Catering To Their Clientele
March 1, 2006
Catering To Their Clientele
By Lynn Petrak
Hospitality operators service customers through innovative pastries and breads, balancing signature items with their own kitchen challenges.
Nothing says hospitality like some delectable baked goods and upscale snacks. When it comes to satisfying corporate and leisure travelers, those chefs and caterers who work in hotels, convention centers, resorts, spas and casinos are trying to keep up with the latest foodservice trends and are balancing closely guarded, treasured recipes with convenience-oriented fare.
The hospitality channel is no small market. Lodging-place restaurants account for about $25 billion in annual sales, according to the National Restaurant Association, based in Washington, D.C. Moreover, travelers and visitors account for 30% of all tableservice restaurant sales in this $500 billion industry, the NRA reports.
Unlike quick-serve and many casual dining restaurants, this segment of the foodservice channel is held to especially high standards for baked goods and other food, as well. Menu offerings from in-room dining and onsite restaurants to events staged for thousands are expected to be top-drawer in taste. In many cases, their clientele demand innovative and visually stunning baked goods delivered in a timely manner.
That’s what they call a tall order.
Still, to stay profitable in an ever-competitive climate, bakers, pastry chefs, and suppliers to operators in this industry understand that success is all about customer satisfaction. That means providing guests with culinary fare that meets their needs throughout their stay.
Steadily, those needs are shifting. The notion of a more discerning patron, say those in the industry, is more than an interesting topic of discussion.
“The amazing thing about American consumers, overall, is that their knowledge of foods, flavors and different types of preparation are really at an all-time high,” says Hudson Riehle, the NRA’s senior vice president of research. Consumers who are served foods in hospitality settings have a certain level of anticipation, he adds.
“They come in with heightened expectations,” Riehle remarks. “There is always an impetus to provide the ‘wow’ factor.”
Culinary professionals say that customers still are interested in ideas from chefs, but now are sharing some of their own, as well. Jean-Claude Perennou, executive pastry chef for the famed — and now Hilton Hotels Corp.-owned — Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City, says that trend is especially true for events like parties and weddings.
“For the past year or two, people are interested in different types of styles — they have really opened up,” he says. “A lot of them will come in with different pictures from magazines.”
That assessment is shared by Brenda Hitchins, corporate executive pastry chef for Station Casinos, which oversees seven casinos, hotels and resort/spas in Las Vegas.
“The Internet has really changed things, and sometimes people want things a certain way they see it in a magazine,” she reports.
Rising consumer knowledge about the culinary arts can provide challenges for even the nation’s top chefs.
“It can put a dent in your creativity when people want something in a certain way,” says Hitchins, adding that, at the same time, such knowledge can present new opportunities. That makes for a dynamic, if pressure-filled, kitchen.
“People aren’t satisfied with white cake and frosting anymore,” remarks Jennifer DiGiorgio, executive pastry chef for Oneida Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y. “That’s good around there, though, because there is always something new coming up, and it makes your job that much more important.”
Scratching the Surface
Although culinary staff in hotels, resorts, casinos and other sites may want to spend a lot of time creating signature desserts, it’s not always practical, especially in light of the labor and cost pressures facing today’s operators.
“You try to do things you’ll be successful with, with the labor you have,” says Hitchins, whose staff makes most of their own desserts and artisan breads, but uses pies, some cookies and certain types of buns and rolls from third-party suppliers. “You have your base, and for the things you can’t do, you can find someone, like a chocolate company, that does pieces to complement something.”
According to Hitchins, working with commercial bakeries and food companies can be beneficial.
“Seeing where the labor market is going, I find that a lot of manufacturers are stepping up to the plate,” she says.
DiGiorgio isn’t shying away from working with vendors, either.
“As far as what we serve here, we have a good mixture,” she says. “We have a range of outlets we work with for pre-purchased [items], whether it is frosting or cake.”
DiGiorgio agrees with Hitchins that quality continues to rise in prepared desserts.
“The level of quality has improved immensely, to where it’s not a bad thing if you buy a frozen pie,” she notes. “I recently met the chef that does some of the development for a cheesecake company, and he is an old-school German chef.”
Meanwhile, at the Waldorf-Astoria, Perennou’s pastry chefs make all desserts from scratch for the hotel’s four on-site restaurants, special events and in-room dining. However, the hotel uses a supplier for breads and rolls.
“I think bread has evolved in a good way in the last five to 10 years,” Perennou notes. “I’ve had baguettes that were unbelievable.”
Over the years, chefs also have grown more adept at serving up prepared or semi-prepared items.
“Operators are masters of speed-scratch convenience, where they will purchase pre-made desserts and garnish them with so much imagination that it appears that a pastry chef is on premise,” notes Sharon Olson, president of Chicago marketing firm Olson Communications, who has worked with several dessert companies and restaurants. “All it takes is a dusting of cocoa power or a casual sweep of a plate with fruit puree in a squeeze bottle to signaturize a dessert.”
