What’s New in Restaurants?

Emerging dining trends that can drive bottom line results for casino resort owner operators

As has been the case in the retail industry, consumers of food and beverage have gotten more sophisticated in their tastes and expectations about what their experiences should be when dining out. Dining, shopping and entertainment are beginning to merge into some innovative and exciting concepts.

Casino resort operators that recognize this trend can expect a big payoff in casino visitation and ultimately developing repeat and loyal customers.

It used to be that just putting the name of a celebrity chef over the door of a restaurant was enough. This trend emerged back in the 1990s and 2000s as a way to infuse excitement and energy into the dining experience, but now guests want more.

“Food as Entertainment” is one of several new emerging concepts that are drawing customers from farther away and getting customers to stay longer. Restaurants used to be able to market food quality and the hope the celebrity chef would be sited in their restaurant, and that was enough. But now customers expect high quality with locally sourced product as a cost of entry.

The food and beverage concepts that can deliver above and beyond the food quality promise, provide a great value, and offer an entertaining dining experience are the ones that are currently winning the share of the diners’ wallet.

Maydan is an interesting new concept in the Washington, D.C. market. It uses tableside wood-fired grills to create a very entertaining dining experience integrated into a very authentic and unusual “dinner as theater” concept.

Another soon-to-be-launched and interesting experiential concept is a restaurant called August Moon. It takes the drive-in movie concept to a whole new level. Enclosed in a giant indoor bubble, you sit in authentic old-fashioned cars while watching a movie on an enormous IMAX-sized screen, dining on high-quality food and cocktail concepts.

Local concepts and “pop-ups” are also newly emerging onto the casino hotel scene. Years ago, you would have casino-owned restaurants, some national concepts and celebrity chefs. Now, we are seeing a proliferation of local-market chefs and concepts in a variety of different formats.

Having a flexible restaurant and event space that can be activated during evenings and on weekends can be a real draw to gaming customers, convention guests and local diners. Also it allows programming that is constantly evolving and provides for new guest experience on every visit. We also find that the more interesting and entertaining amenities a casino resort has to offer, the more successful the property is at capturing the lucrative group and convention business.

 

Buy & Eat

The blending of retail, dining and entertainment is another trend in the restaurant business. Take, for example, the restaurant concept called Sugar Factory. You arrive at the restaurant through the company’s store, a visually appealing array of candy, ice cream and other delectable goodies merchandised in an exciting variety of dispensers and co-mingled among other retail goods including gifts and clothes.

Then at the dinner table, your visual, taste and auditory senses continue to be stimulated by an exciting array of menu items that combine great food presented in unusual ways and delectable treats and drinks that are prepared tableside with garnishes such as dry ice, sparklers, fizz-bombs and other types of confectionary garnishments. Then when it is all over, you can stroll through the shop again on your way out and take some souvenirs with you. It’s a lunch or dinner that you will not soon forget. These sensory-heavy experiences create Instagram moments that will delight your customers.

Puttshack, Fight Club Social Darts and Ace Bounce are three innovative experiential dining experiences from the same company that combine entertainment and dining. As their names would suggest, Puttshack takes miniature golf to the next level using technology and interactivity, while Fight Club Social Darts takes the old staid concept of barroom darts and puts a new twist on it with technology and social interactivity. Ace Bounce is a bar and grill concept centered around ping pong and other bar games to create a very social and engaging experience where, rather than just sit at a table, you have the opportunity to mingle and meet new people.

In all three of the above examples, it is important to note that they start with a very high quality and innovative bar and menu, and then build the entertainment around that. Because if the food quality is lacking, no amount of entertainment will make up for it.

Sustainability and wellness do not have to be boring; in fact, many guests now migrate to those fast-casual concepts that are viewed as more environmentally responsible and serve up the healthier fare. The current trends toward paper straws and plant-based hamburgers are two prime examples that consumers are embracing without any perceived loss in satisfaction or guest experience.

Restaurants need to adjust to the changing diets and food habits to meet the alternative protein and vegetarian requests by customers. Customers can opt not to eat at restaurants that they do not perceive as having the food options they expect. New fast casual concepts that have emerged in the last five years such as Cava, Honeygrow, Sweetgreen and Lemonade offer high-quality, healthy options that we anticipate opening in the casino resorts as operators look to replace legacy food court options.

