F&B Menus: Keeping it Fresh

Exceeding customer expectations and demands in 2012

By Neal Cox Executive Chef, The Houstonian Hotel | August 26, 2012

There's an old saying that a rolling stone gathers no moss. This rings especially true when it comes to culinary development within your organization. The hotel industry is just now bouncing back from one of the worst recessions that any of us have ever seen. Many food and beverage departments were hit especially hard by clients who had either reduced or nonexistent budgets to work with when it came to planning events. This made it especially difficult for Chefs when it came to providing food and menu options for guests that had an equal balance of creativity, quality and value. In turn, many Chefs' operating budgets were reduced due to low revenue numbers. This made it nearly impossible to invest in new concepts which would require equipment, serving pieces, displays and even staffing. You basically had to learn how to continue to impress your guests and meet their expectations using what you had in house. This is a very difficult thing to do when you want to stay fresh and new in the food industry.

We now are seeing revenue numbers rise and stay consistent from quarter to quarter. It so far appears that we may have emerged from the worst of it and that business is on an upturn. This is good news for Chefs whose budgets have been replenished and are now spending that money on new and cutting-edge concepts. Proper staffing levels are returning as well and more and more Chefs now have the ability to immerse themselves into new and exciting foods and techniques along with the ability to execute them consistently.

In order to stay up with emerging trends, Chefs have to keep their eye on the industry and what is happening in the culinary community. Competition is fiercer than ever when it comes to securing revenue dollars and it is imperative that we provide constant innovation without losing sight of who you are as an organization or upsetting your market base. One way of doing that is social media. The Facebooks, Twitters and Urbanspoons of the world have changed the way that we do business forever. More and more publication of who's who and what is hot are being posted on these sites and the market is watching and learning. It used to be in the old days that you would find out about a new restaurant or a Chef who is doing something new by way of a monthly trade magazine or weekly review by a local food critic. Now that information is available almost instantaneously as people dine out and attend events and post their opinions and pictures online. We as Chefs have to recognize this and realize that many guests will see something they like or have a great experience somewhere and they will put that information out on the Internet for all to see. If that delicious food they experienced or great photo did not come from your property, you could lose those potential dollars to a competitor faster than you possibly could imagine. You just never know when someone is considering your property for a booking and then all of a sudden reads about an awesome experience that someone had at your competitor's property. It could literally happen that fast and that easy if you don't have a good relationship already established with the client.

Chefs nowadays have to stay more focused and innovative than ever in order to cut out a place in the market for themselves. There used to be a time that Chefs would audit what there competition is doing by sitting down at a table in their restaurant or swinging through their bar for a drink. Currently, due to the fact that we are in the age of the Internet, Chefs are keeping tabs on their competition via the web. If someone new comes to town and you want to see what they are all about, a quick 10 minutes on their website and you have a pretty good idea whether they are a competitor of yours or not. Once you have established that they are direct competition, you quickly start dissecting what they are doing and asking if it is bigger and better than what you are doing. This will then signal whether or not a site visit would be in order or if there is need for you to review what you're doing in comparison to your competition. This style of research is also cost effective if you're looking into a property that is in another state or even another country. Thousands of dollars in travel budgets are saved due to the fact that you are able to see their menus and amenities online and know immediately what they are offering to their guests.

Once you have established that you need to freshen up the offerings that you provide for your guests and potential clients, you then have to ask yourself a few of questions: Does this new concept fit who I am as a Chef? Does it fit my organization as well the standards and expectations that executive management and ownership have entrusted in me? Will it create a buzz and help drive in more business? If the answers to these questions are all yes, then you need to figure out what those new offerings look and taste like, and if you can afford to do it. I would love nothing more than to have an ice bar that provides champagne and caviar service to interested guests during the evening hours. However, I can't afford to do that and it is not cost effective to even consider such an undertaking. I doubt very seriously if any of our clientele would find value in something like that. That doesn't mean you completely dismiss other upscale amenities for your guests. You just make sure that it fits your concept and that it helps create a sense of creativity and value for your guests.

I can remember when square plates became popular in the industry and everyone was throwing their old round plates out the window and sinking big dollars into total china replacement in their various outlets. Why? Because that was the hot thing to do at the time and all food served on square plates, even if the menu was exactly the same as before, appeared to be new and fresh. After some time passed, guests began to notice that nothing had really changed except the china. It wasn't enough to hold their interest and keep them coming back. It just wasn't enough innovation to be considered worthy of repeat business and spending.

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Guest Service: A Culture of YES

In a recent global consumers report, 97% of the participants said that customer service is a major factor in their loyalty to a brand, and 76% said they view customer service as the true test of how much a company values them. And since there is no industry more reliant on customer satisfaction than the hotel industry, managers must be unrelenting in their determination to hire, train and empower the very best people, and to create a culture of exceptional customer service within their organization. Of course, this begins with hiring the right people. There are people who are naturally service-oriented; people who are warm, empathetic, enthusiastic, pleasant, thoughtful and optimistic; people who take pride in their ability to solve problems for the hotel guests they are serving. Then, those same employees must be empowered to solve problems using their own judgment, without having to track down a manager to do it. This is how seamless problem solving and conflict resolution are achieved in guest service. This willingness to empower employees is part of creating a Culture of Yes within an organization.  The goal is to create an environment in which everyone is striving to say “Yes”, rather than figuring out ways to say, “No”. It is essential that this attitude be instilled in all frontline, customer-facing, employees. Finally, in order to ensure that the hotel can generate a consistent level of performance across a wide variety of situations, management must also put in place well-defined systems and standards, and then educate their employees about them. Every employee must be aware of and responsible for every standard that applies in their department. 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.