Choosing an F&B concept that fits well within a hotel, based on its market and traveler type, requires research and a tight vision, experts said.
REPORT FROM THE U.S.—Designing a restaurant space without a concept in place can lead to an identity crisis, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants’ Danny Bortnick said.
It’s not often that you find “white space and you hit a home run” when forming a food-and-beverage concept, he said. That’s why research is the vital first step to concepting.
Bortnick, VP of restaurant concept development at Kimpton, said his team always starts every project with research.
“You’ve got to begin somewhere,” he said. “Typically it’s a two-fold approach.”
Study the market and the building
Kimpton does a lot of adaptive reuse projects, which means several of the properties could be historic or already have unique features in place, Bortnick said. In that case, it’s important not only to look holistically at the market, but also to understand the building’s architecture, he said.
“Some people would think ‘I can do an Italian restaurant in any building; it doesn’t matter the shape or the size.’ But we don’t take that same approach,” he said.
For example, the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, is regarded as the “sibling of the Empire State Building,” and features a lot of marble and brass finishes, Bortnick said. When touring the building, his team noted the space that became the property’s restaurant exuded the style of a French brasserie.
To understand the heartbeat and pulse of a specific market, he said he will talk with locals—typically bartenders and servers at other restaurants. In addition, he studies the demographics of the area, such as the average household income, common occupations and how people like to spend their time and money.
Research should be forward-looking to try to get a sense of what the trends might be two years from now, he added.
“There’s an art as much as there is a science to it,” he said.
For example, if everything in the area is fast-casual style, “there’s probably a reason why there’s not fine dining yet,” he said.
Fernando Salazar, SVP of F&B at Interstate Hotels and Resorts, said one of the industry’s biggest trends right now is sustainability, and that’s something that still needs to be embraced in F&B concepts. But he cautioned to not give in to “overused” concepts like farm to table.
Instead he’s opting for a sea-to-table concept at a property he’s working on in San Diego. A restaurant’s “claim to fame” can’t be a copy of what someone else is doing, he said.
“We want to be unique, creative and right for the environment,” he said.
If a hotel has heavy corporate traffic, a restaurant concept should be able to evolve with what is the niche industry in that area, he said.
Jeff Dover, president of consulting firm fsSTRATEGY, said successful F&B concepts generate outside demand from local business, which requires knowledge of the area.
Bortnick said Kimpton targets locals who generally fit within its traveler types.
“We like to pick a sort of narrower scope knowing that the peripheral around that demographic still aspires to be that sort of core (demographic),” he said.
He said he recognizes that Kimpton travelers like to go where the locals like to go.
Challenges to consider
Bortnick said it’s important to make sure a concept matches the market and doesn’t overshoot the market from a sophistication standpoint. If the hotel is near big theatres and stadiums, for example, “there’s a big difference to what you should be shooting for,” he said.
Another big challenge, especially in developing markets, is being aware of the future labor pool, he said.
“Not that people can’t be taught or trained, but you do want a level of authenticity to what your staff is delivering,” he added.
It can also be a challenge to understand each market’s labor costs and minimum wage laws, he said.
Salazar said the price component of menu items is also something that needs to be heavily considered. The price point could be a reason that the product isn’t selling, he said.
From a structural standpoint, the framework itself sometimes can be a test, Bortnick said. A lot of buildings have large columns or slabs of concrete that can’t necessarily be punctured to run ventilation. Those variables can impact where the kitchen goes and which kind of concept it can support. For example, a wood-fired kitchen won’t work everywhere, he said.
Dover suggested considering whether a hotel has the demand for multiple restaurants or F&B venues on property.
“It depends on the number of rooms and how much competition is available in the area … and you definitely want them differentiated,” he said.
Bortnick said the Kimpton Rowan Palm Springs in Palm Springs, California, is an example of a property with multiple F&B concepts. It has four, including a fast-casual café and lobby bar on the ground floor and the “workhorse” restaurant on the rooftop alongside a pool bar, he said.
More doesn’t always mean better, though guests often seem to think so, he said.
“What it does is it’s really playing more into today’s trends … and this idea of immersive experiences,” he added.
Wow the customer with a tight vision
Bortnick said he tells every owner and developer that there’s not one “right concept,” but there certainly can be wrong concepts for a market, a building or a guest.
“Everybody that’s touching this project—owners, interior designers, architects, operators, brands—has got to deliver the same vision … and that gives you the best chance at success,” he said.
However, a tight vision doesn’t define success; demand does, he said.
Salazar said he’s keen on free-standing concepts that are not outright labeled as a hotel restaurant. He likes to keep them as separate as possible, which includes giving the restaurant its own website and line for reservations to help the venue stand out against competition.
He noted good food isn’t enough anymore. A combination of good service, educating customers and making them feel welcome is what will bring them back, he said.
“Excellence must be consistent. … If I see a restaurant that has gone down in service, I question that,” he said.
What if the concept isn’t working?
Interstate recently took over the Westin Alexandria Hotel in Alexandria, Virginia, where the F&B concept needed to be refreshed, Salazar said.
His team looked at the space and the menu to figure out how to improve the disconnect, he said, and he challenged the chef to work on new dishes and do it in a way that nobody else would.
Once a new concept is in place, it’s important to get feedback from guests and read comments online to determine how well it’s being received and what else may need to be tweaked, he said.
Bortnick said restaurants and bars are always going to be an evolution, but that doesn’t mean you should always be reconcepting. Instead, pay attention to the trends, the market and the competition, he said.
This will help keep things fresh and ensure the restaurant isn’t falling behind. He said it’s much easier and less capital intensive to tweak a menu or to modify an offering than it is to reconcept.
“There’s two approaches: you either take the grind, and you’re sort of bopping and weaving your way back up into the relevance by making little incremental changes along the way, or your close and you reconcept … but it comes at a bigger expense,” he said.
He added that the last thing guests and operators want is to walk into an F&B venue and say, “well, I don’t know, you tell me what the concept is?”
That happens all the time in the industry, he said.
“Some owners are OK with that; they’re not in it for the F&B revenue. But if you want it, you’ve got to follow the right steps in process,” Bortnick said.
*Correction, 26 February 2019: The photo cutline has been updated to correct the spelling of the Kimpton Cardinal Hotel's restaurant.