Mr. Ashen

Food & Beverage

A Focus on Social Food and Beverage Experiences

By David Ashen, Principal and Founder, dash design

There was a time when a hotel restaurant was the place to be seen. A special anniversary or family celebration at a grand hotel with a formal meal was a real treat and something to look forward to.

While that's still true to some extent, changes in lifestyles and the hospitality industry have had a major impact on the way most people celebrate special events and casually socialize, including those centered on an extravagant meal at a grand hotel. Often, today's festivities focus less on elaborate banquets than they do on a lively bar scene with local brews, spirits and traditional drinks, along with inspired dishes at a restaurant of note, including those located in hotels.

During the first half of the 20th century, my father's family owned several small hotels in the Borsch Belt, a summer resort region of New York's Catskill Mountains. I remember hearing stories from my parents about grand dinners in the hotel's dining room. There was nothing unique about the dining room nor did it have any other identity than simply the 'hotel dining room', but those grand meals were always something special.

Much of that tradition changed with the growth of domestic and international travel and the associated rise in faster-paced living, which led to an upsurge of hotel brands. While this new sea of hotel brands offered a menu of mere mediocrity in comparison to their independent and grand counterparts, their vast numbers and ability to meet the varied needs of the modern traveler supplanted many of the once-popular grand hotels and their outdated way of marking notable events and providing a social scene.

More than that, with the nation's rise in international cuisines and celebrity chefs, the American palate has become more sophisticated, creating gourmands and spirt-lovers out of many of us. Today, the tables have turned on conventional dining, moving away from formal, banquet-style meals, toward a more cultured, yet highly social dining scene, with an emphasis not only on noteworthy restaurants, but also, trendy bars.

Twenty years after my childhood connection with the "grand" hotels, I was awarded my first restaurant commission for the Mercat a la Planxa at the Blackstone Hotel in Chicago. The space my firm was hired to transform was once the hotel's dining room and it was our job to shift the paradigm from the glamour of dining at the "grand" hotel - imagine perfectly round, warm dinner rolls served by (male) waiters in white (or black) coats. Because the ideal no longer found favor with guests, we were charged to create a destination restaurant for a star chef that, in many ways, turned its back on the hotel.

The dictate was to determine what the "white space" was in the Chicago market and fill this hole with a unique destination restaurant by creating a killer design that served as a backdrop to an extraordinary meal. If the hotel's restaurant proved to be a successful destination in the city, the hotel guest would be sure to follow. Beyond that, we were told to create a street entrance for Mercat, so that customers would not have to go through the hotel to get to the restaurant. The thought was that if people had to travel through the hotel to dine, they would connect the dining experience with the old banquet-and-grand-hotel model and opt out. Wow. How things had changed.

During the past decade, the destination restaurant as part of an offering in a hotel has proved to be a success, as shown by dozens of winning examples. Some of my favorites are Jean-George's The Mercer Kitchen, at the Mercer Hotel in Manhattan; Tom Colicchio's Beachcraft at the One in Miami; Departure at the Nines in Portland (and now at the Halcyon in Denver); and Reynard at the Wythe Hotel in Brooklyn. The trouble is, this model requires a large investment and a dedicated team to bring to life a unique and compelling dining experience. Because the prospect, proven though it is, is mixed with considerable financial risk, most hoteliers don't have the stomach to take it on.

The less costly, but still profitable option to the meal-centric destination restaurant, is to focus on the gainful sale of alcoholic beverages, with a shift away from a food-and-beverage model toward a beverage-and-food offering beginning to emerge.

Consider the look of a model where the space fosters social engagement, therefore encouraging a cocktail crowd to converge during the evening with food (preferably on small plates) to balance out the offering and encourage folks to mix, mingle and otherwise stick around and socialize. Not only could such a place attract a robust after-work crowd, but it also could offer owners the option of a lower financial investment and higher profit margin.

I recently visited the Le Méridien Atlanta Perimeter in Atlanta. The brand has done expert transitional surgery on its public space to adapt to this new paradigm, including a new lobby design that is centered around the "hub." As the pulse of the hotel, the area is anchored by a large bar with lounge seating radiating from its center, encouraging folks to hang out, engage with friends, co-work, and indulge in drink. Similarly, the Ace Hotel in New York City has created a social hub for its hotel guests, as well as its surrounding neighborhood. Smart move. There's a vibrant, if not overwhelming, sea of millennials there every night of the week.

