During the pandemic, Eau Palm Beach Resort and its on-site restaurants have become a safe Escape for Guests and Locals.
Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa

During the pandemic, Eau Palm Beach Resort and its on-site restaurants have become a safe Escape for Guests and Locals.

How Hotel Restaurants are Climbing Back from COVID-19

Like standalone restaurants, hotel dining programs have changed their operations, menus, and more to keep guests safe and bring back business.

For all the difficulties restaurants have faced in the past six months, hotels have been as negatively impacted—if not more so. After all, many restaurants have reimagined their menus for off-site consumption, but hotels can hardly export their core offering of accommodations.

Hotel dining is where the two sides of hospitality intersect. To that end, the segment has the best, but also the worst, of both worlds, and the experiences of these hotel-anchored restaurants vary dramatically depending on location, size, F&B programs, and other factors.

“I think it’s easy for everybody to agree that this is especially calamitous. Even the Great Recession of 2008 doesn’t compare because there were still things happening; it was just constrained,” says Alexei Rudolf, cofounder and managing partner of Mise, an annual conference specifically targeting the hotel chef. “When your hotel property, banquets, events, and conferences are part of your lifeline, … you’ve got to wait until businesses are back to business. People have to personally feel comfortable traveling and staying in hotels.”

Concepts with a strong, local following might have recouped some lost revenue, while those rooted in conferences and events have been staring down a drought. Restaurants situated near entertainment venues are more likely to feel the strain than luxury resorts that are destinations unto themselves.

“[Hotels] have a long way to go, probably longer than other segments in terms of what that recovery is going to look like. At the same time, life is still happening,” Rudolph says, adding that special events like weddings have resumed at many hotels across the country.

Like the restaurant industry, hotel dining has taken an innovative approach to the crisis at hand, with solutions often tailored to the individual property. While many of these measures are temporary, some are likely to remain even after COVID-19 is a thing of the past.

Jeff Craven, Resort Hotel Photography

Silver Cloud Hotel pivoted away from buffet and sit-down dining during Seattle’s strictest days of quarantine.

Location and Clientele 

Nestled within a U-shaped entertainment mecca, Silver Cloud Hotel’s stadium location has never wanted for business. If the Seattle Mariners weren’t playing at T-Mobile Park, then there was a good chance the adjacent CenturyLink Field & Event Center was hosting a Seahawks game, concert, or trade show. The waterfront, plus shops, restaurants, and galleries, are also all nearby. Even with all this activity and other foodservice options, Silver Cloud drew guests to its on-site restaurant, Jimmy’s On First.

With professional sports, live shows, conferences, and other mass gatherings cancelled, Silver Cloud has felt the sting, particularly with regard to its dining business.

“We took the brunt of the hit F&B–wise for sure. The majority of our business is driven by the stadium and events center,” says Jim Goodman, executive chef at the Silver Cloud - Stadium and Jimmy’s On First. “We’re usually the ones  who don’t have to focus on driving volume. Now we are the ones suffering the most from the loss of these events.”

The family-owned, regional hotel group has 10 locations—all in the greater Seattle area, save for one in Portland, Oregon—but only half have a full-service restaurant. As the largest property within the group, the stadium location’s one-two punch of entertainment and dining meant that the 211-room hotel and on-site restaurant were always busy. In a somewhat cruel reversal of fortunes, the second largest Silver Cloud has had a steady flow of business since the coronavirus began; it sits right across the street from the massive Swedish Medical Center.

For hotels located in or near residential neighborhoods, on-site restaurants might be a boon. If room bookings are down, locals may still order carryout or dine al fresco. Silver Cloud isn’t in such an area, but Goodman says Jimmy’s On First is fortunate in that, unlike many restaurants, it has a hotel network to fall back on when times get tough.

“I try not to look, but I see the list of area restaurants that have closed. Some of these have been here 10, 20, 30 years, and they’ve always been busy. But they’re small and don’t have that kind of parachute,” Goodman says.

On the other side of the country, the Eau Palm Beach Resort & Spa feels a world apart. The Florida property—including its trio of on-site restaurants plus a bar—closed March 25 and used the subsequent months to re-imagine the guest experience, establish best practices, and train staff before welcoming guests back July 1. Its somewhat isolated location on a peninsula due east of Palm Beach, Florida, is especially appealing in the age of social distancing.

