As consumers return to hotels, on-site restaurants up the ante on experience while incorporating lessons from the pandemic.

It’s been a long time since restaurants were a mere afterthought for hotels. As consumer enthusiasm surrounding global flavors and the overall dining experience ballooned, the other side of the hospitality industry recognized a new imperative. Hotels could either step up their on-premises restaurants or relegate foodservice to breakfast buffets and room service.

Many chose the former, raising the stakes to such a degree that on-site restaurants are destinations unto themselves. New hotel restaurants are also popping up at a faster-than-normal rate, thanks in part to the pandemic. Last year, everything from construction to grand openings was delayed and now the industry is making up for lost time.

Earlier this year, consumers began once again clamoring for in-person experiences, whether it be a vacation, staycation, or just a night out. This demand plus the backlog of openings from 2020 were a boon to the hospitality sector over the summer months.

“I think part of it is definitely the onslaught of delayed projects, but more than anything, it is the pent-up demand for dining out,” says Scott Gingerich, senior vice president of restaurants and bars for Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. “More importantly, we have found that even more than prior to the pandemic, restaurants, bars, activations and programming, etc. are a key, if not the primary determining factor, in selling hotel rooms.”

Despite COVID, Kimpton bolstered its 60-plus-unit system with four new properties in Dallas, New Orleans, Atlanta, and Bozeman, Montana. Half of these hotels opened with two on-site restaurants while the other half boasted three apiece. In August, the company also added a new restaurant, Abacá, to an existing property, the Kimpton Alton Hotel in San Francisco. So while the pandemic slowed the timeline for a few of the company’s projects, most are chugging along; Gingerich says it has about 20 other restaurants and bars in various stages of development.

In August, The Kimpton Alton In San Francisco Opened A New Restaurant, AbacÁ

In August, the Kimpton Alton in San Francisco opened a new restaurant, Abacá.

One trend Kimpton has wholeheartedly embraced is expanding its F&B program to include several on-site concepts, not just a single restaurant.

“Separate from what we learned during the pandemic, there was already a larger shift within the industry of developing hotels with multiple venues and more elaborate venues,” Gingerich says. “It is more common than ever for hotels to have at least one restaurant and a rooftop bar venue in addition to lobby bars, casual coffee/café venues, and pool bars.”

The growth of on-site restaurant options is likely increasing conversion rates among consumers, meaning hotel guests are doubling up as restaurant-goers and vice versa. It’s another trend Gingerich observed even before the pandemic began.

One thing that has changed in the ensuing year is the guest. Whereas hotels often attract a mix of people traveling for business or pleasure, 2021 hotel stays have been driven largely by those seeking a vacation. After more than a year of in-person restrictions, younger consumers are traveling—with a vengeance.

“Millennials and Gen Z are leading the charge with respect to ‘revenge travel.’ People are coming back to do more leisure travel … ahead of the business traveler,” says Robert Thompson, owner of Angevin & Co. He expects business travel to start ratcheting up next year.

Thompson built a name for himself with Punch Bowl Social, a multiunit eatertainment concept that he established and led up until last year. Angevin & Co. marks a new chapter for the entrepreneur; he’s not turning away from restaurants but instead adding hotels to his repertoire.

First up is The Frenchmen Hotel in New Orleans, which is slated to debut this fall. Angevin & Co. has been working with Lark Hotels to renovate the historical property and enrich its F&B offerings, starting with the on-site bar, Midnight Revival.

Thompson’s own shift is a microcosm of a much larger evolution within hospitality. Restaurateurs are looking at hotels with fresh eyes, and hotels are pouring the same investment into their restaurants as they do their accommodations and other facilities.

“I’m opening up hotels with F&B programming from a restaurateur point of view, not from a hotelier’s point of view, which I think is ultimately going to become the standard in the boutique hotel space,” Thompson says. He adds that one of boutique properties’ greatest assets is their intertwined structure, which ultimately yields a stronger, more competitive enterprise.

Disruption has permeated different categories within the restaurant sector; fine-casual concepts take customers away from fast food and fast casual while a new class of elevated but laid-back restaurants is stealing market share from traditional casual dining. It goes to follow that hotel restaurants would also be due for a shake-up.

“Eleven years ago I saw an opportunity to be a change agent in casual dining, and I did that by creating a new model that ultimately took traffic away from casual dining,” Thompson says. “I want to be a change agent in boutique hotels in that way and try to get a jump-start by thinking about it and executing on that vision today, ahead of what I think will be coming down the road.”

Just as eatertainment concepts like Punch Bowl Social have become more common, Thompson thinks food-focused boutique hotels will soon be the standard rather than the outlier. If so, it would be the next logical step in an evolution that arguably began years ago.