Yet what is most fascinating about New York's Ace Hotel is how it has hit the perfect trifecta of beverage and food offerings, giving guests the ultimate choice in how they dine while casting a wide net into the local neighborhood. The first tine is the hotel lobby, which includes the bar half of The Breslin Bar & Dining Room restaurant, with the bar acting as the property's social hub while the restaurant serves as a welcoming place for a hearty seated meal. The second tine of the winning trio is the hotel casual, yet sophisticated seafood-and-cocktail neighborhood destination spot, The John Dory Oyster Bar, which, like The Breslin, is by the same group behind the wildly popular Spotted Pig in downtown Manhattan. Part three of the accomplished trifecta is the hotel's Stumptown Coffee, a neighborhood spot for fresh coffee and grab-and-go selections. By providing a local social hub, plus destination dining spot and an on-the-go coffee house, the Ace Hotel has created a winning formula that capitalizes on all the trends explored above.

In fact, Marriott has taken to shift how the brand refers to 'food and beverage,' refusing the word order to put most of the focus on the 'b'. Now, Marriott's lifestyle brands, such as Renaissance and Moxy, have bars that are as central to the guest experience as any other of the hotels' offerings are, including that the bar at the Moxy is where guests check in. Food is secondary, however, not forgotten, and in the case of Moxy, reconceived as a grab-and-go grocery with a limited selection of carefully curated food options.

This trend hasn't missed the attention of the "so called" standard limited service brands either. I recently stayed at a new Courtyard in the Albany, New York area, and was surprised to find that the focus point of the lobby was a large bar that was occupied by many of the guests. Although this particular property won't be attracting a local crowd, it is providing a much-desired place for social interaction by the guest, and added revenue for the hotel.

Although a grab-and-go sensibility seems to be the antithesis to the destination restaurants I mentioned earlier, on-the-run meals are quickly growing in popularity, too. The option allows for two-fold advantages. For one, it provides a manageable way for hotel owners that might not have the resources to build a unique restaurant, to offer food choices to their guests and visitors. For another, it gives hotel owners a means to manage their manpower, making a grab-and-go option an appealing proposition for some. One leader in this area is Hilton. The brand's "Herb N' Kitchen" eatery is reminiscent of a high-scale market - think of a mini Eataly - and provides casual dining and on-the-go options for guests, locals and tourists. At the New York Hilton Midtown, which no longer offers conventional room service, not only is there an "Herb N' Kitchen" café, which provides guests with healthy options to take with them or enjoy on the property, but also two distinctive bars and a lobby lounge where patrons can sip cocktails and dine on light fare, providing plenty of options for guests and others to drink and dine as they meet and mingle.

Hilton's DoubleTree brand also has embraced the concept of casual dining with its "Made Market" concept, including made-to-order, homemade and other dishes. My firm recently completed a "Made Market" in a DoubleTree property in Arizona, which featured both a full-service restaurant and a grab-and-go section, giving guests the ability to choose whichever style best suits them. As a result, the property has realized a near doubling of its food and beverage - or beverage and food - revenue.

Today's customers aren't satisfied with average encounters. They're looking for unique, curated experiences; for social settings with genuine interactions with others to counter their days spent with their eyes focused on screens and fingers tapping devices. Destination restaurants, causal eateries and distinctive bars do just that.

David Ashen is a principal and the founder of dash design, an award-winning New York-based interior design and branding firm specializing in hospitality and retail projects. Known for his ability to tailor each project to answer clients’ specific business needs, Mr. Ashen and his design team update spaces and reinvent brands. Clients include market leaders and Fortune 500 companies from all over the world including Shanghai, Hong Kong, Istanbul, Philadelphia, Cleveland, New York City and Aruba. Among dash design’s recent high-profile hotel projects are: the multi-million renovation of the Lexington New York City hotel; the Renaissance Aruba Resort & Casino; and restaurants at the Mandarin Oriental in Shanghai. Mr. Ashen can be contacted at 718-383-2225 ext. 201 or dashen@dashdesign.net. Please visit http://www.dashdesign.net for more information. Extended Bio...

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