Mr. Karpinski

Food & Beverage

Food and Beverage: Creating a Come-As-You-Are Space for Guests and Locals

By Peter Karpinski, Partner, Sage Hospitality

In the years following the recession, travelers, both business and leisure, have increasingly gravitated toward more casual, "live like a local" experiences, and away from formal and elitist environments. It is important for hotel executives to consider how this trend can be applied to on-site food and beverage concepts. Creating a comfortable, come-as-you-are environment in restaurants frequented by transient customers means achieving an inviting atmosphere without trading down on quality and overall sophistication. When done correctly, a casual food & beverage concept that delivers exceptional and authentic experiences to visiting guests and locals alike can be a huge boon to hotel businesses.

Approachability Born from a Sense of Place

Our restaurants get about 80% of their business from people that live and work in the communities we are in. Given this high percentage, management can genuinely benefit from creating a restaurant with an environment that is approachable to the local community. One way we do this at Sage Restaurant Group (SRG) is by taking the time to forge strong relationships with the local farmers, ranchers, and purveyors that our restaurants source from.

For example, at Urban Farmer Steakhouse in Portland, Chef Matt Christianson has worked closely with a local farm in the past to produce specialty milk-fed chickens that were only served at the restaurant. At Mercat a la Planxa in Chicago, Executive Chef Jose Garces makes it a point to source lettuce and micro greens from Urban Till, a unique urban farm that transforms derelict urban properties into productive, vertical green spaces. The Mercat partnership is also an example of creating relationships that simultaneously serve the restaurant while supporting the community.

Beyond menu sourcing, several of our restaurants also feature the work of local artists in the design and décor. These are the types of local touch points that come together to create an environment in which diners feel good about spending their time, and money. All of these carefully curated aspects might register on a subconscious level, but definitely contribute to that sought after sense of place where diners can feel at home and at ease.

Restaurant programming is another important way to create authentic experiences that offer a comforting sense of place. At Kachina Southwestern Grill in Westminster CO, we regularly put on "Bison and Beer" dining events, which feature cuts of bison from a local ranch paired with various Colorado craft brews. At Second Home Kitchen + Bar in Denver, we offer pajama brunches every weekend, where local families and hotel guests can bring their kids and feel right at home eating pancakes and watching movies in their pajamas. When brainstorming programming ideas, it is important to always make sure the event enhances the guest experience by building on that restaurant's specific sense of place.

Why Specificity Matters

Specificity is essential to achieving these environments in your restaurants. When you cast too wide of a net, you homogenize your product and it loses value. When you create a concept that is specific to the market you're in, you create a sought-after experience that people are naturally drawn to. It might feel like a risk, but when you water things down to a level that is "safe," it is inherently less exciting and people lose interest. Having a niche focus is appealing to both meeting planners and transient guests because it adds value to a hotel. When the restaurant experience sells itself, hotel executives have more time and energy to focus on putting heads into beds.

Restaurant Rolodex

Something to reflect on when concepting on-site eateries are the five or six go-to restaurants any given person will have in their restaurant rolodex. A family in the community will probably go out to two or more restaurants a week. Over the course of a year, they will certainly try some new restaurants, but about 80% of the time they are going back to one of those six or so default restaurants on their short list. These are the places where we feel most comfortable, and where we know the quality is consistent and reliable. Hotels need to create this same, approachable yet high-quality experience for their food & beverage outlets if they want to be on their customers' short list of go-to dining options.

Maintaining Casual Without Compromising Quality and Sophistication

The main challenge when creating a come-as-you-are atmosphere in a hotel restaurant is maintaining the balance in "casual-meets-sophistication," and upholding the integrity of your product. From the ground up, every decision in the restaurant development process should relate back to that question of, "Are the customers going to enjoy it and feel comfortable here?"

