More volume is also something operators will need to attend to. As casinos “re-purpose,” as Rittvo calls it, they will be finding mid-scale ranges, rather than fine dining.
Michael Mina, took this step in bringing upscale fine dining at the MGM Grand down a notch. His Nobhill Tavern re-interprets classic American cookery, and with 15% lower price-points, Nobhill has seen customer counts up 22% and gross revenues up 6%. Those are numbers to ponder.
More international flavours are on the horizon, says Rittvo. He believes ethnic dining represents a good price-value relationship. Furthermore, restaurants should also consider “greening” their standards: sustainable bamboo, for example, can potentially be a selling point for a food and beverage outlet.
“Customers are going to start paying attention to that, I think. I don’t know how much the incremental bump would be if you’re a fully green restaurant, but it could eventually save the casino some money on the operating side with reduced energy costs and better margins,” said Rittvo.
Brian Munson: vice-president resort operations, Caesars Windsor
Steve Chase: executive director of food and beverage, Fallsview Casino Resort
Ralph Claussen: food and beverage director, Woodbine Entertainment Group
Vik Mahajan: vice-president and general manager, River Cree Resort and Casino
CGB: What research do you do and how do you spot trends?
Munson—Caesars: Ontario is an important market for us, but we have three competitors across the river in Detroit and most of our customers come from Michigan and Ohio. For trends, we look for what they are looking for.
Chase—Fallsview: We do a number of things like consulting trade magazines. However, the best way is to get out there. Our chef went to (Grant Achatz’s) Alinea Restaurant which will be ranked one of the top ten restaurants in the world, we visit Mark McEwan’s One Restaurant. Overall, we are just trying new things.
Claussen—Woodbine: Through trade publications on what’s going on in the market as well as speaking to other people in the industry—chefs and food and beverage directors—and going out and seeing what’s going on.
Mahajan—River Cree: We look at the markets. We look at common trends and then we base it off our own marketing efforts to drive people into our facility.
CGB: How has the economic downturn impacted you?
Munson—Caesars: High-end dining is trending lower as far as demand. We have fewer things like USDA dry-aged beef but we offer similar quality at lower cost now. The consumer is certainly looking for that.
Chase—Fallsview: It certainly has affected us here. The numbers coming into the casino are down slightly, but I’ve noticed in food and beverage that guests are spending less on food. Our two fastest growing outlets are the lower priced ones where revenue and covers are up 20-25%.
Claussen—Woodbine: There’s a lot of people out there who started discounting. We haven’t done that but are looking at value-added items to get people into the food establishments.
Mahajan—River Cree: We have limited seating and there are times when there are people waiting who can’t get in because we are full with reservations.
CGB: What are some of the specific trends you are seeing?
Munson—Caesars: Value and quality is always important and is probably the biggest trend we are seeing but in a less formal setting.
Our growth is in comfort foods with portable food carts with name-brand recognition on the gaming floor. Customers want ethnic offerings and want to see food prepared in front of them, so we have food stations and chefs working in front. We have self-serve beverage stations, something that’s been happening in casinos for the last couple of years.
Because of vendor registration regulations, my chef cannot go to Leamington and buy tomatoes from a farmer if he’s not a licensed supplier. Local and organic is a trend and it’s great but there are hurdles in our industry there as well as meeting day-to-day volumes.
Chase—Fallsview: I think a lot of people are asking for smaller portions and being more health conscious.
Local is a trend in smaller boutique properties. There’s interest, but customers aren’t really asking for it. Being in Niagara country, we try to work with our wineries and will use peaches during the peach festival in June and July, for example. When we use local, we advertise it in our menu.
Claussen—Woodbine: Most of our customers are asking for lighter foods, healthier home-style cooking. We tend to be looking for local farm-fresh foods, organic and sustainable.
Having said that, we have to careful with organic because it can be pricey and we have to provide value to our customers. Because we are a supplier, we don’t need to go out and find someone who has an OLGC license. That makes it more difficult for the gaming industry.
Mahajan—River Cree: Regarding local, we have two great restaurants on the resort side including a steak house. What we’ve started doing is looking in the province for Alberta beef and doing promotions and specials to support local businesses.
CGB: How adventurous can your food and beverage program get?
Munson—Caesars: The adventure lies in the non-traditional revenue source, the banquet business for example. It can be a profitable food and beverage offering if you’ve got the space. You can also be creative with wine-makers dinners because you’re catering to a non-traditional gamer but you can attract the traditional gamer too.
Chase—Fallsview: We like to try to do different things and be trendsetters. For example, our chefs are working with liquid nitrogen to make ice cream at the table for some guests at our higher end. Service is still key, but this adds that wow-factor.
Claussen—Woodbine: We have to give customers what they want. Far too often establishments offer what they want, but it’s customers who are paying our wages so you have to be careful with that. We try to introduce new things on a limited menu: if it flies, we’ll put it on our regular menu.
Mahajan—River Cree: Recently we started Sunday brunch in our steak house and it has been very well received. It gives our market something different and fun. There’s a doughnut machine and a candy station as well as a station for making your own Bloody Marys. It’s interactive and fun.
CGB: What do you see on the horizon for 2010?
Munson—Caesars: It’s a competitive market. You look to partnering with vendors and work with them to contain costs. Food and beverage remains an amenity to the gaming customer, but it’s important to deliver a high-end food and beverage product while maintaining your margins.
Chase—Fallsview: In the last two or three years, we’ve added some new outlets, so we’re not in the building mode. We are maintaining and giving what our customers want and servicing them as best as we can.
Claussen—Woodbine: What’s hot is farm-fresh and home-style cooking. People are also looking to have a meal and not feel stuffed when they leave, so lighter fare than has been in the past.
Mahajan—River Cree: The product we have here is very different from elsewhere in western Canada. In general terms, and not speaking for the resort, almost everybody is looking for healthy eating. But when they are visiting and wanting to be entertained they are willing to try different things.
David Rittvo says that 2010 could represent a chance for operators to solidify their delivery of the price-value relationship—for everything from food to service to design.
“It’s an opportunity to concentrate on core operations so a customer has a great experience. Customers are somewhat fickle now, and operators have to present the best bang for the buck. That means getting back to core values.”
By Andrew Coppolino