Hotel restaurants find success by standing alone

Hotel restaurants, once celebrated destinations for high-quality cuisine, today fight a persistent negative connotation as a result of their association with a hotel. Garron Gore, creative director at Hospitality Ventures Management Group Restaurants and Bars, said that while this sentiment is slowly changing among the traveling public, it is still difficult to entice guests and locals to try a hotel restaurant outside of major gateway cities.

“The challenging part is making your restaurant seem like it isn’t part of your hotel,” Gore said.

This may come off as a confusing strategy since it involves dropping an association between two businesses that, in the past, would have been seen as compliments to one another. However, with such a strategy proving successful among boutique hoteliers, it’s difficult to deny the results. Gore shared the example of Hearth & Dram, a restaurant attached to the Hotel Indigo in Denver, which was designed to appear entirely distinct from the attached Indigo, all the way down to a separate physical entrance, distinct website and unrelated social media presence.

No one has mastered this approach to hospitality restaurant operations like Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. Scott Gingerich, Kimpton’s VP of restaurants and bars for the West, said hotel restaurants also struggle with shrinking profit margins due to increased labor costs and a diminished labor pool, as well as a high overhead and rising costs associated with raw ingredients. On top of this, Gingerich also said full-service hotels are expected to offer quality meals at breakfast, lunch and dinner, something not even most independent restaurants attempt.

“It can [also] be challenging to attract top culinary talent, until the candidates understand that Kimpton has always done things differently,” he said.

A separation between hotel and restaurant may be necessary for marketing and operations at a micro level, but Gingerich said skilled hotel and restaurant teams will become partners, not competitors, and will create a symbiotic ecosystem where both parties can mutually benefit and learn from one another.

A Complete Thesis

Another factor that holds successful hotel restaurant operations is execution of a concrete idea. Nicholas Kurban, VP of restaurants and bars, East for Kimpton, said attention to detail and clear intent are two factors that separate a quality restaurant concept from a half-baked idea, and every factor must be considered.

“We place a great emphasis on not only the quality and creativity of the food and beverage but also the design, music, lighting and overall ambiance of the space,” Kurban said.

Gore said a common mistake hotel restaurants make begins at the conceptual level, where an interior designer builds the space first then operators are asked to develop a concept around it. This process, Gore said, should be flipped on its head.

“That feels like forcing something into a box, and it’s a major reason why many hotel restaurants are so ‘eh,’” Gore said. “A lot of people also get scared and don’t stick with their initial concept. If they aren’t gangbusters busy in the first few weeks they freak out and compromise their ideas, when really you need a minimum of three months to see what works and what doesn’t, and six months would be even better.”

Hotels have one advantage over independent restaurants in that they often already have reams of information about their customers thanks to data gathered via bookings and repeat stays. Gingerich said making use of technology such as texting and social media to let them know what is going on in the restaurant and add a storytelling element to the experience can be powerful.

“It’s even more important to invest in the presentation and execution of food, drink and design features since they’re bound to be shared as part of the dining experience,” Gingerich said.

The Area 31 restaurant, which is attached to Kimpton's Epic Hotel in Miami. Photo credit: Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants

Three Hotel Restaurant Trends

1. Pull Back the Curtain
The saying goes that “once you know how the sausage is made, you’ll lose your appetite for it,” but this just doesn’t hold up in today’s restaurants. Gore said open kitchens are here to stay, and diners want to see what is going on behind the scenes. “People want to see the action, they want to be a part of it, and this adds story and drama to the act of dining out,” he said.

2. Embrace Speed 
Grab-and-go isn’t going anywhere, except maybe to your hotel’s guestrooms. Gingerich said this trend not only opens up your hotel to appeal to more local diners and nonhotel guests, but it also makes meals more palatable over social media, and packaging your food in a quality to-go bag is still easier than providing a full roomservice tray. “People are eating with their eyes, and will make their decisions based on the photos and stories they see on Instagram,” Gingerich said. “I’m a fan of this approach and oftentimes share the potential of these platforms with our teams on the ground.”

3. Flip the Space
Hotels are in full command of their spaces, so why waste them on a single aesthetic? Gore said hotel guests don’t want to eat oysters in the same environment that served them omelets that morning, no matter the quality, but with a little extra effort guests can be fooled—in a fun way, of course. “We have a hotel in St. Augustine (Fla.,) that put induction burners under its countertops, and after breakfast all of that goes away and it turns into a raw bar,” Gore said. “We change the plates we use, the silverware we put out and even the artwork on the walls. With a little thinking outside the box, we end up with two great restaurants in one.”