In Fort Worth, Texas, The Hotel Drover Hosts Not Only Travelers But Also Special Events Like Conferences And Weddings

In Fort Worth, Texas, the Hotel Drover hosts not only travelers but also special events like conferences and weddings.

A restaurant that happens to be in a hotel

Gingerich traces the inroads between celebrity chefs and hotel restaurants back to 1989 when Bill Kimpton tapped Wolfgang Puck for Postrio at a Kimpton property in San Francisco. But, he says, the flashpoint that really kicked the chef-hotel dynamic into high gear came nearly a decade later when big wigs including Todd English, Jean-Georges Vongerichten, and Julian Serrano were recruited to the Bellagio in Las Vegas.

“That trend has been growing and gaining momentum around the world since then,” Gingerich says. “Even industry elites such as Thomas Keller have more recently entered the hotel environment, with the Surf Club Restaurant at the Four Season Hotel in South Beach, [Florida].”

The democratization of restaurants and food culture has seeped into hotels, too. Hotel restaurants needn’t be fine-dining establishments with a showstopper chefs attached. If anything, consumers may be seeking something less fancy. Or as Thompson says, “It doesn’t need to be high-end, it just has to be exciting—something that engages them.”

Newly opened The Wildset and its on-site restaurant, Ruse, have adopted that philosophy. Tucked away in the sleepy town of St. Michael on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, the property is the brainchild of sisters Allie Balin and K.C. Lager, along with developer Mihran Erkiletian. The sisters bring impressive restaurant chops to the project; their previous collaboration, Henrietta Red in Nashville, Tennessee, nabbed James Beard nominations for Best New Restaurant and Best Chef: Southeast for chef and partner Julia Sullivan.

Needless to say, Ruse received just as much care and attention as The Wildset. Balin, a hospitality consultant and certified sommelier, describes the restaurant as elevated casual, wherein the cuisine and service adhere to upscale standards, but guests feel comfortable coming in off the street in T-shirts and baseball caps. Ruse’s seasonal menu includes chef creations like local scallops with yellow corn polenta, opal basil, and heirloom cherry tomatoes, but it’s tempered by more casual fare like lobster rolls and Miller High Life on tap.

“I always like for restaurants to do a balance of high and low. We take things very seriously, but we also don’t want people to feel overwhelmed and stuffy and I think that comes through in the style of service,” Balin says. “We want to be informative while making people feel really welcome.”

The Wildset and Ruse were created as separate, differentiated entities, but it’s immediately clear that they share the same DNA. Lager, who owns an interior design studio, imbued the pair with an airy yet crisp atmosphere, using a neutral palette and coastal-meets-modern style. The hope is that, like the design, business will carry over from the hotel to the restaurant and back again.

The Wildset and Ruse were originally conceived as a way to fill a gap in the market. Since the 1970s, Erkiletian’s family has had a home in St. Michaels, which is only about a 90 minutes from D.C., where Balin and Lager grew up. But despite its proximity to D.C. and Baltimore, which is becoming a food destination in its own right, St. Michaels fell short in terms of dining.

“We’ve always kind of lamented the lack of a variety of restaurants and the lack of certain types of cuisines in the area. So we saw the restaurant as part of the hotel, but we did give it a separate identity. We want it to feel not like a hotel restaurant, but a restaurant that happens to be in a hotel,” Lager says.

As an amenity, the on-site restaurant sweetens the deal for out-of-towners, but Ruse was also built to bring in locals and its downtown location helps in that regard. “There are a lot of restaurants at hotels that people wouldn’t even necessarily think to go to in the town,” Lager says. “We really wanted it to be a place that the locals were proud to call their restaurant, too.”

Hotel Drover

Hotel Drover.

Double the labor trouble

Even though the hotel-restaurant dynamic has the potential to boost revenues across the board, it also increases the number of employee positions; if one side is short-staffed, it often affects the other. And at a time when labor shortages have eclipsed nearly all other business concerns, maintaining a full staff is no small task.

The Wildset and Ruse were able to open in July, but they still had some empty spots. Rather than compromise its service standard, the property decided to not serve weekend brunch until it had more employees. It also delayed special events like Sunday supper club and seasonal dinners until the fall.

With only 34 rooms, The Wildset also has the advantage of being a smaller, nimbler enterprise. Bigger hotels, particularly those that regularly host conferences, weddings, and other large-scale events, had larger gaps to fill.

In Fort Worth, Texas, the Hotel Drover has been grappling with labor since day one. The Marriott Autograph property and its on-site restaurant 97 West Kitchen & Bar opened their doors in February when COVID-19 cases were high and many consumers were still skittish.

In those early days, one of the greatest challenges was predicting business flow and therefore formulating a workable budget. If business was slow and the hotel was fully staffed, it would have to let employees go. On the other hand, if business was booming and the hotel was understaffed, it would have to scramble for more workers.

