Mr. McKeown

Food & Beverage

Partner with Local Purveyors to Bring Guests a Local Experience

By Thomas McKeown, Executive Chef, Hyatt Regency Atlanta

Faced with new, demanding guests, hotel restaurants are relying on local sourcing, quality ingredients and authentic experiences to return to the glory days of hotel dining. Not all that long ago, the best dining you could find in any city in America was in a hotel.

In cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, even in my city of Atlanta, grand hotels offered acclaimed restaurants known for their fine cuisine and memorable experiences. People got dressed up to enjoy steak and lobster, oysters and fine wine. For their discriminating guests, chefs served surprises like shrimp cocktail, baked Alaska and smart cocktails.

Hotels and their restaurants became recognized and beloved brands. Even their special recipes were famous - think Waldorf Salad. In those glory days of hotel dining, a large hotel like mine would have half a dozen restaurants of all types and price points, just to keep up with demand.

Unfortunately, things changed, and not for the better. And our industry is at fault.

In more recent decades, hotel dining earned a reputation - like airline food - for offering bland (or worse) meals at exorbitant prices. High quality, chef-driven restaurants increasingly became a thing of the past.

Not surprisingly, our customers reacted and new competitors emerged. The modern guest gravitated to freestanding boutique restaurants, which excelled at providing expert service and surprising, delightful cuisine, successfully mimicking the hotel experience of years past.

My hotel has experienced this phenomenon first hand. Hyatt Regency Atlanta is an Atlanta institution. We've been in the heart of our city on famed Peachtree Street since 1967. When we opened some 50 years ago, people lined up on the sidewalk just to ride our elevators. Polaris, our rooftop rotating restaurant, was an instant sensation and became an icon on the Atlanta skyline. And like hotels of that era, we were the hot spot for Atlanta dining for decades. But we, too, eventually saw the shift away from hotel restaurants.

The good news is the trend is shifting back. Hotel restaurants have listened to their guests and learned some important lessons.

Today's travelers are savvy and informed, and looking for dining that's unique, local and cool. This is a social media generation. They want their meals to be experiences worthy of posting on Facebook or Instagram. And they are not afraid to take an Uber to find the experiences they want, even if they're far from the hotel.

To respond to this consumer, hotels like mine are investing in overhauling the dining experience, in restaurant design, in service and in food quality.

Here at Hyatt Regency Atlanta, guests have come to expect a taste of Southern cooking while they're with us. As part of a recent $65 million renovation, we built Sway, a new signature restaurant. Sway recreates the flavors of hometown Southern kitchens with fresh ingredients from local farms and artisans. Guests have come to love Sway's homemade biscuits with tomato jam, our shrimp and grits and our fried chicken, which takes two days to prepare. Sway also is home of Atlanta's only all-you-can-eat pie bar, which serves seasonal pies with the best Georgia berries, pecans and peaches. In 2014 we re-opened Polaris and returned it to its former glory. The new Polaris serves hand crafted cocktails and chef-driven shared plates, as well as panoramic, rotating views of the Atlanta skyline. The menu is fresh, local and seasonal with classic dishes like Steak Oscar and new favorites like Oysters Polaris.

We've put a new emphasis on unique, local dining experiences, and we're not alone. Notice as you travel: Plates at the best hotels today are creative, delicious (that's important!) and freshly prepared.

"Fresh" is a critical part of this new plate. "Local" has become such a buzzword its approaching cliché, but when local sourcing is done right, when it's genuine and thoughtful and not just PR, it can truly enhance the guests' experience. In recent years, Hyatt launched its "Food. Thoughtfully Sourced. Carefully Served." initiative, which is designed to promote menu items from natural, local and sustainable sources. Across the globe, the company's mission is to offer food options that are good for our guests, good for the community and good for the planet.

Here at Hyatt Regency Atlanta, we've taken this philosophy to heart. We've been on a five-year journey to partner with local farms and other purveyors to bring new, quality ingredients to our dishes. There have been starts and stops, trials and errors, but overall the experience has been amazing, for our chefs, for our providers and for our guests. We found a key part of being 'local' is to actually roll up our sleeves and join in the community. As a first step, we reached out to the Peachtree Road Farmers Market, Atlanta's largest producer only market, and asked how we could help. Since then, we've become the Farmers Market's regular supporter and partner, helping organizers with everything from fund raising and promotion to power generators.