With so many Americans cancelling their travels to far-flung locales, resorts (especially those within driving distance) can be an attractive substitute. Middle-income families may choose to splurge on a hotel getaway. At the same time, patrons who frequent Five Diamond resorts like Eau Palm Beach are less likely to feel the budgetary pinch brought on by the pandemic.

“I think if you’re a luxury hotel property, you’re catering to the 1 percent level a lot. Right now, they can’t travel internationally,” Rudolf says. “Disposable income is not an issue, so they’re benefiting from that drivable [destination]. All that money they were going to spend on a plane ticket or a cruise somewhere, now they can put it into a really upscale experience at a place nearby.”

Although Eau Palm Beach had this positioning in its favor, leadership knew it would be for naught without the proper systems in place. So food and beverage director Tito Rodriguez began a reconnaissance mission that went beyond the resort’s home base of Florida and even outside of the hospitality sector itself. In addition to reaching out to Michelin-starred properties and restaurant contacts around the world, Rodriguez also looked at the auto industry and hospitals to see if certain practices might be parlayed to Eau Palm Beach.

Although it had a plan in place by late spring, the resort delayed its re-opening until the following month to allow for ServSafe training and certifications, on-site modifications, and the delivery of specialty equipment, some of which, he notes, was on backorder due to COVID-created demand. In the end, the wait was well worth it.

“By the time our guests have breakfast, they are so relaxed and have so much confidence in how we are handling stuff that they’re not looking to take a chance and go off-property,” Rodriguez says, adding that he’s heard of guests cancelling reservations in town to instead dine on-site. “Some of this, I believe, has to do with the fact that we’re creating consumer confidence within our property.”

Quirk Hotel Richmond

Quirk hotel is betting on its airy interior and social-distancing measures to put guests at ease when indoor dining resumes.

Operations and Optics

Like standalone restaurants, hotel dining has had to shift its operations, layouts, and menus. At Eau Palm Beach, that entails spaced-out seating, mask requirements when guests leave their tables, special signage to indicate when a table has been sanitized, and more.

The key to guest buy-in, Rodriguez says, is balancing restrictive measure with something that feels like a perk.

“It was critically important that we went into this with the attitude of, ‘We’re going to reinvent what five-star looks like.’ And in order to do that, you have to step outside of the box. Let’s not create any limiting beliefs for why we can’t do something; let’s find out how we can do it,” Rodriguez says. “If there is something we’re going to take away, I want to know what two things we’re going to give back.”

For him, the best testament to how well he and his team succeeded in this effort involved a recent encounter with a guest who wasn’t wearing a mask. When Rodriguez reminded him of the resort’s policy in common areas, the guest said he’d felt so safe and relaxed on the property that he’d simply forgotten.

While Eau Palm Beach’s restaurants followed the same operational shifts, menu changes varied by concept. For example, steakhouse restaurant Angle and the coastal cuisine restaurant Breeze Ocean Kitchen maintained the same offerings, but the casual Temple Orange bolstered its offerings with more Italian dishes. These additions were in response to the uptick in family business; Rodriguez says he can’t stop selling pizzas.

At other hotel restaurants, the changes were far more drastic. When Quirk Hotel in Richmond, Virginia, reopened its rooftop restaurant/bar in July, guests were presented with a very different menu.

“Part of it was because we’re trying to provide something that was interesting to the locals. Richmond has a pretty good culinary culture, so having good quality is kind of table stakes here,” says general manager Nico Scherman. “At the same time, it is our only venue open right now to hotel guests for dinner, so it has to have some component, which would be appealing to them.”

While both Eau Palm Beach and Silver Cloud boast something special about their locations—beachside getaway and entertainment playground—Quirk Hotel’s downtown spot has enmeshed it in the local dining scene. Even if room occupancy rates are lower, its Q Rooftop Bar can still bring in residents.

To boost visits from locals, the hotel has doubled down on its commitment to collaborating with other Richmond businesses, offering everything from a virtual happy hour with Belle Isle Moonshine to a signature coffee blend from Blanchard’s Coffee Roasting Co. to ice cream sandwiches from Nightingale Ice Cream. “Historically, we’ve partnered with other folks locally, but now it’s become second nature,” Scherman says.

