Why running a successful restaurant requires independence

(Hotel restaurants are in the midst of a revival, but a mountain of challenges stand in their way.)

Hotel restaurants are in the midst of a revival. Susan Terry, VP of culinary and food & beverage at Marcus Hotels & Resorts, said the stigma of hotel restaurants being low quality is slowly being left behind.

“It’s not new information, but as an industry we did such a bad job with hotel restaurants in recent years that there is a lack of confidence in them from customers,” Terry said. “The tide is starting to turn, and we have a lot of work to do.”

Terry said one of the biggest challenges facing hotel restaurant operations these days is getting the word out to guests and locals. As a food-and-beverage operator in a hotel, the lodging aspect of the business comes first and there is a limited pool of marketing funds left over. This can lead to a loss of identity, and in many cases a hotel restaurant is unable to find its own customer base.

Justin Jabara, VP – development & acquisitions at Meyer Jabara Hotels, said it has been his company’s objective as of late to separate the hotel restaurant from the hotel completely.

“The restaurant has to be competitive as a standalone outlet, from décor to offerings,” Jabara said. “From the level of resourcing going in and production coming out, these things need to operate like they are paying rent!”

Jabara said one of the biggest mistakes hotels make in running a hotel restaurant is not treating it like a true differentiator, failing to provide the resources a restaurant needs to be successful, such as human capital and investing in the food itself.

Joseph Ferragamo, the food & beverage director at the InterContinental Mark Hopkins in San Francisco, said the captive audience of a hotel, even in such a prestigious property, is a double-edged sword for a restaurant trying to break out of the hospitality umbrella.

“We have to cater to the guest fist, and never forget that,” he said. “Sometimes I see operators cut corners due to higher overhead, and that’s when you become a ‘hotel restaurant.’ It’s a tightrope you walk to give quality service and food without having that quality dip.”

Business hotels have different problems entirely. Joseph Cerione, GM of the Park Hyatt Washington’s Blue Duck Tavern, said the eatery has become a destination for business meetings Monday through Thursday, and in that environment guest demands are different.

“Some guests, when they come to us, are hosting a meeting. So they may spend three hours conducting business,” Cerione said. “When it comes time to turn a table or allocate a second one, it becomes a challenge. In a restaurant like this it’s difficult to get diners in before 6 p.m. and after 8:30 p.m. during the week, so we condense seating in a way where we can maximize a full turn in the restaurant.”

The Local Touch

Differentiation. Experiential. Local. Hotels live and die by these three words today, and Terry said it takes monumental effort to avoid what she calls “My Mother’s Meatloaf Syndrome.”

“There are thousands of ways to make a dish, and everyone has the same view on their favorite,” Terry said. “As operators, we sometimes make it personal. Core DNA points are critical so that as new members filter in and old employees filter out the core of the experience is upheld.”

Terry’s message against bowing to internal or external pressures is a strong one for a brand looking to make a statement with its F&B, but how does a hotel restaurant decide on a local concept without descending into parody or looking cheap? Ferragamo suggests sourcing as close to the hotel as possible, a practice most properties are already undertaking, and engage with guests to find out what they need in a meal.

“We just want to provide a nicely portioned, hearty meal, and for $60, not $200,” he said.

The InterContinental Mark Hopkins also ties its local flavor directly into who the company sources from, partnering with local wineries for wine and cheese tastings, and even tours.

“Trying to capture local business is tough,” Cerione said. “Sometimes the issue is a combination of things you can’t put your finger on. It’s not just the food concept or service, but maybe those coupled with ambiance, vibe or even location. It’s hard to say.”

Cerione’s Blue Duck Tavern has been in place for a decade, and because of that it has been able to cultivate a group of regulars and a name for itself for incoming travelers. However, one thing the restaurant is able to rely on is the inventiveness of its chef.

“There is a lot to be said about fermentation these days,” Cerione said. “Our chef has experimented with different technologies, such as fermenting butternut squash, almost like kimchi, as well as different sourdough breads. We also make our own mustard and siracha, so there is a health component to it as well as creating unique flavor profiles.”

“Because hotels fall under the umbrella of catering, they have to ask themselves whether or not they are going to take the easy way out,” Jabara said. “You can spend a good amount of time on your menu, taking a standard item and making it better, and that goes all the way up to sauces. Ask yourself, ‘can we make our own sauce?’ How about dressings? You will always need a chicken Caesar salad on the menu, but can you do it differently?”

Four Ways To Cook Up Success

Running a hotel restaurant is a serious challenge, so here are four ways to keep your property off the frying pan and out of the freezer.

1. Streamline the Hiring Process

According to Cerione, a traditional restaurant can hire someone in a day whereas it can take hotels weeks. Screenings, multiple interviews and sometimes appointments with a property’s GM slows the process to a crawl, in many cases driving potential hires to look elsewhere.

“The time we spend onboarding can be a detriment for those looking for work, and we sometimes lose talent to those that are ready to hire as soon as possible,” he said.

2. Consider Alternative Booking Sources

Ferragamo said the InterContinental Mark Hopkins dropped OpenTable in favor of Reserve.com, primarily over issues with no-shows. “Reserve.com is one-tenth the price of OpenTable and I’m saving thousands per month just avoiding no-shows due to their policies,” he said. “Before this, I was getting 30 [percent]-40 percent no-shows and it was killing me.”

He also said the potential reach of social media has yet to be fully realized by hotels, and hotel restaurants in particular.

“Social media’s reach is limitless, that and reservation systems,” he said.

3. Stay True to Your Mission

Bad meals happen, and negative comments are inevitable, but Terry said a restaurant, even if it’s located in a hotel, should not kowtow to guest demands every time a diner has a bad experience.

“Hotel restaurants think that if their satisfaction scores are high they have to do XYZ in order to keep them up there—no you don’t,” she said. “What you need is a defined concept, and just because a customer asks ‘why don’t you have a club sandwich?’ you don’t have to add it. You thank them for the feedback and stay true to yourself. In the past you heard one negative comment and made changes straight away, and that was a mistake.”

4. Invest in a Side Entrance

If your hotel is serious about growing its restaurant business, an exterior entrance is a necessity.

“We are all asking how we can become the industry leader in this area again, and a lot of it is a part of design,” Jabara said. “We are new builds, our outlets often have entrances from the outside because we market and expect a large contribution from outside to be successful.”