The key to the acceptance of any menu item remains taste, particularly as it relates to the perception of freshness, Riehle notes.
“In terms of quality of offerings, whether things are par-baked or from scratch, it’s really all about the consumer perspective, because they have become accustomed to having freshly prepared foods,” he says.
Light on their Treats
Eating lighter, as Olson says, is something that many patrons are doing these days. While dessert and health may not be synonymous, the two are not mutually exclusive anymore, and the same is true for breads and snacks.
Across the board, food and beverage professionals indicate an increasing desire by consumers for better-for-you options.
“We see a trend of people asking more for something that is no sugar, no carbs or no fat,” agrees Perennou, who recalls a recent request for a large occasion cake made without dairy products or sugar, something that ultimately proved to be too costly and challenging to do.
“When it’s only one dessert, we can play with that and do it,” he says. “I think, though, within two or thee years that we’ll have some line of low-fat or unsweetened desserts.”
Hitchins says that health-oriented products are well suited for production by outside bakeries and manufacturers.
“We source out our sugar-free line, because I don’t agree with mixing those products in a bakery,” she explains, citing concerns about accidentally cross-contaminating ingredients that may impact those on restricted diets.
In addition to “healthy” desserts, breads also are a focal point of dietary concerns. To that end, whole grain breads can be another point of differentiation.
“The new food pyramid and the interest in whole grains are certainly driving the trend,” Olson notes. “It’s an easy decision for consumers to make because they feel good about eating whole grain bread, but they don’t have to trade off in taste like they might with ‘diet’ foods.”
The artisan and rustic breads that are so popular now in bread baskets, sandwiches and pizzas lend themselves well to nutrition, Hitchins adds.
“I think people are more, after the Atkins [diet] phase, saying, ‘If I am going to eat bread, it will be a good piece of bread and it also will be good for me,’” she says.
Beyond offering more specialty menu options, hospitality operators also find themselves having to provide more information about the health and nutrition profile of their dishes.
“We are working on a program right now where we are inputting our recipes to see what the amounts of fat, and protein contents are,” DiGiorgio reports. That trend, she says, will be hard to ignore as the Baby Boomers continue to age and ask for more dietary-specific options and seek bolder flavors for their palates.
“The demographics of retired people are changing, and I think it will be huge,” DiGiorgio predicts. SF&WB
When enjoying some time away from home, whether for a fun retreat, a professional event or a private vacation, consumers look for both tried and true favorites, as well as classics with a twist and innovative new dishes.
Of course, what the clientele is looking for often depends on the occasion, notes Jean-Claude Perennou, executive pastry chef for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, N.Y.
Perennou, for his part, reports that guests in the hotel’s fine dining restaurant have different tastes than those who attend a trade show or banquet.
“The people who go to that restaurant are aware of good flavors and are looking for something new and fresh,” he says. “For banquets, it’s much more brasserie-style — it’s what they know, like cheesecake and chocolate desserts.”
For example, he adds, creatively plating traditional baked desserts with a swirl of chocolate or sprinkles of mocha can provide a fresh or upscale flair.
In the dessert category, for instance, one trend that’s emerging is the parallel interest in intense fruit flavors and decadent chocolate profiles.
“Our biggest sellers are the fruit tart and chocolate items,” says Brenda Hitchins, corporate executive pastry chef for Station Casinos, Las Vegas. “We have a huge chocolate brownie that is almost a pound that always sells.”
Many desserts also feature slightly more exotic twists, whether it is the substitution of blackberries for raspberries or the combination of white, dark and milk chocolates, notes Jennifer DiGiorgio, executive pastry chef for Oneida Turning Stone Resort and Casino in Verona, N.Y.
“A big thing right now is the combination of sweet and spicy,” she says. “Recently, people have discovered what spice will do for chocolate — it makes it explode in flavor.”
“Bites” of desserts, in the form of samplers in restaurants and dessert buffets, are a notable trend in hospitality.
“When I started working here nine years ago, we had mini French pastries, and we didn’t serve many of those at the time [and] maybe would make 100 pieces a day,” says Jean-Claude Perennou, executive pastry chef for the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. Perennou currently has a chef on staff devoted to making mini pastries.
“Now, we make 1,000 to 1,200 pieces a day,” he says.
Sharon Olson, president of Olson Communications in Chicago, says that diminutive desserts are popular for a host of reasons.
“Samplers are appealing because they make for a dramatic presentation with lower food cost for the operator, and patrons love them because they get to try more tastes without committing to one huge portion,’ she points out. “Small plates also give the diner the perception of eating light, and they satisfy that taste for a little luxury at the end of a meal.”