Grab & Go: More than an afterthought

Innovative grab-and-go programs are not only popular but profitable. However, there are tricks to make it successful and multiple F&B leaders chimed in with their advice and experiences.

Contributed by Jeanette Hurt


Grab-and-go outlets grew during the pandemic, especially when hotels had very limited F&B distribution options, according to Bradley Moore, vice president of food and beverage for Aimbridge Hospitality, Plano, Texas. As a result, he said it opened eyes and operators started to concentrate more on what they were doing in the marketplaces.


Roadside seat at Chill’s Snack & Bar, the ALMA Resort Cam Ranh in Vietnam


But the strong sales that started during the heat of the pandemic have continued, nearly unabated. “I would have said that once you started opening the food and beverage outlets in hotels the marketplace would have seen a solid decline in sales, but our sales are almost double pre-pandemic sales,” Moore added. “The customers have changed the way they consume, and the trick is staying on trend, trying to stay in front of trends, and being very mindful of each hotel and each brand so that the sales continue the way the sales are.” 


Having well-stocked and diverse grab-and-go outlets is essential to increase revenue, Moore said. “It’s improved our sales per occupied room even with the outlets reopened so it’s a win-win for us, for our owners, and especially for our guests.” 


For guests at Fairfax, Virginia-based Crescent Hotels & Resorts properties, the grab-and-go experience needs to be easy and approachable and it can round out the guest experience by filling any gaps. It also must be palatable in price, according to Alfio Celia, vice president, Food & Beverage. “These three things are in focus in any situation and environment, and it should be at the forefront for decision makers in this kind of business.” 


Celia added that as a business, Crescent wants to ensure it is being creative in ways to elevate revenue, the guest experience, and the team members’ work environment. “As it relates to grab and go, that means products that sell themselves and don’t need to be explained or sold, are truly a convenience, and a light labor model,” she added.  


Overall, knowing and being communicative about what times the grab and go is additive, and when it’s the sole F&B source, is important for both staffing and stocking purposes, Celia added. “The number of airport hotels we have all walked into late at night – on an unexpected layover due to delays – and the grab and go has bare shelves – is indicative of how important it can be,” she said.

Listen to staff


One successful program is Chill’s Snack & Bar at the ALMA Resort Cam Ranh in Vietnam, which opened earlier this year.  


The concept for this intriguing outlet emerged during the height of the pandemic when the resort was forced to close for eight months, said Herbert Laubichler-Pichler, managing director of the luxury resort. “We’d noticed that during sunset, a lot of locals were attracted to the ticket booth area in front of our vast ALMA Amphitheater that fronts a private service road, right near the resort’s entrance,” Laubichler-Pichler said. “Someone was there taking photos almost every day.” 


Inside the food court at the ALMA Resort Cam Ranh in Vietnam


Since so many people were converging daily to take photos and post to their social media accounts, ALMA’s Executive Chef Ingo Stöneberg and Resort Manager Vu The Huong Giang suggested setting up a Vietnamese sidewalk-style coffee shop. “I admit I was a bit reluctant at first to add another fixed outlet to our array of dining options, mainly because I was concerned it may undermine our other venues,” Laubichler-Pichler said. But his staff insisted it would work. 


With a very limited investment of about US$3,000 and implementing resources, the resort didn’t use in other areas, like plastic tables and chairs, the resort set up two, American-style food trucks against the backdrop of the amphitheater, with the plastic tables and chairs set up on a tarmac of one of the resort’s service roads. “It has a vibrant ambiance, but unlike the usual street-side venues in Vietnam, whereby motorbikes and cars race by, it is very safe and family-orientated, with the service road open to only foot traffic,” Laubichler-Pichler said. “On top of this, with Chill’s Snack & Bar, international guests don’t have chance twitch an unsafe street spot where perhaps they don’t wash the coffee cups properly, there are unhygienic toilets, etc.” 


Chill’s Snack & Bar’s average revenue is US$500 a day, and the profit is a minimum of 50%. So, the hotel recouped its investment in one month. “I’ve been in the hotel industry my whole life and Chill’s Snack & Bar would have to be the most successful outlet we’ve opened in my entire career in terms of a return on investment so swiftly,” Laubichler-Pichler added. 


The resort outlet serves up a selection of popular street beverages, with a signature coconut coffee and coffee with fresh milk and tapioca pearls. Chill’s Snack & Bar is both a destination and a place where guests can grab food and beverages and go elsewhere. “I genuinely believe Chill’s Snack & Bar is an open house like on Vietnam’s ubiquitous sidewalks, everyone is welcome to chill out here and relish life’s simple pleasures or grab what food and beverages they want and go,” Laubichler-Pichler said. 


Grab and go anywhere 


At the Hilton Chicago, Herb ’N Kitchen has been a great success story that’s only grown and expanded in the decade since it first opened, said General Manager John Wells. 


Most recently, the Hilton enabled guests to use technology to order from Herb ’N Kitchen and have it delivered anywhere in the hotel or pick it up. “That’s given our customers much more flexibility,” Wells said.


Herb ’N Kitchen grab-and-go market at the Hilton Chicago

Besides adapting and implementing new technology, the offerings need to entice guests. “We do some weekend activations,” Wells said. “We bought a small donut machine, which a chef operates, and it makes donuts. Families can smell that in the lobby, come into the Herb ’N Kitchen and then decorate a fresh donut.”


The Herb ’N Kitchen also offers deep dish pizza, a local specialty, and it has expanded its selection of healthy offerings, but a gourmet twist is equally important. “In the past, you might have seen more commercial brands, but now they’re more boutique, more gourmet, and more local,” Wells said, adding that a gourmet, homemade biscuit breakfast sandwich has become a top-selling breakfast item.

