Is my hotel restaurant doomed?

We, as hoteliers, are faced with our most monumental challenge to date. Practically overnight (perhaps “Top Chef” is to blame) our customers became more knowledgeable and concerned with quality dining than we could have ever imagined. Seriously — guests asking about the providers and farms that supply the produce and poultry? Having to hire a “mixologist” to craft unique craft cocktails? If there were baseball cards for celebrity chefs, you could sell them in the hotel gift shop. Granted, great restaurants have called high-profile hotels home for decades (see Jean-Georges, Spago, etc.), but now, this same attention to the restaurant space is expected universally. Perfecting the F&B space in the hotel is challenging enough. Sustainability? You’re dreaming.

Over the last two years in Chicago alone, the following hotels have either changed concepts or lost high-profile chefs: Waldorf Astoria, Peninsula, Four Seasons, Ritz Carlton, Fairmont, Dana, theWit, Park Hyatt, Hotel 71, Sutton Place, W and Intercontinental. This doesn’t necessarily mean any of these hotels were failing in the first place; there were a combined seven Michelin stars among the list above. The problem is two-fold. Establishing a loyal clientele is difficult. Procuring a loyal staff is even harder.

I believe chefs deserve all the recognition they have been receiving of late. The level of talent and aspiration for grandeur is unprecedented in the kitchen right now. But the problem is that the new generation of young chefs, straight out of culinary school, has a strong sense of entitlement. They see their mentors rapidly opening restaurants with the expectation of doing the same, and not after five or 10 years of rolling up their sleeves, but maybe one or two. It seems rising chefs will get to about 80% or 90% of the way there establishing their culinary vision and ability to be kitchen generals when there is a desire for more, to be the face of the restaurant or control the business operation altogether. Outside of the 1% of great chefs who are even better entrepreneurs, the vast majority of great chefs do not have the tools to overhaul a hotel food and beverage program while staying true to the key concerns of the hotel operation: service quality and profitability. So what happens when a chef feels held back? You lose your best talent, which can reflect poorly on the overall image of the hotel. 

There’s a catch-22 in hotel restaurants right now. If you look to operate yourself and groom your own talent, you run the high risk of turning over your talent rapidly. After all, being executive chef at a hotel restaurant is usually not the end goal for the new culinary elite. On the other end, you can license or lease to a high-profile celebrity chef. Yet as these chefs continue to get more exposure through additional restaurants, book signings and television appearances, their ability to control standards becomes a major concern.

Whether a restaurant is leased, licensed or operated, hotel ownership needs to be very involved in its conception and in high-level hiring. Hiring a very talented executive chef is important. Hiring a talented chef who has the ability to be a leader and teacher in the kitchen and can groom his or her eventual replacement is even more important. Secondly, if the menu is progressive and evolving, than there is little need to overhaul the front-of-house design frequently. With the exception of having wood-panel walls or neon lights, a restaurant is only as up-to-date as the food allows it to be. Lastly, do your research on celebrity chefs. While their culinary reputation may precede them, their business sense can be a mystery. Ask for references on leases for other restaurant spaces they may have, review operational statements from their restaurants and make sure budgets are established early and often. 

The restaurant is no longer an amenity of the hotel, but perhaps the largest draw to a property. Fortunately, if done well, F&B revenues can rival rooms revenue. If not, it can be detrimental to a hotel’s reputation.