“You put all of that aside—not knowing business levels, not knowing if people are traveling, if it’s going to be a staycation—and then you add in the difficulties of finding staff period. So staffing was in the beginning, and still, is a huge issue,” says Grant Morgan, executive chef at Hotel Drover. “I’ve done 20–30 restaurant openings and nothing ever like this.”

The hiring process was slow going, but business was booming at the Hotel Drover. Even though Morgan says wages were at an all-time high ($16–23 per hour), the property was still short-staffed at the end of summer. Nevertheless it was an improvement from earlier when Morgan and his team regularly pulled 80–100 hours per week. The hotel side has been similarly understaffed.

While these were less-than-ideal circumstances, the property was able to cross-utilize resources, including staff. So if the restaurant was quiet, servers might help clean rooms and on the flipside, hotel staff could help tidy up the restaurant while the front desk was slow. Morgan even recalls salespeople working the carving stations to lend a hand at special events.

“It created a great team; it became a team effort,” he says, adding that it was a successful effort at that. Despite the occasional complaint over not offering room service or breakfast service initially, Morgan says guests by and large didn’t notice anything amiss. “They would say their experience was seamless, which is what you want. If you can control the chaos behind the scenes and the guest upfront just thinks everything is grand and wonderful, then you’ve done your job for the day,” he adds.

Even though Hotel Drover is only 45 minutes from Dallas and 10 from downtown Fort Worth, it, like The Wildset in St. Michaels, can be a tourist destination. Located in the historic Stockyards District, the area is now home to restaurants, shops, and other businesses, though it still hosts daily cattle drives. 97 West plays up its Lone Star roots with dishes like chicken-fried Texas oysters, Cowboy Cobb Salad, slow-smoked ribs with Texas-honey barbecue sauce, and tres leches cake.

Out-of-towners staying at the Hotel Drover will likely dine at 97 West, just as locals swinging by for lunch or dinner might decide to return to the property for a staycation.

“It has a huge play area in the backyard; there are trails, there’s music, there are games, and there’s a huge pool. It does feel very private and secluded,” Morgan says. “So I think when people come in and have dinner … they see that and are like, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ve got to come here for a weekend.’ I’ve seen a lot of that.”

Taking a bit of time

Hotels and restaurants needn’t share the same ownership to mutually benefit from one another’s presence. To that end, Angevin & Co. is keeping its business strategy flexible. In addition to The Frenchmen and other prospective deals in New Orleans, Thompson is developing a new restaurant, Three Saints Revival, for an existing hotel in Denver, where he lived for about two decades.

“The owner of the Hotel Indigo reached out to me and asked me to do a restaurant [so] I’m opening a restaurant where I do not own the hotel; I have a lease arrangement with the hotel,” he says. “What a hotel needs is what a great restaurateur can bring, especially a local one. What they need is to be able to bring in that local customer as well. Hotels need to feel like beehives to really work, whether that’s made up of travelers or locals, nobody cares; it just feels good.”

Just as local know-how can go a long way in winning guests at hotel restaurants, so too can brand recognition. Grill Concepts, which comprises three brands—Daily Grill, The Grill on the Alley, and Public House—across 14 locations, has made hotels a pillar of its growth strategy. In fact, half its units are located in hotels, including the Hyatt, Westin, Marriott, and Sheraton.

Under normal circumstances, the restaurants and hotels would build off each other’s business, but at the height of the pandemic, they had to instead take cues from one another. When a number of the hotels temporarily closed, Grill Concepts followed suit with its on-site locations. As for the hotels that stayed open, the restaurants turned to third-party delivery since in-person dining, room service, and private dining had to be curtailed.

“The hotels and the restaurants are really trying to help each other out. The hotels started ordering their employees meals through our restaurant to help get us more sales, plus an incentive for the employees; they get a free hot meal while they’re working,” says Tamra Scroggins, director of culinary for Grill Concepts.

She says that business recovery has had little to do with hotel versus restaurant or even hotel restaurant versus standalone restaurant. Instead it boils down to location. For example, both Daily Grill and the Marriott that houses it in Burbank, California, have benefited from an influx of travelers through Burbank Airport. Situated close to both the airport and Warner Bros. Studios, the property has welcomed “American Idol” contestants, Scroggins says. By contrast, the Hyatt Hotel in downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma, which also has a Daily Grill, was still pulling in only about 20 percent capacity as of late summer.

This disparity illustrates just how patchy and lopsided recovery will be for hotel restaurants, especially at a time when neither the delta variant nor the labor shortage has a clearcut end in sight. And as with the greater restaurant sector, the new “normal” for hotel dining is still largely unknown.

“I think that hotel dining is going to take a little bit of time to come back,” Scroggins says. “I was talking to the Marriott people and they were saying 2023 is when they’re predicting things will be back to normal, but I don’t even know what normal will be.”

Feature, Hotel & Lodging