Hotel Phillips
Hotel Phillips in Kansas City, Missouri, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Staying Power of Great Hotel Restaurants

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No longer just an on-site amenity, hotel restaurants have become destinations in their own right, attracting locals, tourists, and dining dollars into the hotel setting.

By Daniel P. Smith October 2016 Hotel & Lodging

Along 12th Street in downtown Kansas City, Missouri, the upscale Hotel Phillips rises 20 stories into the Midwestern air, a distinguished, stately presence in an area teeming with new development and fresh energy.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, the 85-year-old, art deco gem seemingly constructed from the pages of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby features intricate bronze and nickel metalwork, marble walls, and a gilded 11-foot likeness of the goddess of dawn hovering over its lobby.

When Chicago-based Arbor Lodging Partners purchased the 217-room boutique hotel last October, refashioning the hotel’s food and beverage program stood at the top of leadership’s whiteboard. 

“Guests are demanding a more holistic experience at hotels, and you have to keep up, particularly on the food and beverage side,” Arbor Lodging co-founder and CEO Vamsi Bonthala says.

Arbor Lodging’s efforts, which started in earnest this past summer, included converting a pair of underutilized spaces into a coffee concept and a speakeasy-style bar, while Bonthala and his team also started plotting a new full-service restaurant concept to replace 12 Baltimore, the property’s longstanding three-meal dining establishment.

Though 12 Baltimore scored solid results, thanks to a dedicated team, it was, Bonthala acknowledges, a restaurant created to serve hotel guests first and foremost, but it was lacking any connection to Kansas City and its burgeoning downtown core.

Seeing opportunity—or, more accurately, need—Arbor Lodging teamed with DMK Restaurants, a heralded Chicago-based multi-concept restaurant group led by David Morton and Chef Michael Kornick. In July, they began the process of re-concepting 12 Baltimore into a destination restaurant more befitting its place inside Hotel Phillips. Hence, Tavernonna Italian Kitchen is slated to open in December.

The ultimate goal, Bonthala explains, is for this new Hotel Phillips restaurant to deliver chef-driven cuisine and Kansas City flavors in a sophisticated, yet unpretentious, setting as relevant for first dates as for family celebrations.

“The restaurant will absolutely be an extension of the hotel’s identity,” Bonthala says. “We know if there’s not thought put into the design, character, and food of the restaurant, then it hurts the overall impression of the hotel, and that’s something that cannot happen.”

In today’s era of foodie culture, social media, and heightened hospitality competition, upscale hotel operators like Arbor Lodging have ditched status quo food and beverage. Hotel restaurants are increasingly concocted as revenue drivers and marketplace differentiators, becoming dining destinations as eager to connect with the local market as with travelers.

“Hotels no longer find it acceptable to lose, or even break even, on food and beverage. A restaurant has to be something that will drive revenue and traffic, and differentiate a property from its competitive set,” says Steven Kamali, founder of Hospitality House, a top food and beverage consulting company with a client list that includes the likes of Marriott and Lightstone as well as boutique hotel properties across the U.S. 

This evolving reality is not lost on John Kolaski, president of the Disruptive Restaurant Group. As a subsidiary of sbe, a leading lifestyle hospitality company that develops, manages, and operates award-winning hotels across the U.S., Kolaski says hotels have little choice but to create—and then execute—winning restaurant concepts. 

“In a saturated market, everyone is fighting for the same guest, so offering creative food and beverage is how operators can really show the soul of a brand and capture that initial traffic that can be converted to lifelong, loyal guests,” Kolaski says. 

Hotels Ditch Humdrum Restaurants

For hotel operators, granting the restaurant scene and its food-and-beverage brethren their proper due has been a steady and, frankly, still-ongoing evolution.

Twenty years ago, hotels largely positioned a full-service restaurant as another property amenity, something akin to same-day laundry, concierge service, or a fitness center. Dining was an obligatory service created to accommodate a wide-ranging, diverse demographic of hotel visitors, says Jody Pennette, founder of the Connecticut-based cb5 Hospitality Consulting firm, which has developed more than 300 distinctive foodservice concepts for hotels.

Breakfast was about capture, lunchtime about traffic, and dinner, the most difficult daypart for hotels to seize, focused on luring hotel guests back onto the property with the promise of convenience, Pennette explains. But in the process of attempting to cover every base, hotels diluted their offering. 

“It’s hard to go from Corn Flakes to prime rib,” Pennette says, “and the industry wrestled with this because it is not as formulaic as many would like.”

In a first attempt to break out, Pennette says, hotel operators turned greater attention to bolder, more dynamic restaurant design. “That was fun,” Pennette says, “but it did not necessarily have a purpose and a sincere story behind it.”

Thereafter, some hotels turned to celebrity chefs like Gordon Ramsay and Jean-Georges Vongerichten. Though easy to sell in the boardroom, such restaurants proved much more difficult to execute given how little time many of these culinary heroes could devote to the concept. “You can’t hype the consumer. They are too damn aware and comfortable now in their own convictions,” Pennette says.