They've introduced us to other worthy organizations in the farming and food community. The Farmer Fund helps local farmers get back on their feet after natural disasters like tornados. The Southeastern Sustainable Livestock Coalition supports a market for meat produced sustainably and under high standards in animal welfare. The Giving Kitchen provides emergency assistance to Atlanta area restaurant workers facing unexpected hardship. We've been honored to support these and other organizations, and the community has thanked and welcomed us.

Through our community outreach, we've met and become friends with dozens of area craftsmen, bakers, family farmers and other providers, many of whom are serving their produce in our hotel.

Today, many of our core ingredients, our sausage and bacon, our chicken and fish, our fruits and vegetables, come from providers in here in Georgia or neighboring states.

A typical dish in Sway or Polaris might have sausage or bacon from an Atlanta butcher or cheese from a small Southern dairy or fish from North Carolina streams or peaches from a Georgia farmer.

We're lucky to live in a region with some extraordinary produce, everything from peanut oil to organic chicken, even beer. We want our guests to share this with us. For example, Georgia is seeing an explosion of craft breweries right now, so we stocked our bars with local beers and ales, and guests love them.

Our commitment to local products has started to grow beyond our menus.

As many of our business travelers may never see much more than our beds and conference rooms, we decided to give them a taste of the local cuisine we're so proud of. Our 24-hour Market coffee shop is now stocked with local delicacies, gifts and snacks. Guests can sneak a pint of Atlanta ice cream up to their rooms or slip some Georgia made chocolate bars into their luggage on the way home.

Two years ago, we took 'local' to the next level with our own rooftop garden. We solicited green thumbs from among our employees and turned an empty roof into a thriving herb and vegetable garden. Our engineering team helped irrigate the plants with collected rain water. Today the garden produces tomatoes, peppers, herbs and flowers, which we serve in our restaurants every day.

Then we were lucky enough to create some real buzz! We partnered with the Metro Atlanta Beekeepers Association to provide a home for some displaced bee hives in our rooftop garden. Despite Atlanta's intense summer heat and some cold winters, even Atlanta's infamous "Snowmageddon" ice storm of 2014, the bees have thrived and have never been happier. We have more than 50,000 bees in multiple hives producing honey each year. The honey is top notch and one-of-a-kind, and we proudly serve it in our plates and cocktails. You can't get much more local than that!

Our associates and colleagues also have enjoyed our commitment to local sourcing. Working with our purveyors, this year we initiated our own "Hyatt Regency Atlanta Farmers Market" for our 600-plus employees. The Farmers Market gives our associates get the chance to browse and buy items from local farmers. The event introduced some local, healthy options to our associates and their families, and it's been wildly popular. We're planning repeat versions each season in the coming months.

We would never claim that every ingredient we serve is locally sourced. That wouldn't make sense for any restaurant. But our philosophy is to bring the highest quality ingredients to our guests, and give them a sense of our local produce and cuisine.

For us, this philosophy allows our chefs to stay creative and do what we do best, provide top notch hospitality to our customers. For our guests, this commitment means fresh, quality meals and a uniquely Atlanta experience. You can only enjoy our dining experiences in our hotel and in our city, which is what makes them special.

Today's guests are more discriminating than ever. They have more choices than ever. They are asking more of us every day. That's not going to change. Fortunately, as hoteliers, we're starting to listen and provide the right answers. And as it turns out, the keys to serving the guest of the future may be borrowing some pages from our hotels' glamorous histories, and from sampling what's growing right outside our door.

Armed with a wealth of international culinary experience, Chef Thomas McKeown joined Hyatt Regency Atlanta as Executive Chef. Before his current role overseeing the property’s dining experiences, Polaris, Sway, Twenty-Two Storys and Market, as well as its in-room dining, special events and banquet operations, McKeown served as Executive Chef at Grand Hyatt Atlanta for five years. Born and trained in Europe, McKeown began his culinary career at the prominent Limerick Golf Club in Ireland. He completed his culinary training on both sides of the Atlantic at the Limerick Institute of Technology in Ireland and Johnson & Wales University in Rhode Island, where he earned a Master’s degree in Food Service Education. Following his studies, McKeown refined his knowledge of contemporary American cuisine as Sous Chef at the exclusive Somerset Club in Boston and moved on to become Executive Chef at the Ellis Hotel in downtown Atlanta, where he concentrated on local sustainable cuisine. Mr. McKeown can be contacted at 404-577-1234 or thomas.mckeown@hyatt.com Please visit http://www.hyatt.com for more information. Extended Bio...

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