NATIONAL REPORT—The COVID-19 pandemic has caused hotels across the country to make changes across their operations, and those with food and beverage offerings have had to adapt to the new environment.
Alan Someck has an extensive background in foodservice, as principal of Keystone Hospitality Solutions, a hospitality consulting organization. He is also an instructor at the Institute of Culinary Education and consultant with Cayuga Hospitality Consultants.
“Especially in the short term, but even in the long term, the No. 1 item on the menu is going to be safety,” he said. “That has to be addressed from the inside out and the outside in, meaning you need to strategize ways to do that—and there are a lot of great creative ideas out there. That is the good thing. The industry has really come up strong and gotten creative with designers and restaurant groups coming up with all kinds of ideas.”
Benchmark Resorts & Hotels has created a comprehensive set of protocols for all of its properties for COVID-19, with details on food and beverage operations. “We took a really comprehensive approach to addressing all of this,” said Patrick Berwald, VP of food and beverage, Benchmark. “It is 30-something pages long and talks about everything from how we work with grab-and-go now to how we look and feel in banquets and meetings to restaurants—everything that we can expect our operators to have to deal with or address. Then it expanded into all of the other operating elements of the hotel.”
The protocols focus on guests as well as on staff. “In this business, we’ve always had a real focus on safety and sanitation and how we are creating environments that are not only great for our team members, but we are creating environments that are great for guests,” he said. “If anything, I see coming out of this with more of an awareness of how we have a huge responsibility as operators to produce a great quality, consistent product, but safeguard our constituents.”
Berwald said that the company took a look at every aspect of the food and beverage process. “This really highlights every step of the process: how we work with vendors, how they come on to our property, how they interact with our team, how we engage with them on product quality and that product as it flows through the operation, through storage and then production and then to guests—looking at every different element and making sure that we are consistent with our process, but also we’re mindful of all of the steps it takes to get to the customer, and the potential risk that can be,” he said. “I think this, especially from a foodservice perspective, is bringing that all to life. Some of our properties have HAACP plans, which covers food temperatures, etc. When you look at what is at stake here, it is huge. It has really gotten everybody back in the game on safety and sanitation.”
As is the case with all aspects of the COVID-19 protocols, it is important communicate with guests that they can feel safe with your food and beverage offerings. “Marketing is just as critical as having good product,” said Someck. “You have to be deliver the message. From the inside out, it is also creating a message from your staff, your kitchen staff. How do you do that? You have to revisit the menu and simplify it. Really look at your operations.”
Limiting interaction with staff in the kitchen is very important. “For example, how much crossover do you have with staff in the kitchen to make certain items and can you switch that around?” he said. “Can you be creative where you minimize contact with staff people on the inside? Hotels typically are at more of an advantage than restaurants where there is typically more space in the kitchen. How do I make it safe in the kitchen? Have a dedicated receiver, for example, who is very trained on making sure all food received and alcohol is sanitized in a practical way and make a position possibly where that person also on a regular basis goes around sanitizing the kitchen. You need to have an out-to-in plan and an in-to-out plan.”
Maintaining Guest Service Expectations
While implementing safety protocols is vital to running any food and beverage operation at this time, for Dee Patel, managing director, The Hermitage Hotel, in Nashville, TN, maintaining a certain level of service must be part of the equation.
“We talk about the guest experience and the journey of the guest from the point of reservation all the way to your arrival, your experience and your departure,” she said. “Being a luxury five-star hotel, it is very difficult. It was one of those interesting changes of, ‘How do we continue to serve our guests in a way that still demonstrates our servitude, our attention to detail, the luxury of the service without losing that component?’ We really had to think through, ‘What were all those steps going to be and how were we going to pivot without becoming transactional?’ That was something that was very very important to me, that we not become that transactional sense of service.”
She continued, “We are in a place we have never been. Hospitality is to be hospitable. Service is to offer that service, to be gracious, to be genuine. Social distancing is the actual opposite of what we do as an industry. For us to pivot and say, ‘Here are things that we can’t do: We can’t do the touchpoints… But what can we do to substitute the things that are taken away, or elements of service that you may not be able to provide right now for the safety of the guests, for the safety of the staff?’ Can you pivot and can you offer some other experience or amenities that would allow guests to feel that there was some thought that went into that?”
She and her staff worked to customize the new protocols to balance service and safety. “Before this, in the Capitol Grille, if you were dining, you would have a beautiful menu,” she said. “In the past, that menu would be reused. However, our menus today are disposable, but they are on beautiful card stock that is not just paper that represents an inferior product.”
The restaurant has eliminated a few things such as chair service and napkin service. “We have replaced bread basket offerings to now everyone gets their own single-serve,” said Patel. “Butter service is a single serve. Like a lot of restaurants have pivoted to single-serve offerings, we have done the same thing. It is still done in the same luxurious manner, we still use the beautiful china and silver, but we are doing it in a way that it is much more customized to that individual versus sharable components.”
In addition to the in-hotel changes, The Hermitage added to-go options with curbside pickup during the early stages of the pandemic to accommodate locals who frequent the property’s dining options, with highlights including to-go brunches for Easter and Mother’s Day.
“Creating a to-go menu, creating food and beverage offerings, was our way of really instilling some energy and morale within our own team in a time when you can imagine everyone is going through their own challenges, their own situation,” she said. “We have been such an institution to the city that is was just a natural, easy decision for us to pivot, which is what we do as an industry. While perhaps there is a challenge, we’re wired to pivot. We offered a variety of services, whether it was a Netflix binge kit that offered truffle popcorn with a mixture of different nuts that were seasoned with our specialty seasoning, and a selection of cocktails. It was really us just getting really creative and innovative during a time that was very difficult for anyone to really get energized and excited about.”