Sell the sizzle


“The era of the front desk having some microwave popcorn and sodas is a thing of the past,” said Meaghan Goedde, COO of Sage Restaurant Concepts, Denver, Colorado.


Enticing the locals with a window display at Herb ’N Kitchen


Not only should the offerings be boutique, local and upscale, but the packaging has to match it. So, Sage’s Catbird Hotel in Denver uses a beautiful array of mason jar salads and grain bowls. “The mason jars look real pretty, but they’re really functional as well,” Goedde said. “How we stock the cooler, it looks great, and it makes you want to eat it. The display is beautiful, and it entices guests. (In the past), guests might have needed to eat something, but they weren’t too excited about it.” 


“Packaging has definitely gotten sexier,” said Bradley Moore, vice president of food and beverage for Aimbridge Hospitality. “You now have a clever view of what you’re buying, and everything is packaged in such a way that our markets come alive. We’ve also become really good at alleviating waste and watching the package size.” 


Good packaging, Moore said, is as earth-friendly as possible, but it also has to be packaged at the proper size. By keeping a close eye on the size of the packaging, hotels can increase profit. “By watching the package size, you can control price points and make it even more attractive,” Moore said. “We completely re-thought our packaging during the pandemic, and it is as slick and as sexy as anybody’s out there.” 


Keep it simple 


While the offerings need to be attractive, they don’t always need to be numerous. At Sage’s The Maven Hotel, also in Denver, they serve two daily breakfast burritos out of an Air Stream trailer, which is made by staff at the Kachina Cantina restaurant. The Air Stream is located between the restaurant and the hotel lobby, and since the hotel itself is focused on makers of independent crafts and products, it is a natural gathering space. “Grabbing a burrito out of the Air Stream fits the lifestyle brand,” Goedde said. “Focus on one thing and do that really well.” 


That helps, Goedde said, with staffing and supply challenges, and it helps hotels that don’t have all meal periods covered. “Really small, really efficient menus supplement the packaged grab-and-go offerings,” she said. “Sometimes, there’s a really big push to open up for all meal periods, and we’ve all learned that is not profitable.” 


It’s a balance, Goedde said, between making things in-house and partnering with local restaurants and producers. “If someone grabs a croissant, it’s made by a local vendor,” she said. 


Beverages to-go  


Canned wine, canned cocktails, and canned beer remain sellers, especially if they are priced right, but sales of hard seltzers are even stronger. “Two and a half years ago, I would have said that two flavors of hard seltzers were more than enough, and I would have been dead wrong,” Moore said. “They are the hottest thing out there, and every time there is a new flavor, you have to have it.” 


Hotels and resorts also must have a diverse selection of flavored waters, too, he said. “Flavored waters are also very hot, and you have to stock (several), though not as many flavors as you do hard seltzers,” Moore said.


The lobby kitchen at Sage Hospitality’s Catbird Hotel in Denver


Having a variety of waters is important, too, Wells added. “What we’re seeing is that people are more brand-focused with their waters.” 


Prior to the pandemic, cocktails to-go were a relative rarity, and only beer and wine played that role,” according to Crescent Restaurant Group’s Joanne Liu. “Now, you can get all your classics and more on the move from your old-fashioned and espresso martinis to your margaritas and jack and cokes,” she said. “The key is to work with your brands to properly present it and train your staff to enhance the experience by offering ice, or the proper vessel when applicable.” 


Liu added that grab and go is the perfect time to introduce guests to something new and something local. “CBD and other wellness beverages like yerba mate and mushroom teas, and local artisan products should all be considered, along with familiar comforting brands that encourage impulse purchasing,” she said. 


To-go cocktails are still a thing in markets like Denver, according to Goedde. “One of the silver linings of COVID is that in many places, legislation (and regulations) about to-go alcohol sales have changed,” she added. 


Wells said locally made beverages, especially craft beers, are trending. “Having a local option and a variety of craft beers is important,” he said. 


Not an afterthought 


Having a grab-and-go location as a gathering space is going to become more and more important to hotels and resorts. “I believe this is where grab and go is heading for large resorts and hotels,” Laubichler-Pichler said.  


And these gathering places need to appeal to locals, not just hotel guests. “I think the high-end hotel industry, in Vietnam at least, didn’t take local business as seriously as it could have, pre-pandemic,” Laubichler-Pichler added. “COVID-19 has taught the industry a lesson: don’t neglect that vital business. Hotels need to create more local restaurants and facilities that truly appeal to the locals.”


Packaged cocktails from Crescent Hotels & Resort’s Crescent Restaurant Group


Besides Chill’s Snack & Bar, the ALMA also has the Alma Food Court, with six different food outlets. “It’s another convenient spot where guests can either sit down for a meal or grab and go and like Chill’s Snack & Bar, it’s competitively priced,” Laubichler-Pichler said. 


Chill’s Snack & Bar is about 25% to 30% less expensive than the resort’s other outlets. “So, it’s particularly popular with local families and guests who come mainly for the light snacks, juices, and milk teas,” he said. 


Wells agrees with the assessment about the importance of locals. At the Herb “N Kitchen, locals also come to grab a coffee or something quick to eat. Having health-focused options such as vegan, gluten-free, etc. is also important. “You have to serve things based on current diet trends,” Wells said. 


Still, candy and ice cream remain best sellers. “Ice cream, especially, is always the number one seller, and if we don’t have ice cream, we have to figure out a way to have ice cream,” Moore said. 


In closing, Wells said grab-and-go can never be considered an after-thought. “For us, we treat it as a differentiator,” he said. “We’re adapting to our client’s needs and wants and their changing preferences, now more than ever.”