The new school of hotel restaurants

05 November, 2018 by
Annabelle Cloros

There are some great restaurants that just happen to be located in hotels.

Celebrity chefs including Gordon Ramsay, Wolfgang Puck and Nobu Matsuhisa all run successful venues with luxury accommodation groups, which are a drawcard for tourists and locals alike.

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While the hotel restaurant scene in Australia isn’t dominated by celebrity restaurants, it has its fair share of smaller venues operating within hotels, which are more chef-driven than star-powered.

Brent Savage’s Bentley Restaurant & Bar is located within the Raddison Blu Hotel in the Sydney CBD and Mat Lindsay’s Poly recently opened in the Paramount House Hotel, Surry Hills. The beauty of Australia’s take on hotel restaurants is that most venues can easily be imagined on a standard street front over a lobby.

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In the past, hotel restaurants tended to rely on hotel guests to fill their seats, but accommodation groups are starting to realise the potential of an untapped local market, who are happy to eat anywhere with a quality food and beverage offering.

Justin North from Concept Hospitality has worked with hotel groups to create standout food offerings and chef Daniel Menzies recently made the move from restaurant to hotel group.

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North and Menzies talk to Hospitality about shedding the hotel stigma, the creative potential that exists in the marketplace and the pros and cons of hotel kitchens vs standalone venues.

UNTAPPED POTENTIAL

Hotel groups are taking notice of the power of a premium food offering, whether it’s a slick space designed by a leading interior architect, installing a well-known chef in the kitchen or designing a menu that offers a point of difference.

Justin North is best known for his award-winning restaurant Becasse and time at Sydney pub Hotel Centennial, but the chef hung up his full-time apron in 2017 to launch Concept Hospitality with Will Talbot earlier this year.

The chef recently worked with hotel giant Ovolo to launch Mister Percy at Darling Harbour, and says savvy operators are engaging local experts to help them create memorable restaurants. “A lot of hotel groups understand they’re not experts in food and beverage — they are experts in accommodation,” says North. “In my view, most of them are underperforming in terms of what they’re offering and what they should be offering; there’s massive potential in their own market in terms of bottom line and boosting their revenue.”

HOTEL PERKS VS RESTAURANT INDEPENDENCE

There’s much to gain from working at a hotel restaurant — including the fact you never have to worry about taking care of laundry again.

Menzies spent his whole career working in restaurants such as Bistro Moncur and The Grill at the Four before trying “something new” when he took on the executive chef role at Primus Hotel’s The Wilmot.

“They’re quite different in a lot of ways,” says Menzies. “Hotels are more structured and focused on budgets and KPIs. With regards to food costs, the target in restaurants is 30–35 per cent, but for hotels, it’s about 26 per cent food cost. We have banquets which can pull in a lot of revenue, so we can have more extravagant gear on the restaurant menu. Being busy in the other outlets [lobby, private dining, room service and banquets] brings that price down, so we can sell a Wagyu sirloin for $30 in the restaurant and still make it work.”

Besides laundry, hotel venues offer employees a number of perks including training, meals throughout the day, job security and flexible working hours. That’s not to say none of these perks are available at standalone restaurants, but are typically not commonplace or entrenched in restaurant culture. “If you’re at a standalone venue, there’s less opportunity to progress but great opportunity to learn,” says North. “If you’re with QT, Ovolo or a group that’s pushing the boundaries, your career will progress with their brand.”

Even basic gestures such as offering staff meals throughout the day are viewed as ‘luxuries’ by employees. The Primus has an in-house staff canteen and are flexible when it comes to work hours. “I can work any hours and it’s not stressful,” says Menzies. “In restaurants, you’d be working 50-plus hours, but HR is tight on how many hours we work. It’s monitored quite closely and I can’t slave my chefs — you just won’t get away with it.”

APPEALING TO THE MASSES

Designing a hotel menu that appeals to tourists and locals is no easy feat, which is where working with a consultant can help.

“The last thing you can do is a cookie-cutter model — it just doesn’t work,” says North. Ovolo Darling Harbour recently opened Mister Percy which North describes as a wine bar for locals over a space dominated by tourists. “You have to understand who your guests are and who your locals are,” he says. “The venue is unique for the locals of Pyrmont and the Darling Harbour area.”

The veg-heavy Mediterranean menu at Mister Percy takes a leaf out of Ovolo Woolloomooloo’s book, where hotel restaurant Alibi offers a 100-per-cent plant-based dining experience. “The philosophy across the group is appealing to a broader, modern market,” says North. “We see a trend towards a healthier lifestyle of eating and giving people options.”

Hotel restaurants have a reputation for barely touching the menu, but this isn’t the case for Ovolo. Mister Percy has been open since August and has recently undergone its first round of menu changes under head chef Luca Guiotto. “There are no real limitations or considerations,” says North. “We are only limited to the concept we’ve developed and the availability of produce.”

Interestingly, Menzies says he experienced more limitations working in a restaurant than a hotel kitchen. “When I worked at Bistro Moncur, we could play with specials, but theb menu was decided by the customers, which is why we couldn’t change a lot of things,” he says. “In a hotel, I have more time to be creative and change the menus.”

On a standard night, 60 per cent of The Wilmot’s customers are walk-ins, with a decent amount defined as local customers. When designing the menu, Menzies says he doesn’t pay particular attention to making the menu tourist-friendly, which is commonplace for large hotel chains. “If I want to put on kangaroo or Australian bush tucker, I’ll do it,” he says. “I’m more creative in this role. In restaurants, you have owners and lots of opinions on dishes. Here, it’s up to me.”

STAFFING

There’s a certain stigma associated with hotel chefs, who may be more interested in routine and continuity than pushing the boundaries. When it comes to attracting diners, a high-quality, inspired menu is a must. Demand for your offering is only beneficial to the bottom line — and who doesn’t want a busy restaurant?

Menzies admits hotels attract a “different type of chef” but has employed peers he has previously worked with, and says they’re enjoying the change so far. “I’ve brought a lot of staff over and have some good chefs working for me now,” he says. “They like the luxury and lifestyle of a hotel in terms of having the laundry done and the environment is more laidback. People try to cut you down in restaurants, there’s a lot of attitude and stronger personalities.”

North agrees with the hotel chef notion, but says forward-thinking hotel groups attract innovative employees. “There are different types of chefs,” he says. “There are those who want to work nine to five and others who want to make a difference. When you’re leading with a cool concept, you’re going to attract like-minded people who aren’t scared of change.”

Hotels are in the midst of a transformation and are no longer the domain of holidaymakers. The restaurant scene is a hotel group’s oyster — but only if they can impress locals with a restaurant experience that’s a cut above the rest.

This article originally appeared in Hospitality‘s October issue. Subscribe here.

Image credit: Alana Dimou

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