But who are the customers? Many times a hotel management team will make the mistake of holding their on-site restaurants to the same guest experience standards as the hotel itself. While it is no doubt extremely important that the restaurant enhances the guest experience, it is also important to remember that hotel guests make up a comparatively small percent of the restaurant's potential market share. When we are developing restaurants with SRG, we don't solely think about how it will appeal to the hotel guests, but focus on how it will welcome the local community. We want to do the local and approachable part really well. If we're able to achieve an environment that resonates with locals then, by nature, the hotel guest will follow. Guests will choose to dine in a hotel when it is as compelling, if not more so of an option as other area restaurants might be.

A good example of maintaining this balance is when you have a very talented, high-caliber chef at the helm of your restaurant who wants to create new and exciting dishes for the menu. Without stifling creativity, it is important to continually monitor the menus they develop to ensure the food doesn't overshoot the market with dishes that are too sophisticated and over-thought. Diners looking for a comfortable environment never want to be served a dish they don't recognize. Instead, chefs can create playful renditions of the classic comfort food dishes we all know and love - like a meatloaf sandwich - or take on the challenge of crafting diet-specific vegan or paleo menus.

The Importance of Casual In-Hotel Dining

This concept of creating a casual, come-as-you-are environment that is specific to the local market is important for a number of reasons. First, it allows guests to the hotel and local diners to form a personal connection to the restaurant by feeling as if they have been welcomed into the local community. This is likely to drive repeat business both to the hotel and to the restaurant. It also creates unique in-room dining and catering options that enhance the overall guest experience by offering guests food options that they would not find at another hotel.

I often think about an experience I had as a recent college graduate that has motivated me to try and reinvent hotel dining with casual, yet high-quality SRG concepts. A group of my college friends and I went out to eat at a very high-end restaurant in New York City. We were likely not the richest or best dressed group in the restaurant, but being graduates of Cornell University's hospitality school, we certainly had a passion and appreciation for the industry and were more than willing to splurge and have a good time. Unfortunately, the staff at this restaurant didn't take the time to make us feel welcome or understand our story. They took the fact that we weren't ordering the most expensive wines as a sign that we didn't deserve the same level of respect as their other clientele. Had they taken the time to understand our story and the reason behind our interest in the restaurant, they may have realized we were a group of Cornell Graduates who could, and eventually did, achieve various positions of influence within the hospitality industry. With hotel dining, casual makes sense because casual begets comfortable, and the last thing any hospitality professional would want is for a guest to feel as uncomfortable as I felt that night.

On the other hand, I remember eating at a little restaurant on the French Riviera in a town called Sete where, after we ordered a couple dozen oysters, the owner came over to apologize profusely and ask us if we'd be patient and wait for our dish. At this point he walked across the street, got in a row boat, and proceeded to pull up his own oysters and bring them back to the restaurant to prepare them for us tableside. His lack of arrogance and highly personalized attention made for a truly unforgettable experience. It is a memory I call upon as inspiration when developing a new restaurant.

After a long recovery from the recession, profits in the hotel industry continue to rise. It is the perfect time for hotel executives to consider how they can put that surplus to use by innovating and improving upon existing food & beverage concepts. We as an industry should want to make hotel dining cool again. To do this, our industry must recognize what diners want, and build food & beverage outlets around those needs. The popularity of more approachable restaurant environments continues to grow. This approachability happens when you combine a come-as-you-are environment with a "sense of place" created by authentic dining experiences and local collaborations.

Peter Karpinski is the creative entrepreneurial force behind both Sage Restaurant Group and Sage Hospitality. SRG is a successful Denver-based enterprise developing independent restaurants that break the mold of traditional hotel dining, while Sage Hospitality is one of the country’s largest hotel management and development companies with a specialization in lifestyle and luxury properties. Through Mr. Karpinski’s bold thought leadership, he has launched eleven award-winning Sage Restaurant Group concepts, all located adjacent to Sage Hospitality properties. In both roles, Mr. Karpinski leads lifestyle-focused real estate development projects and curates overall brand development, ownership, and management platforms. His entrepreneurship, unrivaled hospitality experience, and business ethics intertwine and pave the way for the continued growth of each company. Mr. Karpinski can be contacted at 303-405-8394 or peter.karpinski@sagerestaurantgroup.com Extended Bio...

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