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Celebrity Chefs will bring people into your hotel, but is it worth the expense?

Friday, February 15, 2013
Steve Pike
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Legendary movie director Frank Capra titled his biography, “The Name Above The Title.” To be sure, directors such as Capra, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese lend credibility and their own star power to movie goers. The same is true today for “celebrity” chefs and signature restaurants at hotels and resorts.

Whether it’s Gordon Ramsey, Michael Mina, Daniel Boulud or Wolfgang Puck, the chef’s name above the title is a carrot that attracts diners to their restaurants and to the hotels and resorts that house those restaurants.

Today, celebrity chef driven restaurants and “signature” restaurants appear to be as important a hotel/resort staple as a pool and lobby bar. The signature restaurant, whether the name above the title is known locally, regionally or nationally, can help define a hotel and resort and set it apart from its competition.

“The name (chef) makes a huge difference with the audience,” said Monti Felaya, food and beverage director for Turnberry Isle, Miami, which featured Michael Mina’s Bourbon Steak for more than five years.

Felaya’s 15 years of experience in F&B includes his work as Assistant Director of Food & Beverage and Restaurant Manager at Mandalay Bay Hotel & Casino, Las Vegas, where he helped open Mix with Chef Alain Ducasse.

“Signature restaurants have evolved into food art,” Felaya said. “It all began in the late ‘90s when hotels stated seeing the effectiveness of signature restaurants started by celebrity chefs like Daniel Boulud, John George and Michael Mina. They bring a lot of weight and experience to the hotel.

“The restaurant used to be just a place to go eat. Now it’s a place to get an education. You can learn a lot about food and wine. The new generation of diners is into food and wine and organics. They see it as a presentation of food.”

In the world of hotel/resort signature restaurants, “presentation” often means the use of local ingredients in what’s become known as “farm to table” menus. That is, menus that reflect the region and the theme of the hotel/resort. Chefs such as Kris Wessel, who this past October opened the Florida Cookery at the James Royal Palm Hotel in Miami Beach, is a good example of presentation that’s become known as “farm to table” menus that reflect the area’s culinary heritage and the hotel/resort theme.

The Florida Cookery menu includes Wessel’s authentic Florida style of cooking items such as frog legs wrapped in lime leaves and mango pie.

“A signature restaurant really sets the bar for the resort,” said Jim Mauer, general manager of the Bonaventure Resort & Spa in Weston, Fla., which has Ireland’s Steakhouse. “The cruise ship industry really set the stage. It made an entire industry on buffets but never showed the ships. Now it’s gone over to the resorts where the food experience has to be outstanding.

“We focus on guests all around the resort, but the signature restaurant lets us be creative and have a local market that comes to enjoy it. About 60 percent of a signature restaurant’s business is driven by the community, so we expect that to be part of the hotel and reflect the local flavor. It helps us be a great corporate citizen.”

Signature restaurants and celebrity chefs, however, aren’t for every property or every company. While their proponents expound on greater visibility and increased business for the hotel/resort, opponents point to high-priced licensing fees and low margins as reasons to avoid jumping on the bandwagon.

“If you don’t have the right management agreement and right structure, I wouldn’t recommend it,” said a GM of a luxury resort with a celebrity chef restaurant. “They’re looking for five to seven percent off the top line – food and beverage margins already are slim. If you have to give up that much off the top line – without them putting anything in – it’s difficult to make money.”

Leigh Hitz, President of Magnolia Hotels, said celebrity chef driven restaurants and signature restaurants don’t fit her company’s business model. Magnolia Hotels has business hotels in cities including Dallas, Denver, Omaha and Houston.
“You have to spend a lot of money on marketing and PR,” Hitz said. “Our business model is in urban areas where we’re surrounded by a lot of signature restaurants. We cater to the business travel more with lounge areas and bar concepts, and on the weekends we convert of all space into wedding venues and special events. If we had signature restaurants we wouldn’t have the ability to do that.

“Our executive chefs do a lot of weddings. And they prepare all of the food for banquets, catering and room service. It makes for a lot higher profit margin on food and beverage.”

Steve Pike
Hotel Interactive® Editorial Division

Bio: Steve Pike is an award-winning golf writer and author who helped define golf business reporting in the early 1990s as the first Golf Business Editor for Golfweek magazine and later at Golf World and Golf Shop Operations magazines for Golf Digest. Pike further pioneered this genre at the PGA of America and Time Warner as the golf business writer and editor for PGA.com. He started in newspapers more than ...
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