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Hotel Food & Beverage Trends: What's Hot, What's Not And What's Coming
"Today, everyone is a little bit more educated about food," says Jeff McInnis, the James Beard Award-winning chef and owner of Miami's Yardbird restaurant. "I think that's a good thing ... America is definitely stepping in the right direction."
As home pantries evolve, so must hotel restaurants. No longer are guests satisfied with a standard dining room. The restaurant must be a reflection of the hotel's location, ambiance, and, ideally, have unique selling points all its own to draw in local guests.
"We are 100% targeting the local market," says Guy Rigby, vice president of food and beverage for Four Seasons, Americas. "If we get the local market, the hotel guests dine there."
Satisfying the "Foodie" Palate without Pretension
But just what lures in the local guest? A great meal ... but what makes a "great meal" is inherently subjective and constantly evolving.
One thing's for sure: easier access to what would formerly be restaurant-only foods means that hotels are required to cater to a savvier consumer.
"You can eat caviar on the couch in your underwear watching football if you want to ... and that's great," says Jacqueline Sainsbury, managing editor of Food Arts magazine.
But that doesn't mean that great food needs to be haute cuisine. The great escoffiers and high dining concepts of the 1960s aren't currently en vogue.
Playing with "street food" or "comfort food" and elevating it to a higher level is currently in favor at both hotel restaurants and the food industry in general, with chefs like José Andrés launching a food truck in addition to fine dining restaurants like The Bazaar in Los Angeles and Miami's SLS hotels.
"We're not trying to elevate [your food]," says Top Chef Season 5 contestant McInnis, who has worked for Orient Express' Keswick Hall as well as Ritz-Carlton resorts around the globe.
"We're trying to do the best damn fried chicken you've ever had."
Of course, it's easier to sell a simple concept like fried chicken when you have a James Beard award or a "Top Chef" credit to your name. Hotels, particularly in the luxury market, have capitalized on this trend of drawing in celebrity chefs.
Yvon Ross, director of special events for the James Beard Foundation, says that in recent years she's seen an explosion of interest from the "non-industry" community in these acclaimed chefs and their cooking – whether they're making fried chicken, simple meatballs, or working with molecular gastronomy to prepare a fine dining meal.
But how does this trend translate to the hotel restaurant? Rigby says that many of his hotels have celebrity chefs, including Daniel Boulud in the new Four Seasons Toronto and Michael Mina in D.C. and Baltimore. Rigby isn't sure that star power will be the norm, but rather a strategic decision when the partnership makes sense both for location and for the hotel's ownership group.
Still, hotels are pushing hard to differentiate their food and beverage outlets from the property themselves, often utilizing separate design teams to create unique concepts and utilizing exterior entrances to make restaurants more accessible to the public.
In recent years, drawing on the "local" angle has become increasingly important for all restaurants, including those in the hospitality space.
Hotels like the "Birth of a Hotel" feature property Capella Washington, D.C., Georgetown are attempting to source as many items as possible from local farms, as well as to engage craft breweries, distilleries, bakers, coffee roasters and more to partner with the hotel to enhance food and beverage options.
Still other hotels have turned to apiaries, beehives and on-site herb gardens to grow their own ingredients, and many resorts are even "catering" to guests by offering cooking classes to help teach them how to prepare restaurant-quality food at home. Capella Washington's sister property, Capella Pedregal in Cabo San Lucas, offers such classes in a restaurant-quality kitchen for day-long or multi-day cooking class series.
Ingredient-Driven Conscious Consumption
As America develops an increasing pre-occupation with dietary restrictions like gluten-free, and low-carb diets as a way to combat expanding waistlines, so too must dining out evolve. No longer are hotel restaurant menus always full of "splurge items" for that special occasion visitor.
In addition to more careful food sourcing, in part inspired by the local food movement, hotels are also introducing menus that cater to both the calorie and the ingredient conscious. Sofitel Hotels and Resorts in North America have done this through the introduction of their De-Light Program, which offers low-calorie but high-nutrient menu items prepared with fresh, seasonal ingredients.
Gabriela Navejas, vice president of marketing and communications for Sofitel, says that the menus, launched in early 2012, were originally supposed to be a one-time event but have become an ongoing offer due to their overwhelming popularity. Today, the De-Light program is offered in all North American restaurants and in-room dining menus, as well as extended to become "Delight Breaks" for meeting groups as part of the hotels' catering programs.
Wherever possible, hotels use herbs and vegetables grown onsite for added local flavor. Sofitel is currently working to roll this program out to all of their properties worldwide.
"It's about health," says Navejas. "With people having more access to information, it's really about a lifestyle. [Guests are] more demanding, they have more knowledge [about food] but they want to enjoy their meals and the experience."
Grab n' Go Goes Social
Hotels have worked to craft that "experience" in all aspects of dining, from sit-down restaurants to coffee shops and in-lobby bars and social spaces.
Hospitality brokerage owner Steven Kamali of Steven Kamali Hospitality says that the hotel lobby "has become the epicenter of our social world," a social space where guests and local business people, traditionally in big cities, can gather for meetings that bleed into play when work extends well beyond the typical 9 to 5.
He points to Starwood's W Hotels as well as boutique properties like New York City's Ace and Marc hotels for their success in this "lobby as a social space" concept. Here, you'll see a typical hotel bar transformed into a destination for locals and guests alike, a place where one can grab more than a sub-par sandwich and instead enjoy a gourmet burger or an organic chicken breast and craft cocktail.
Hyatt brand Andaz brings the social lobby concept to a new level, offering communal tables where guests can relax and unwind, and front desk staff that offer wine, tea, coffee or soda upon check-in.
Kimpton Hotels embraces this trend as well, offering nightly "Wine Down" happy hours with complimentary beverages at many of their properties.
Capella offers a similar concept, with daily snack and soft drinks available in the hotel's lobby "Living Room," a guest-only space where the hotel's on-staff personal assistants wait on attending guests.
Speaking of bars, the beverage movement has certainly evolved past the perfect dirty martini or great glass of wine. Hotels are rivaling with the industry's best restaurants to produce creative cocktail and beverage menus.
"There's a huge trend towards mixology," says Rigby, who speaks of the farm-to-table concept as it makes it way towards farm-to-bar, with chefs and cocktail specialists whipping up house-made juices and sodas.
Restaurants are also looking beyond wine, although the concept of having a well-educated sommelier and robust wine list won't be leaving anytime soon.
"Beer is having an enormous resurgence," Ribgy says, musing that hotels and resorts are seeking out craft beers to both round out a locally focused set of beverage offerings and to make menus more accessible to guests.
Similarly, many properties have focused their menu around specific spirits, pairing menus with cocktails rather than the more traditional beer and wine.
Beyond The Trends
But which of these trends will stay and which are simply a flash in the pain? Sainsbury points to a time last year when she found all restaurants suddenly obsessed with Neopolitan pizzas, and many can recall the nation's current obsession with cupcakes.
"People do want to feel challenged [by new cooking techniques and cuisines], but a lot of times they just want to feel comfortable and know they're being fed extremely well," says Rigby. "I don't mind [embracing trends], I just want to make sure we do them exceptionally well and that we also have the service component right."
Experts seem to believe that while no one food or restaurant concept will reign supreme in years to come, concepts like farm-to-fork cuisine and the use of high-quality ingredients will only continue to grow in popularity, exceeding "trend" status and becoming an expectation, if they haven't already.
And, in the words of Ross: "I just hope people will enjoy the food and stop Twittering about it as they're eating."
[Image Credit: The Bazaar Miami]