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.”