Chow Town

Hotel restaurants must overcome perception of being overpriced, substandard

The lounge at Chaz at the Raphael Hotel
The lounge at Chaz at the Raphael Hotel

I’ve always had a soft spot in my heart for hotels and the folks who work in them, especially the food and beverage staffers. It’s a tough job running a hotel’s food and beverage department.

First of all, the size and scope can be daunting. Most large hotels have multiple restaurants and bars, along with catering and room service. You have to deal with staffing, product, service and any number of other aspects I’ve failed to consider.

Then there’s the fact that most hotel restaurants are considered necessities, not profit centers, and your competition — free-standing restaurants — are much more streamlined, focusing entirely on getting customers into their seats, period.

Hoteliers have to please their guests and attract locals. Plus many local residents come with preconceived notions that hotel restaurants are somehow inferior and more expensive.

“Is it tough to attract people to your hotel restaurant when you’ve got a restaurant on the second floor and people have to come to your hotel, valet, then ride the escalator just to get to the restaurant? Yes, it’s tough,” said Matt Jackson, the food and beverage director for the Sheraton and Westin at Crown Center.

Jackson actually has multiple restaurants to promote, but on this day, the focus was on Spectators, a large space on the aforementioned second floor. In this case, the second floor of the Sheraton Crown Center. Spectators had undergone a significant renovation on both the restaurant and bar side.

I was certainly impressed with the food side of things. My buddy and I split four appetizers from the extensive menu: Pork Belly Confit, Skillet-Seared Vegetable Pot Stickers, Pork Wings and Boulevard Tank 7 Pretzel Bites.

They were all good — the Pork Belly and Pretzel Bites, which were served with Gruyere cheese fondue, very good. The Boulevard aspect of the dish is also important, and Jackson pointed out that the restaurant has a special relationship with the hometown brewery, offering customers nine different Boulevards on draft. In other words, every beer Boulevard offers on draft is on tap at Spectators. Impressive.

The question is, how do you communicate that to potential customers, and what exactly is Spectators, which sounds like a sports bar but is more of a gastro-pub. Jackson admits there’s no easy answer, but he thinks a visit will make a big difference.

“Give us a chance. It’s a unique dining experience,” Jackson said. “I mean, where else can you find nine different Boulevard beers on draft?”

It’s a rhetorical question, but a valid point. I’d give Spectators another chance. There were several entrees that sounded tasty.

I thought it would be interesting to contrast promoting a relatively new, or at least newly remodeled, restaurant, with the promotional efforts of a longstanding hotel restaurant, Chaz on the Plaza, in the Raphael Hotel.

For that, I turned to public relations professional and long-time acquaintance Rick Hughey.

“The most difficult challenges for promoting hotel restaurants is overcoming a perception by consumers of hotel restaurants as being overpriced and delivering substandard fare compared to free-standing restaurants,” Hughey said, sounding eerily similar to Jackson’s laments. “Also, hotel ownership/management overcoming the mentality that their restaurants only exist as a necessity for guests.”

So far, it appears Chaz is dealing with the same issues as Spectators with one big exception: While Spectators is attempting to build a clientele, Hughey has the advantage of promoting a hotel restaurant that’s already known for its food, ambiance and service, and one that already has a built-in customer base.

“Consistency, above all, is the key when it comes to food and service. Charles d’Ablaing (Chaz’s executive chef) is a talented chef who was recruited to the hotel a little over three years ago to build a destination restaurant that could match the Raphael’s national reputation. He has steadily built up a culinary team that performs consistently,” Hughey said.

So, what does the future hold for Chaz? More challenges, for sure, but a sincere dedication to meet, and exceed, those challengers.

“Continued consistency with every meal and every guest served,” Hughey said. “We are making a more dedicated effort to improve the patio areas this year, including more seating and possible enhanced lighting, and possibly even awnings overhead, and a permanent bar location that will remain for the season.”

Constantly looking for ways to improve. Constantly battling preconceived public notions. Definitely worth checking out. That’s the bottom line for Spectators and Chaz.

Dave Eckert is the producer and host of “Culinary Travels With Dave Eckert,” which aired on PBS-TV and Wealth TV for 12 seasons, or nearly 300 half-hour episodes produced on six continents. Eckert is also an avid wine collector and aficionado, having amassed a personal wine cellar of some 2,000 bottles.