Creating a Successful Business Model for Hotel Food & Beverage

By Colby Brock F&B Director and Interior Designer/Project Manager, The Radisson Hotel New Rochelle | December 30, 2012

A hotel acts as catalyst in bringing people from all walks of life, demographically, geographically, and otherwise, together to share in a singular experience. Yet, a hotel’s highest goal is to give guests a feeling of home. This gives rise to an interesting proposition; home means something different for each of us. Therefore, each person will have a completely subjective experience. Now, we can take that one step further. When it comes to operating a successful food and beverage department within a hotel, your goal is not only to accommodate hotel guests, but the local community as well, unless you are resigned to only catering to your room guests. Pleasing the bedroom community presents an even more compelling conundrum.

Having worked in the hotel business for the past 14 years, I have found that different properties take different approaches to their food and beverage operations depending on their commitment to the community surrounding the property. There is certainly an opportunity for every hotel to capture the attention of the people who live in the neighborhood. Whether for people traveling to the area in need of rooms, for celebrating special occasions in its banquet department, community gatherings in its meeting spaces, or dining in its restaurant and drinking in the bar; your “locals” can be a tremendous source of business throughout the property. Perhaps the New York metropolitan area poses more of a challenge because locals are more discerning and have many more options, but overall, the challenge lies in accommodating meat and potatoes men from Kansas who are traveling alone, while simultaneously creating a chic, inviting atmosphere for ladies who like to lunch or local couples who want an exciting night out.

Stand-lone restaurants need not worry about identifying themselves and being true to that identity day in and day out. A Mexican restaurant can be a Mexican restaurant and not have to worry about being perceived as having “limited” menu by their patrons; their patrons came to have Mexican food. However, in a hotel environment, your guests are a captive audience; if someone could wave a wand and guarantee a free-standing restaurant an additional 25 covers per night, they would jump at it. But to what end? Would a Mexican restaurant sacrifice its identity and offer a few French dishes to earn those covers? Hotel guests from all over the world seeking a “home-like” experience expect a more arbitrary menu selection to feel as though they are being catered to and their needs are being met. Short of being a diner, or a chain restaurant such as Applebee’s, creating a diverse menu to cater to all of your guests’ needs is a challenge, while also earning the respect and reputation of being a local favorite with your neighbors. It is a waltz, between being what you want and being what your property needs you to be.

We recently opened NoMa Social Restaurant within the Radisson Hotel in New Rochelle, about 15 minutes outside of Manhattan and 15 miles from all the major New York airports. After three years of deliberation about who we wanted to attract and what we wanted to be, we partnered with renowned local chef, Bill Rosenberg, who has opened many successful restaurants throughout his career. It took a few months to complete our concept and begin a massive renovation of our physical space. Bill had decidedly wanted to create a Mediterranean menu, featuring tapas, sharing entrees, such as paella, and porchetta and delicious brick oven pizzas. Then we paired it up with a variety of cocktails and European wines. The food is divine, the wine list well balanced and complementary to the menu and the cocktails unequaled. When the owners agreed to venture into this territory, we also agreed that the interior design needed to represent more than what people would expect of our hotel brand. We created a chic, transitional “living room” where people could enjoy an interactive dining experience, while enjoying local entertainment. The name was derived from what we built, NoMa (North of Manhattan) Social, and that is exactly what we are. In the first xix weeks we have been open, we have been met with tremendous applause from the local community. Bill has outdone himself with fine cuisine and the atmosphere is harmonious with the vision we had.

There were some menu compromises that were made to make our transient guests feel as though they could also partake in what we created, adding to their “at-home” experience. We added a “club menu,” featuring items such as a turkey club sandwich, a plain hamburger and a Caesar salad; selections certainly not within the confines of our Mediterranean identity. In addition, we have a full “in room” dining menu, with traditional American offerings. These hotel guest options were added purely out of concern that our guests would not fully embrace our concept; that a chic New York restaurant would not appeal to the majority of travelers who book rooms; at times it becomes as much a burden as it is a benefit. We are not limited because we added these menus items, if anything, it brings in more business. However, our identity is limited because we are beholden to cross the line of who we are to meet the needs of our guests. The object is to have your guests meet you on your side of the line; try new things and become espoused to your concept and praise the integrity of what you are trying to do. Communicating with the guests becomes paramount in trying to achieve that goal. Letting them know that although the space and or menu is perhaps more “grand” then they expected, that you can still accommodate them, even by means of taking them out of their comfort zone. Thus begins the waltz; locals who love your place, clamoring to get a table, whilst hotel guests standing in your lobby complaining about the “limitations” of your menu or dress code.

Many larger hotels resolve this issue by having multiple food and beverage outlets within one property. By offering two distinct menus, we have ultimately accomplished the same goal, within the confines of 130-room property. Other hotels simply do not cater to their guests and drive the business to alternate restaurants. We certainly thought of that option, but found the guest experience is too significantly impacted at a full service hotel to not try to meet their expectations. Of course, to some, you will always fall short. Someone from somewhere in Middle America may only eat an American grilled cheese on white bread; we have a delicious NoMa grilled cheese, but it’s served with tetilla, Serrano ham and charred onions on rustic Italian bread. Have we fallen short or exceeded the guests’ expectations with a less conventional offering of a traditional item? That answer is and always will be subjective.

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Guest Service: Empowering People

Excellent customer service is vitally important in all businesses but it is especially important for hotels where customer service is the lifeblood of the business. Outstanding customer service is essential in creating new customers, retaining existing customers, and cultivating referrals for future customers. Employees who meet and exceed guest expectations are critical to a hotel's success, and it begins with the hiring process. It is imperative for HR personnel to screen for and hire people who inherently possess customer-friendly traits - empathy, warmth and conscientiousness - which allow them to serve guests naturally and authentically. Trait-based hiring means considering more than just a candidate's technical skills and background; it means looking for and selecting employees who naturally desire to take care of people, who derive satisfaction and pleasure from fulfilling guests' needs, and who don't consider customer service to be a chore. Without the presence of these specific traits and attributes, it is difficult for an employee to provide genuine hospitality. Once that kind of employee has been hired, it is necessary to empower them. Some forward-thinking hotels empower their employees to proactively fix customer problems without having to wait for management approval. This employee empowerment—the permission to be creative, and even having the authority to spend money on a customer's behalf - is a resourceful way to resolve guest problems quickly and efficiently. When management places their faith in an employee's good judgment, it inspires a sense of trust and provides a sense of higher purpose beyond a simple paycheck. The April issue of the Hotel Business Review will document what some leading hotels are doing to cultivate and manage guest satisfaction in their operations.