Feeding Frenzy


Exploring the many facets of hotel food and beverage

Serving food in a hotel environment is a unique experience. Hoteliers can’t hang out a French bistro shingle and be done with it. They deal with the business traveller who spends half his time in hotel rooms craving comfort and a feeling of home, while the vacation traveller yearns for a sense of being away from the daily grind. Conference attendees want efficient, unobtrusive service so they can get on with their meetings; families want fun, friendliness and healthy food options. And, then there are the glitterati who demand a level of luxury and service that’s beyond the norm. The food and beverage (F&B) component of the stay for all these customers is critical to the experience, so it must meet and exceed those expectations for the hotel to get return business.

“The challenge is to create an offeringthat appeals to a wide assortment of guests who come from many different markets,”says Michael Singer, general manager of Novotel, Toronto, one of six Canadian Novotels operated by the Accor Group of hotels. “For example, in Toronto, we’re increasingly seeing many different cultures in both our business and leisure market.”

Breakfast is the most likely meal for guests to eat at the hotel, and many now include breakfast in the price, either routinely or as part of a special offer. At Hotel Le Germain, one of two boutique hotels in Toronto belonging to Groupe Germain, the inclusive breakfast is a large buffet with luxuries, such as homemade breads, pastries and organic granolas, in addition to the chef ’s own charcuterie and local cheeses. The only hot item is steel-cut oatmeal. “We rarely have anyone asking for hot items, except occasionally on the weekend,” says Michael Sullivan, F&B director. “With a large proportion of business guests, a healthy breakfast is the preferred option.” But for these, as well as for those heading out to an early flight or to an early morning meeting, the ability to grab a coffee and a muffin or breakfast sandwich is a boon.

“Breakfast sandwiches are huge,” says Susan Terry, vice-president of F&B for Hyatt Hotels, North America. “Welaunched a lobby market in big cities, and it has been a formidable outlet. It lets guests see what they’re getting and makes it a shopping experience.”

At Le Germain, the need is anticipated. “When a guest asks for an early wake-up call, our staff automatically asks whether they would like breakfast to go,” says Sullivan.“A bag with a breakfast pastry, bottle of juice, fresh, homemade yogurt with fruit, granola and coffee is waiting at the desk when they come down.”

But, while breakfast is almost a given at the hotel, what about other meals? The challenge is to make the hotel restaurant interesting enough to tempt guests to dine in, rather than dining out at local eateries. Signature restaurants from notable chefs are one way to achieve this. At Novotel,its unique Trio concept serves tasting portions in threes, so guests can sample several different dishes and share. The concept has proved so successful the hotel has adapted the concept for the banquet
menu. “It’s a great fit for us,” says Singer. “We’ve developed reception menus that roll into similar service.” But, he adds, while there are undoubtedly those who will dare to do this for 100 people, “the majority default to chicken.”

Indeed, most agree chicken or beef are banquet mainstays. But, the aim, says Le Germain’s Sullivan, is to distinguish from the competition by offering a twist. The beef might come with a mushroom glaze and pearl onions, or a whole deboned chicken might be sliced and served in the round and topped with a Berkshire sausage. And, the ethos of Le Germain’s chef is to serve local, sustainable and even organic, all of which can be deciding factors for customers.

“The problem is that every banquet offers similar options, so there’s no sense of place,” says Hyatt’s Terry. “These days we’re trying to offer local, seasonal ingredients in dishes that are regional. And, while we used to try to Americanize our ethnic chefs, we’re now begging them to teach us their own cuisines so we can offer authentic alternatives.” It’s not surprising that the desire for authenticity has reached the banquet menu, considering Slow Food is gaining ground rapidly across North America with conferences popping up everywhere.

In the same spirit, some hotel operators are returning to family style service. “The traditional soup or salad, entrée and dessert menus are old school. Today, guests want more creativity and variety, like family style servings of two or three salads, a selection of vegetables passed around the table and two or three choices of proteins,” says Fernando Salazar, vice-president of F&B for Wyndham Hotels and Resorts. “This social-dining setting creates more choices, more interaction
among guests and a fun atmosphere.”

Le Germain has actually taken social dining to the lunch menu for meetings. According to Sullivan, it’s a way to create a bond and bring participants together. The bread and butter of hotel catering is the meeting and convention business. So, finding ways to up the ante in this segment can make a huge difference to the bottom line. But, the same thing doesn’t work for everyone. “You have to know your demographic,” says Terry. “A networking event wants one kind of service, but, for others, it’s a quick bite and let’s get back to work.”