 

Show Me The Money

Payment technologies form a particularly important developing area for restaurant operators in casino hotel environments, as there may be several different point-of-sale transaction options available.

In addition to the traditional, cash, credit, debit, self-pay and electronic payments options, many restaurant operators in hotel-casino environments also accept casino loyalty rewards points, coupons, employee discounts, gift cards and other forms of payment specific to the resort.

This all requires a sophisticated POS and audit system that can speed throughput, eliminate risk in the system, help to combat fraud, and also ensure timely and accurate reimbursement from the casino resort operator.

Customers have grown accustomed to these new forms of payment, but typically, restaurants have been somewhat reactionary to them. The ones that embrace it early will have much higher odds of success. Additionally, integrating customer data gathered from third-party operators at your casino resort must be negotiated into your lease and operating agreements to ensure you have a complete view of the customer spend at your property.

Spyce is a concept that integrates new technologies throughout the entire dining experience, from ordering to food preparation, all the way to payment. While touch-screen ordering is nothing new, this restaurant then puts your order up on a monitor that sits above a row of robots, which then do the finishing touches on your meal while you watch.

We’ve seen restaurant concepts use technology but then miss the human touch and sensory elements that are an important part of any dining experience. Spyce had made it clear that they put the food and service elements first, and then augment these elements with interesting and fun uses of technology; it’s one of the better concepts we’ve seen in this genre.

 

Ultimate Room Service

Another trend is the proliferation of online ordering and third-party delivery systems. And not just to homes, but within casino resort environments as well. We’re seeing more and more food operators wanting to extend their customer experiences into the guest room at the hotel. It used to be that you could order room service with times and menus dictated by the hotel. Now at many casino resorts, you can call down to the fast-casual restaurant and have it delivered to your room.

Room service is historically a money-loser for hotels, so if you can find a way to improve the guest experience, maintain a secure hotel environment and drive business to your tenants (who probably pay percentage rent), then it is a win for everyone.

Kitchen United is a concept backed by Google that aims to create 400 virtual kitchen centers and over 5,000 actual kitchens across the country to help restaurant brands increase their off-premise businesses. They are a third-party operator of kitchen and delivery services offering restaurants a way to expand their presence into new markets with a much lower capital spend than would be required if they tried to do it themselves.

Off-premise dining now accounts for over $100 billion, and it is expected to double by 2025. It needs to be an integral part of any restaurant operator’s business plan.

With all these examples of new and innovative concepts, let’s not forget that the restaurant business thrives on service. With automation comes a loss of some of those human-touch elements that customers hold dear.

And as the labor market continues to tighten, finding quality staff hires at all levels remains a challenge. Employee training, retention and development are paramount to running a successful operation. The recent changes in many laws surrounding minimum wages, tipping, immigration and overtime are all combining to drive labor costs higher.

And in the case of a casino resort environment, you may be competing with their employees who most likely have benefits packages higher than your own. So, keeping employees happy, motivated and safe in their respective positions will lead to better service levels, and ultimately, more satisfied customers.

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Matt Armstrong is a seasoned hospitality and gaming executive with experience in the hotel, casino and retail industries. Armstrong’s expertise encompasses the disciplines of project development, construction management, property management, marketing, project financing and tenant leasing. Formerly, he was president of Gordon Group Holdings, a large developer of innovative retail projects including the Forum Shops at Caesars Las Vegas, the Beverly Center in Los Angeles and Tanger Outlets at Foxwoods.

With more than two decades as chief executive officer, chief operating officer and chief financial officer at renowned casino resorts, Jeff Hartmann has played a seminal role in the growth of the gaming industry. His career spans the landmark casinos of Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, Revel in Atlantic City and Mohegan Sun Pocono in Pennsylvania.

Armstrong and Hartmann are the co-founders of Experientia Development Partners, the next generation of retail developers, with expertise in design, development, leasing, finance and project management. Experientia is a team of unique developers who understand not only retail development, but gaming and hotel operations as well, customizing every engagement to each client’s needs. For more information and business inquiries, visit experientiadevelopment.com.

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