are heroes in 2020, risking their health — and in some cases their lives — by simply doing their jobs. They didn’t ask for a global pandemic, but they persevered through lost shifts, drastic cuts in tips, evolving safety protocols, and uncertainty about the future.

Restaurant workers are due for recognition and celebration this holiday season. Normally, the annual holiday staff party is a great time to spread some cheer. But with large gatherings prohibited in most regions and many restaurants strapped for cash, parties are simply not an option this year.

So, how can you recognize your employees for their hard work without breaking the bank? A gift card exchange.

Managing a Restaurant Gift Card Exchange

To host a gift card exchange, find a local restaurant who is willing to swap or sell gift cards at cost. Each restaurant can give their employees each other’s gift cards, allowing the staff to enjoy a meal at a new spot and helping both restaurants to generate a bit of revenue.

Here’s an example of how it could work.

If both restaurants pay approximately 60% in prime costs (food + labor) to make a meal, they can sell each other gift certificates at 60% of face value — then use them as gifts for staff. A $50 gift certificate costs $30. A $100 gift certificate costs $60.

Why a Gift Card Exchange is Cost-Effective

I know what you’re thinking. Discounts? In the middle of a pandemic? We get it. With every dollar stretched thin, the last thing you want to do is give something away. But think of it as a reward to your workers that you buy at a deep discount. It will cost you approximately the same amount as giving them a free meal at your restaurant — and they’ll appreciate it far more.

A gift card exchange is a win for everyone. You reward employees without breaking the bank. Your employees get the recognition they deserve after a tumultuous year. And your restaurant gets an influx of friendly industry diners trying out your food. With a gift certificate in hand, diners are likely to spend an average $59 over the gift card value.  Maybe they’ll try that fun appetizer, spring for a pricey cocktail, or indulge in dessert. You can even upsell them with specials and deals.

Looking Ahead to 2021

With the first COVID vaccines being distributed in the United States, better days are ahead. Dining rooms will soon be full again, revenue will turn upwards, and the tradition of holiday parties will soon return. In the meantime, consider a gift exchange with some restaurant biz friends as a nice compromise to reward workers for a job well done in 2020.

As you evaluate hosting a gift card exchange and set your sights on 2021, learn how xtraCHEF can help you calculate, manage, and analyze food costs.


Jared Shelly is the founder of Shelly Digital, a content marketing agency. He’s written for Philadelphia magazine, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and many other publications. His client content has appeared in Forbes, Quartz, and Inc.