Another emerging trend from casino culture south of the border is the move to more interactive and individualized cooking stations. The Market Buffet, which can accommodate 650 covers in one sitting, invites guests to be a part of their dining experience while they watch chefs prepare their meals to order. “Everything is cooked fresh and 90 per cent of the food is made right in front of the guests,” remarks Munson. Not only does the gaming floor offer a spectacle, but now the dining experience can be just as entertaining, a trend that other casino dining facilities are also embracing.
The Artist Café at Windsor also takes advantage of the direction of open kitchens. The European bistro offers 24-hour service and taps into the emerging trend to showcase local wines and art. In contrast, Legends Sports Bar televises sporting events and multi-sport wagering along with a wide array of menu selections. “70 per cent of our visitors come from the U.S.,” remarks Munson. Knowing your audience and catering to them, pays off not only on the gaming floor, but also in the restaurants and bars.
Fallsview Casino Resort in Niagara Falls is also undergoing an expansion, as well as re-positioning its fine dining and casual eateries. “Food is our top amenity to support gaming although we don’t operate a traditional food and beverage profit margin,” says Steven Chase, Executive Director of Food and Beverage at Fallsview. Catering to the discerning needs of the gamers is a main focus for the casino resort. Two new major projects include a 100 per cent authentic Cantonese restaurant with Cantonese speaking staff and a world-class Italian restaurant called Ponte Vecchio. “The two biggest ethnic origins in the Greater Toronto Area are Cantonese and Italian and we need to cater to our clientele,” Chase remarks. 17 Noir, the high-end dining space and signature restaurant is moving into a steak and seafood type of menu. “We recently added Kobe beef from Australia, America and Japan and it’s become the top seller in only a couple of weeks,” notes Chase. The trend in the States revolves around the celebrity chef whereas in Canada and at Fallsview, diners want the focus to be on the food, not necessarily the fame. As an entertainment destination, Fallsview has no trouble filling seats at its dining facilities which helps explain its dining facility expansion.
Across the board, the buffet has evolved into an iconic casino element. “It’s an important feature in the gaming industry. People want to get in and eat quickly, but they also want good food quality,” says Chase. “Every level of player eats at the buffet and we can do 5000 covers a day.” While it might be a lost leader in terms of revenue, “we aren’t in the food market, we are in the gaming industry,” he notes. “Vegas reinvents itself frequently and gone are the days of the all you can eat $5.99 buffer. Our goal is to break even in food and beverage and we are working around that mark.”
When looking at drinking trends, healthy, fresh juices and energy drinks top the charts. Building nightclubs and lounges to cater to gamers and to those who just want a night out has been a major direction for casinos and casino resorts. “Even the best gamers need a break away from the floor,” says Chase. Serving premium liquor, having live music, and kicking back in a soft seat refreshes patrons. Spa facilities also recharge patrons and the spa at Fallsview is doubling its original size because of growing demand for high-end treatments.
Using focus groups and inviting loyal players for the input also helps casinos deliver quality services and food to their customers. “At Ponte Vecchio and 17 Noir, the staff will never say no. It’s not about the celebrity chef. We’re all about the food and the service to create the best experience for the visitor,” Chase remarks.
Catering to what the visitor wants has also impacted recent changes at Casino Rama. Despite being located in a rural area, they serve over 3.5 million patrons a year in their restaurants. “We cross every demographic, every economic background and every ethnicity,” says Steven Yates, Executive Director of Food and Beverage. “We have a major capacity issue and are opening a new 200-seat restaurant and bar in June called Cedar.” Inspired by the good food revolution, chefs will create meals that are familiar with patrons in a sleek environment.
The patrons at Rama enjoy casual dining menu options in more upscale surroundings. As with Windsor, Rama is embracing the chef station concept and the kitchen and chefs will be more interactive with a la minute cooking. Another component to be added is a Vegas-inspired interactive bar in the centre of the gaming floor. “We want to create an atmosphere of fun and give customers new experiences,” adds Yates. While demand for high-end dining might not be as high, Rama is catching on to the trend for sharing platters, dessert tastings and wine flights.
Sourcing local produce is also common with many of the casinos. While thought had been given to doing more celebrity chef events, they have opted not to and have chosen to focus on food, much like other gaming facilities. The challenge now is to expand the hotel facilities and banquet areas. Having only opened 12 years ago, the demand is strong and strategic planning for expansion is key to many casinos such as Casino Rama.
River Cree Resort operates on a much smaller scale than counterparts in Ontario. Casinos don’t typically have the resort cache in Alberta but River Cree Resort is one of the first. Having partnered with the adjoining Marriott Hotel, they have successfully created a resort atmosphere. Add in a major convention centre and two NHL-size hockey rinks, catering to the whole experience for a certain market is what River Cree Resort does well.
“Gamers are still looking for value for their dollar and are asking for more options,” notes Lee Brown, Food and Beverage Director. Some guests are coming to the resort to enjoy dining first and foremost with gaming as a secondary activity. “We are actually trying to build on the fine dining aspect at the restaurant, Sage. We serve Kobe beef, fresh seafood, have a raw bar…opening people’s eyes to new tastes is part of the education.”
Customers have become more discerning in quality and presentation and it’s not the grab and go concept it used to be. As the first casino resort to offer bottle service, the influence of Vegas is subtle. A major bar on the gaming floor offers a lounge with plans for live entertainment and comfortable seating. Even the sports bar has healthier options and isn’t just about deep-fried foods. While expansion plans related to food and beverage aren’t on the horizon and any expansions are gaming related, consumer demand might just impact River Cree Resort, as it has many others.
The gaming facilities operated by Manitoba Lotteries Corporation have recently undergone an expansion. Last year, a 400-seat dance club was added at Club Regent Casino. Called Jaguars, it is a well-known destination for dining and dancing. “The Winnipeg market is very focused on fresh, tasty, home-style foods like roast beef,” says Robert Magnifico, Executive Director of Manitoba Lotteries. Speed is a critical element and service and quality must be above average for both gaming and non-gaming customers. Approximately 90 per cent of food is served buffet-style and 10 per cent is a la carte. “Food and beverage have taken a prominent role and they are no longer a lost leader with us. Entertainment is a complement to the gaming industry,” he notes. Some of the recent trends that customers have been asking for are healthier, fresher and greener options available through their national suppliers. The food and beverage team is also working with many local providers and bringing in local products like meats and cheeses to get the freshest product possible. Over the course of the next few weeks, the casinos operated through MLC will be upgrading all of their liquor to premium brands. “The Food and Beverage team felt that serving premium liquors was perceived as better value by the customers. It also gives customers some appreciation of their business without the extra cost,” remarks Magnifico.
Plans are also being discussed to expand and redevelop a section of McPhillips Street Station Casino into an entertainment centre including a food and beverage component. Magnifico sums it up well, “food and beverage is a fun and very living type of experience. Our goal is to keep it as alive as possible and keep people coming back.”
Knowing your audience and customer base is imperative when factoring in multi-million dollar expansion plans. Just because a concept such as celebrity chefs is popular in Las Vegas, does not necessarily mean it will be successful in Canada. Evolving with current trends and adapting them to suit the needs of patrons, whether it is serving Kobe beef, local produce, Canadian wines or interactive meal preparation is what sells. Creating a complete experience paralleled with impeccable service continues to draw visitors. Non-gaming amenities like restaurants, nightclubs, lounges, spas, retail outlets, concerts and sporting events makes casino resorts true entertainment destinations for both the serious gamer and for those just out on the town.
By Lucie Grys