“A meeting coffee break needs to be creative, but it’s not just about coffee. We need to be smart and insightful, in recommending the right break for the right time of day,” says Salazar. “For instance, the afternoon break should include a sugar kick to keep attendees alert and should avoid complex carbohydrates that make attendees drowsy.”

Hotel management is taking breakouts to interesting new heights. Italian, Mexican and even theatre- themed service provide a little fun. At Le Germain, a Pop Shoppe serves drinks made with their own syrups — wild ginger, vanilla, black cherry — and ice-cream cones. Or, for the healthy crowd, fresh fruit smoothies are a great break from coffee. However, producing special breakouts for small groups can be costly.

Novotel has one solution: share the wealth. Their breakout area is central to their seven meeting rooms. “One group might have only 10 people, another 20 or 30. This way, we can offer a wider choice on a large buffet,” explains Singer. “We also like to be creative.” A cinema break offers soft drinks, popcorn and even candy floss. And, a new  popular choice is the cheese break; it’s healthy, and because it’s local, seasonal and fresh, it fits into the growing demand for green meetings. Novotel has also eliminated bottled water from its meeting rooms, replacing it with jugs, without a word of protest from attendees.

In fact, says Terry, “Green is a core expectation now.Attendees are sending a strong message about responsible behaviour at meetings.” Hyatt is careful about recycling and their breakouts stress that less is more, offering fewer, yet unique choices with less waste.

Beyond banquets and meetings, restaurants and coffee shops, the one area that truly distinguishes hotel foodservice is in-room dining. Most agree guests generally want a taste of home when they dine in their  rooms. “I’m probably a good barometer,” says Le Germain’s Sullivan. “I was put off at a chic boutique hotel in New York City when all I could order at 11 p.m. was sushi. I didn’t feel like sushi.” Most guests want traditional choices, such as burgers, fries, steak and pizza. At Le Germain, the homemade charcuterie and cheese plate along with a glass of wine is a hot seller but so is a half a dozen oysters.

On the other hand, says Singer, “We added a 500- ml tub of Häagen Dazs ice cream and they love it. Maybe guests feel they can pig out in the room without anyone watching them.” But, whatever they’re eating, it’s the delivery that counts.

“Guests are looking for a quality experience regardless of menu choice,” says Salazar. “They expect timely and accurate delivery of the order. Hot food should be served hot and cold food should be served cold. There is nothing worse than lukewarm soup or a warm Caesar salad.”

But, how does a hotel operator take in-room dining to the next level? “We call each guest ordering in-room dining five minutes prior to the order being delivered so the guest can prepare to accept it without having to rush out of the bathroom or change clothes to open the door,” adds Salazar. “This simple call makes a huge difference and our guests appreciate the extra effort.”

Hyatt’s Terry agrees. “The food may be familiar, but it’s the little touches that make the service stand out. Soup is poured or the salad is tossed, the steak is sauced in the room. It takes quality to the next level.” And, most importantly, says Singer, hotel staff has to be flexible so guests feel important, “I never want to hear staff say, ‘Let me check with the chef.’ No. If they want it, we can do it.”

In the end, the hotel’s foodservice is only as good as the staff. “A unified team is of paramount importance to the success of the hotel, since all departments are linked to one another. The banquet/ catering department cannot function efficiently without a strong connection to the culinary and stewarding teams; the restaurants and room service are similarly connected to culinary and stewarding,” says Salazar. “All functions need to work together for the F&B team, and the hotel, to be successful.”

Coffee Conscience

THESE DAYS, the push for local, sustainable cuisine is touching every facet of hotel foodservice, and coffee — a long time offending commodityindustry, known for low wages and poor working conditions in third-world countries — is no different. In fact, over the last few years, ‘sustainability’ and ‘fair trade’ have become popular java jargon. Hoteliers, too, have taken note, and many across the country are careful to offer the right cuppa joe to their discerning guests. “At Four
Points by Sheraton hotels we’ve made a strong commitment to ensuring our guests have a great coffee experience while also ensuring our support of sustainable agriculture in coffee farms,” says Jeremy Cooper, divisional director, North America Food & Beverage, Starwood Hotels and Resorts. “In early 2011, our new Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee Program at our Four Points hotels will launch. [The] blend features coffees from Ethiopia, Guatemala, Colombia, and Brazil. These beans are grown on farms that meet holistic standards of sustainable agriculture, helping to improve the lives of farm workers and their families, while protecting the environment for future generations.” With more and more guests — particularly on the meetings and conventions side of the business — looking closely at a hotel’s commitment to sustainability and corporate citizenship, it’s time formanagers to ask themselves, what does your coffee break say about your property?

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