At press time, the hotel’s second concept, The Lobby Bar, is only serving brunch, although Scherman says it’s slated to begin hosting pop-up dinners in early autumn. For now, the space is an ideal refuge should a thunderstorm disrupt Q Rooftop Bar. Located within a century-old building that was originally a department store, Quirk Hotel’s ground floor (and the location of The Lobby Bar) is open and airy, which, Scherman thinks, goes a long way in making guests feel safe—especially once the pop-ups begin.

Although Quirk Hotel was brought under the Hyatt umbrella last year, the hotel and its restaurants retained a great deal of autonomy. Sharing collective resources and brainpower may be advantageous, but it doesn’t diminish how crucial flexibility can be, especially in a crisis situation such as COVID-19.

FireLake restaurants epitomize the importance of site-specific decision-making. In the midst of the pandemic, the newest outpost—and the first in Chicago—made its grand debut, replacing another concept, Filini Bar & Restaurant. Located within the Radisson Blu Aqua, the new FireLake broke from its sister locations in one crucial area.

“We have two FireLake properties in Minnesota, and their menus are very minimal due to COVID. … We started out with an idea of a very limited menu, but at the same time we were going back and forth and thinking, ‘Do we really want to open with a limited menu?’ So we decided not to do that. We decided that even though our seating is limited, we needed to roll out a very robust menu,”  says hotel manager Charleston Gray.

The numbers backed up this assertion, with items selling across the board. Gray adds that at a time when many Chicago restaurants are whittling down to smaller menus, FireLake’s expansive selection differentiates it from the competition. Plus, the restaurant has the benefit of high volumes to justify the menu’s girth; it negotiated with the CVS next door to extend the outdoor patio. So while indoors was cut to a third of its usual capacity, al fresco grew from about 30 to 70 seats, even when accounting for the minimal 6-foot buffer between all tables.

“We are now sort of regrouping on what’s going to happen in the wintertime when we don’t have that outside seating,” Gray says. Possible solutions include an enclosed, heated tent and additional seating in the lobby. In the meantime, the kitchen keeps its operations and ingredients somewhat streamlined despite the large menu.

“Say we have broccoli; how does that broccoli fit into other menus besides one or two dishes? The two chefs are phenomenal. … They are cross-utilizing a lot of the ingredients, so they’re not having to have a gamut of ingredients like we used to have,” Gray adds.

What Remains

It’s difficult to say which changes made during COVID-19 will endure. Just as they responded differently during the crisis, hotels will vary in how they operate in the future.

At Silver Cloud and Jimmy’s on First, Goodman became a one-man show for a while, completely running the F&B program solo in the form of boxed breakfasts, room service, and takeout. These adaptations reflect a greater shift in the industry, wherein to-go menus and operations are a central pillar for all restaurants, be it quick or full service, independent or chain, hotel or standalone.

By moving in this direction, some other—arguably outdated—programs may fall by the wayside.

“A lot of hotel brands were moving toward that grab-and-go [model], where they’ll pack it up for you and leave it at your door. Gone are the days of the cart and cloche,” Mise’s Rudolf says. “So I think it’s accelerated that a little bit and maybe given a way to test some of those ways of handling delivery … and getting more in line with the restaurant industry from that perspective.”

At Eau Palm Beach, Rodriguez thinks some of the safety and sanitation practices implemented during the coronavirus will become the new industry standard. He even compares it to gluten-free menu items: A couple of decades ago, it would be rare to see such options on menus, but now most restaurants offer gluten-free dishes or modifications.

Rodriguez also appreciates that enhanced hospitality has become an unexpected—and beneficial—byproduct of COVID modifications. In fact, some of the changes Eau Palm Beach has made are likely to remain.

“I really like the fact that it’s given us an opportunity to go even deeper into more personalized service,” he says. In some cases it has manifested as an uptick in existing services, such as tableside Manhattans, and other times it’s introduced new operations, like curated service rather than buffets.

“The guests are enjoying [those changes], so maybe they stay a while. The masks—I don’t know so much,” Rodriguez adds with a laugh.