Shattering misconceptions about hotel food and beverage

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A new generation of hotelier embraces the full-service model, creating a local hidden gem.

by AJAY SINGH

Food and beverage (F&B) is becoming an increasingly important element of the hospitality experience. The Great Recession reoriented people to focus on collecting experiences rather than things. A fully concepted restaurant is a terrific way to set the stage for guests to connect with your property, and the community in which it’s located.

We’re seeing the importance of F&B at more mid upscale hotels than ever – even focused service hotels where F&B was never intended to be a lynchpin element. These days, with the right strategy, the right hotel restaurant will not only please guests, but attract repeat local customers generating a strong profit center. But it must be done with a conviction that replaces an F&B mentality with a restaurant mindset.

It’s why many hoteliers are eschewing the chore of creating their own concepts in favor of partnering with emerging brands featuring a distinct and already proven point of view. Yet, not so widespread that they no longer appear distinctive or localized.

For example, Supreet Singh, vice president of Thind Management, is a second generation Indian American who’s been taking on a larger role within his family business. Singh was charged with planning and building a new hotel in the Houston suburb known as The Woodlands. Originally set to be a focused service hotel, over time plans changed as it became clear there was a distinct need in the community for a full-service hotel.

“We never had plans to build a full-service Holiday Inn, we were thinking of a Holiday Inn Express. At the time, my dad was working closely with IHG, which was seeking to develop a full-service hotel in The Woodlands because of the strong market dynamics. It was scary for my dad who wanted to focus on our other businesses such as convenience stores and gas stations. So, I took it over because I’m more of a daring type who craved the challenge,” Singh said. His craving led him to Heart of America Group (HOA), a renowned vertically integrated hotel developer with roots firmly planted in gastronomy. HOA had cultivated a steakhouse concept (Johnny’s Italian Steakhouse) that resonated with Singh.

The first Johnny’s was opened in Des Moines in 2002 by HOA in one of the smallest Doubletree hotels in the nation. Today the concept is aligned with most all major international hotel flags developing throughout the country.

The steakhouse carries an upscale, yet affordable dining experience reminiscent of the classic 1940s and 1950s supper clubs, with a menu featuring steaks, seafood and Italian cuisine.

According to Singh, he saw the steakhouse concept and the company behind it as one that would connect with his hotel guests. Providing a dining establishment that was on-trend, attractive to guests as well as locals and business clientele was critical.

However, The Woodlands market is an extremely competitive restaurant market with many concepts stretching across all price points, except one: a mid-priced steakhouse concept.

“This product aligned with how we thought it would fit into the lifestyle of people in the area, while also giving hotel guests a quality dining experience. Plus, there are too many pubs and sports bars, and this would differentiate ourselves,” Singh said, noting this concept was aligned with the hotel’s strategy of capturing the corporate market because of Johnny’s emphasis on service and quality of food.

“Johnny’s, for example, fits with locals and hotel guests looking to save and feel they’re getting strong value.”

Plus, the new dining outlet would draw business groups to the hotel’s private event space since corporate clients were more apt to book because there was an onsite branded restaurant that was business-customer friendly.

“This restaurant and hotel fits the niche we were looking for perfectly. Guests love the ambiance and the high level of service without the need to dig too deep into their pockets,” Singh said. He also notes it boosts first impressions of the hotel. Online reviewers have noted things like ‘Wow, we didn’t expect this at a Holiday Inn,’ and ‘This is a secret gem in the community.’”

However, getting there wasn’t easy. Singh grew up around the hotel business, a similar story for many successful hoteliers, especially those within the AAHOA community. But that hard-earned success came with a particular skill set learned over many years. He figured the smart path to F&B success was forging a partnership with a company with the unusual mix of operating successful restaurants in hotels, plus a rigorous and highly structured training program.

“We were shown how to run it, down to the smallest details. So, when we opened there was no question on how to do things. It was pretty straightforward, even for someone who has never operated a restaurant before.”

In the end, Singh’s commitment to opening a restaurant shattered all the commonplace misconceptions about hotel-based F&B. It also quelled the concerns of his father.

Singh said hotels and restaurants are all about taking care of people. “That aspect is very energizing. And while I love developing hotels, our family business now knows we can also operate restaurants. As long as we have the right partner, which we did with Johnny’s.”

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