Food Fight


As the battle for customers intensifies, hoteliers get creative with new dining options

In hopes that more people will check into guest rooms across the country this year, hotel executives aren’t just focusing on service and value anymore. They’re also forging new strategies to update and re-launch their food and beverage portfolios because, in today’s food-obsessed world, it’s not just about capturing hotel guests — it’s about creating memorable and unique dining experiences sought out and raved about by travellers and locals alike.

When the Hilton Hotels & Suites Niagara Falls/ Fallsview opened its new tower last year, it unveiled several new dining concepts to tempt visitors, such as U.S.-based Italian dining favourite Romano’s Macaroni Grill and the Grand Café Breakfast Buffet. But the cherry on top was the opening of its Brazilian steakhouse, Brasa, says Anthony Annunziata, vice-president, Marketing and Development for the hotel. “It’s a fun, interactive concept we thought our customers would really enjoy, and that’s why we ventured out to create what we think is one of the best Brazilian steakhouse experiences anywhere,” he says.

Since opening in early September 2009, Brasa has successfully attracted loads of hotel guests and, in turn, helped boost the in-house dining capture rate to more than 50 per cent, up from 30 per cent at the same time in 2008. “Customers that have been through have been extraordinarily complimentary, suggesting that for value, authenticity, quality of the meat, the variety and the venue, it’s a very nice dining experience,” says Annunziata. Brasa’s dinner pricing is $49.95 for adults and $12.95 for children 12 and under.

Unlike other steakhouses near the Falls, Brasa’s popularity lies in the fact that few other spots in the area offer premium Canada-sourced cuts sliced table-side. Meats such as beef-top sirloin, chicken legs, lamb legs and beef rump steak are slow-roasted over an open flame in the traditional gaucho style. To continue developing a truly authentic dining experience, Annunziata says the smallest details related to food, wine, service and price were thoroughly examined.

He recounts a time where Brasa customers promptly indicated that grilled pineapple was nowhere to be found on the menu. Within four days, Annunziata says the sweet traditional Brazilian meat accoutrement was added. He also reveals how bringing in a grill-master from Brazil, using a spice mixture imported from the streets of Rio and featuring regional Brazilian side-dishes like corn polenta, helped complete and enhance the dining experience.

“Creating authenticity was critical, so we spent a lot of time getting it right,” he says. “Another challenge was opening the restaurant during the recession. To get to the point where we’re at now, which we’re really proud of, took a well-received product that’s unique to our area.” Annunziata attributes Brasa’s success to the hotel’s understanding of the adult leisure guest. With that profile in mind, the restaurant’s decor, top-drawer service and marketing plan targeted that demographic. Furthermore, the restaurant’s commitment to stocking the wine list with at least 30 per cent Niagara-area wines has resonated with guests seeking an international dining option with a regional touch.

Annunziata says the next big F&B change at the property will be the revamping of the signature Watermark restaurant to push the food focus away from continental, toward a seasonal and local approach.
Locality and seasonality are concepts that will revolutionize foodservice across Canada, says Steve Stefaniuk, F&B director at The Fairmont Banff Springs Hotel in Alberta. “We’ve seen the locavore movement grow, especially during the three years I’ve been at this property,” he says.

The food and beverage options at the Banff Springs are incredibly diverse — visitors have 13 possible eating venues in-house to choose from. Still, Stefaniuk says today’s customers are food savvy and more aware of vegetarian, vegan and locally sourced options. “We’ve seen a big shift along the way,” he says. “Albertans maintain a meat-and-potatoes persona around their dining habits, but we strive to showcase that we’re different.”

For example, chef Corey Ledrew developed a tomato tart filled with organic greens, six types of beans, two types of beets, three types of carrots, freshly picked tomatoes, fresh herbs and edible flowers from his own herb garden. The dish was part of Fairmont’s drive to include more vegetarian-friendly options on menus across all properties.

One of Stefaniuk’s tips for fellow F&B operators is to create dining options specifically geared to a certain cuisine or target market instead of attempting to please everyone. “At some properties, there’s still the issue of ‘unidentified dining,’ where the main hotel dining room tries to offer a bit of everything to everybody, and losses its identity in the process,” he says.

Stefaniuk’s F&B team consists of some 450 staff members and that number can grow to as high as 600 during the summer peak season. Running an F&B team of this size requires not only excellent communication between management and workers, but also between guests and management. “If we ever get to the place where the guest feedback isn’t important to us or we’re not listening, then we’re losing,” he says, adding that comment cards are placed in diners’ billfolds after every meal. “We always need to be conscious of the fact that our guests are critical to our operations.”

Other successful initiatives at the property included bringing in U.S.-based mixologists to train bar staff on the latest in cocktail culture, shining the spotlight on the strong partnerships the hotel has between in-house chefs and local farmers and widely marketing the Banff Springs’ elegant afternoon tea experience. “We put a strong emphasis and focus on the fact that tea shouldn’t be boring,” says Stefaniuk. “There’s really not another experience to be had when you’re at a 4,600-foot elevation and looking out at the mountains while enjoying three different types of loose-leaf tea.”

While most hotels aren’t blessed with the sublime, scenic vistas of Banff, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t embrace their surroundings, especially when it comes to the food being served. In fact, Robert Hood, food and beverage director for Atlific Hotels, says properties would generate stronger revenue for their in-house restaurants if they could better appeal to members of the public. “Being part of the community and being part of the local economy is a given. But we have to let people know that all are welcome to come and dine with us,” he says, alluding to the approach taken at the Westin Montreal’s new Four Diamond-rated resto, Gazette.

Farm-to-table Canadiana menu items at Gazette include: pan-roasted Atlantic cod with braised clams, crispy green beans, garlic broth, and smokey bacon risotto ($24); grilled angus striploin, wood-fired onion stew, with chanterelle mushrooms ($28); and crispy Brome duck confit and seared rare breast, with foie gras cracklings, butternut squash, roasted fig glaze ($32). Hood says these dishes with regional flare appeal to local patrons as well. “We’ve become a part of their regular dining circuit,” he says.

Above all, Hood believes F&B operators should push the envelope even further and pay attention to the smallest details to provide customers a hotel dining experience that can’t be easily replicated. “Today’s guests are looking for something they just can’t get anywhere else.”

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