Some hotels also attempted to mimic the hot trend of the day and translate it onto their property. From tapas to sliders, Asian fusion to gourmet burgers, operators pushed concepts that lacked the soul, conviction, and entrepreneurial energy from which these popular trends had blossomed. 

“What works well in Seattle, Miami, Dallas, and Vermont is all different—and there is no restaurant concept that works everywhere,” Pennette reminds.

More recently, however, hotels seemed to have crafted a more sustainable, strategic plan for their restaurants, exchanging the quest for stars and Yelp reviews in favor of authenticity and market relevance. More than ever, Kamali says, hotels are putting time, energy, and money into the resources and talent that can deliver a restaurant relevant to the local neighborhood and capable of standing on its own legs.

“Because if the restaurant can’t do that, then why does the hotel need it?” Kamali asks.

Authenticity Upsets Algorithms

Across the country, it’s been a rising tide, with one hotel after another—in one market after another—debuting compelling concepts that are focused on authenticity. “Purity, honesty, and integrity must be present,” Pennette says. 

The Grange restaurant at the Citizen Hotel in Sacramento features a daily changing menu based on Northern California foods and wines. 

At the Westin in Reston, Virginia, Vinifera eagerly champions the pleasant marriage between food and wine with seasonal small plates and rare vinos.

At the Marriott in downtown Syracuse, New York, Eleven Waters, a restaurant name that pays homage to the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, is a regional bistro concept pouring area wines from a tap.

This new era of hotel restaurants has transformed the hospitality landscape. 

Once upon a time, restaurants were offered as sacrificial lambs, a must-have hotel amenity just because. Later, they became about marketing, and the property owners accepted them, willfully if not begrudgingly, as a loss leader. 

Today, however, savvy hotel operators are only thinking of their restaurants as viable revenue producers and traffic drivers—even if hotel leadership might still wince at the volatility a restaurant operation often brings. Meanwhile, travelers and locals alike are dining in hotel restaurants or putting a visit to a hotel’s rooftop bar at the top of their to-do list.

“The hotel restaurant isn’t just about convenience anymore,” says Greg Griffie, senior vice president of food and beverage for Crescent Hotels & Resorts, which operates over 100 hotels and resorts in North America, including properties under the Marriott, Hilton, Starwood, Hyatt, and IHG banners. “You have to be authentic, and you have to raise the bar because the days of serving subpar food at hotels have passed us by.”

More and more, Pennette sees hotels blending the DNA of their brand into foodservice and focusing on details that resonate. “From the coasters and  room service trays to the uniforms,” he says. 

And perhaps more importantly, hotels—even the large conglomerates—are sincerely investing in the culture and soul of the eatery, something that can put the restaurants on par with high-performing local independents. Leaders are teaching the entire team about the origins of the restaurant’s food, which in turn allows staff to share culinary stories built around local goods or sustainable ingredients in an effort to build deeper, richer connections with guests.

“Hotels are finally paying attention to the little things because there are no broad strokes, and they realize the message has to be telegraphed clearly,” Pennette says.

It is intense, unending work, Crescent’s Griffie acknowledges, but imperative in today’s world. “It’s never an overnight process,” he says, calling the restaurant-building adventure a mix of art and science.

The Operator’s Perspective

While some hotel brands and operators prefer to develop and oversee their own concepts, others are actively recruiting local chefs or restaurateurs to open a restaurant on hotel property, in yet another move to push authenticity and local connections that help a hotel restaurant resonate 365 days a year.

Restaurateurs and chefs, once reluctant to hear such pitches, given the long-standing stigma of hotel-based restaurants, are now increasingly open to and intrigued by the opportunity to leverage a hotel’s inherent advantages, including a captive audience. 

“Compared to a free-standing restaurant that has to fight for every single guest coming through the door, it’s likely that hotel guests will give a hotel restaurant a chance,” Disruptive Restaurant Group’s Kolaski says. 

Bob’s Steak & Chop House president Bill Lenox has found a welcome synergy with the eight units that his brand operates on hotel properties. The 23-year-old chain has a total of 14 units, and with more than half of the portfolio residing in hotels, he says future growth calls for additional units inside Omni Hotels. 

“When the Omni Nashville is busy, Bob’s is busy, so it makes for a nice combination,” says Lenox, who does insist on a separate, street-level entrance for his hotel-based restaurants so that Bob’s can maintain its independent vibe.

 In addition to a generally captive audience, Kolaski says restaurateurs and chefs exploring a hotel location can also leverage something else: a full hotel team that is dedicated to supporting the restaurant’s performance in areas such as marketing, operations, and facilities. “Having another layer of team members in the hotel to support and champion your venue certainly contributes to the likelihood of success,” Kolaski says.

There also exists a compelling financial advantage. In most cases, Pennette says, hotels will pay for the restaurant build-out, which allows chefs and restaurateurs to launch a new restaurant without needing to rally significant funds. 

Yet hotels also bring their share of challenges. Their restaurants might face limited space as well as requirements to fulfill room service, banquet, or all-dayservice obligations, all of which might require culinary and operational leadership to adapt to a different cadence. “In a hotel restaurant, there are a lot of nerve endings to connect and the restaurant operators need to be prepared for this,” Pennette says. “Nothing in this business is ever a slam dunk.”