Who's Afraid of the Big, Healthy Wolf?
“Our guests are great at giving feedback, but we were terrible at listening to it before,” says Chris Hammond, who spent much of his first six months as Great Wolf Resorts’ corporate director of F&B reading “hundreds and hundreds of negative reviews” of Great Wolf’s food. “It really taught me about how much we’d alienated our guests,” he says.
For the next six months, Hammond says, he did nothing but listen to guests and read every review he could find. By Hammond’s estimate, out of 1,000 comments, around 800 just wanted healthier choices. By providing those options, “you just fixed 80% of your problem,” he says. “When you stop trying to do what you want to do and start listening to guests, you’re able to focus on the important things. You now know for a fact what matters to a guest.”
Hammond also realized a mammoth opportunity: the allergy-sensitive market. With giant 84-degree indoor water parks full of rides and slides for kids, along with other attractions, games, activities, and adventures, Great Wolf had plenty to appeal to families looking for a self-contained vacation experience. What was missing was the appeal of the F&B, which was more of an afterthought than a calling card and did not consider the importance of catering to children (and adults) with allergies, Hammond says. He adds that 25% of their guests have an allergy or dietary restriction.
“The gold standard for kids with food allergies has always been Disney World,” says Paul Antico, founder of AllergyEats, a guide to allergy-friendly restaurants in the United States, determining which restaurants to recommend based on ratings and feedback from the food allergy community. “People will pay for an entire trip just so the children can have their first meal out.”
As a kid-forward amusement resort brand, why couldn’t—and why hadn’t—Great Wolf paid more attention to allergies? More on that later.
Thumbprint on Everything
When Hammond took his post in 2012, he knew that, across the board, F&B would have to change. Menus from property to property were all over the place, with no consistency.
“It was all independently run at the properties; they got to choose,” he says. “Some were more cost-conscious than others. Now, everything is procured through my office. We source produce locally near the properties. We look for a lot of non-GMO and organic.”
Take, for example, a Cincinnati property, opened in 2006. Christian Massey spent the last 10 years there before becoming director of F&B at the Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 2016. When Great Wolf opened the Cincinnati resort, food was “more of an amenity.” There were some core items required by the brand, but no product specs. Corporate used an Avendra purchasing program to keep pricing in line. They later tried to centralize with Sysco and spec products.
“When Chris arrived, he started laying the foundation for restaurant concepts going forward,” with specified products and menu items for every location, Massey says.
“We have a thumbprint on every- thing we’re buying across our entire brand, to make sure the properties are getting the best possible product they can,” Hammond says. “Our pizza is a great example. We buy our pizza dough from Lamonica’s in Brooklyn. Every property gets the same dough. We buy the best tomato products we can get and the best blended cheeses.” Where pizza once was made with a pre-baked dough shell and canned sauce, Great Wolf now blends tomatoes and makes its own sauce.
“The quality transcends everything,” Hammond says. “We used to be guilty of buying a frozen burger. Then we went to Pat LaFrieda in New York to get the absolute best burgers to our properties. It’s unconventional for us to buy one of the most expensive burgers on the market, but we knew from years of doing things wrong that we had to correct that and start serving a food-centric, quality-driven product across our brand.”
The changes hit concurrently with re-branded outlets. New venues including Hungry as a Wolf (pizza), Buckets Incredible Craveables (poolside), and Lodge Wood Fired Grill (premium steaks, seafood, and more) all came with a higher—and more microscopic—drive for quality and allergy-friendliness.
The Buckets concept was previously Spirit Island, focused on fried foods, for instance. It’s now using 100% beef patties and offering more salad options. “All of that plays into an uptick in our total revenues,” says Phil Cunningham, who started with Great Wolf eight years ago, serving as GM at Great Wolf resorts in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, and Concord, North Carolina, before making his way to a Garden Grove, California, property in February. At the Concord property, he had worked with Hammond, and they did focus on better food and a “simple elegance” to presentation, getting better chefs, and making sure à la carte and buffet operations had quality, fresh food, Cunningham says. “Our guests are staying more on property versus going out to find F&B, which equates to more spend.”
In the past, a guest might inform a server of their allergies, and the team was on their own to take care of it, says Massey. It was symptomatic of the times.
“Coming from a culinary background, I started to notice it about 15 years ago,” Hammond says, “where a server would come to the kitchen
with a business card that said, ‘My name is so-and-so. I have celiac disease. These are the things I cannot eat.’ That was all you knew about it. You didn’t know about cross-contamination. About 10 years ago, you started seeing things produced that were gluten-free, and they weren’t very good.” More recently, he saw parents trying to navigate menus themselves. “They would ask a lot of questions, but we weren’t really educated on why they were asking those questions.”
Great Wolf decided to get in front of it by educating themselves and talking to parents up front. “Now, a guest can reach out by email beforehand,” Hammond notes. “The emails go directly to chefs. Sometimes we get an email that says something like, ‘My kid hasn’t had pizza in five years because he has celiac disease.’ We’ll go out of our way to make sure they have a gluten-free pizza while they’re there.”
When Cunningham opened the Garden Grove property in February, Hammond was involved, with “SWAT team” members—stars from other lodges—coming to assist. Weekly and biweekly calls with F&B teams cover training items, and then the property F&B director trains on “traditions” (standard operating procedures), making sure every team member has a basic knowledge when starting. Follow-up training is every 90 days.
The F&B team makes sure the parents know they are capable of providing a safe dining experience. If a guest tells the server someone has an allergy at the table, the server gets one of the culinary managers—the executive chef or sous chef. They come out to the table and talk to the family and child directly. From then on, the chef handling the table ‘owns’ that meal until it’s served to the person with the allergy, to make sure it hasn’t been touched by anyone who might cross-contaminate it.
Celiac is the primary issue they deal with, Massey says. All kids’ meals are available gluten-free. “And really anything on the menu we can make fitting to a guest’s dietary restriction,” he says. “It’s up to the chef. If someone wants to order something on the menu that may contain an allergen, we’ll substitute and do anything we can do to make sure they are taken care of.”
For some properties, the overhaul of F&B presented a challenge in getting cooks up to speed, to break old habits, in training to roll out the new restaurants. Massey helped Hammond open six of the Lodge Wood Fired Grill locations and says pushback quickly fell away. “It’s really a positive thing when we go through a week of training with the staff,” he says. “They were excited to have these products to put out, to breathe some fresh air into the brand.” Hammond says the menus at Wood Fired Grill, which replaced Camp Critter, are about 75% gluten-free naturally.
Sourcing their way up to the new culinary bar was a tall order, but Hammond took it on.
“We met with vendors and told them what we wanted,” he says. “US Foods absolutely wanted to be engaged with us. Item by item, we go through our list and look at how we can make it better and whether our guests would appreciate it being non-GMO or whether it matters, and whether our guests appreciated it being organic or if it matters. In all our outlets, you can get fresh fruit, fresh vegetables, organic milk, but if you want a cheeseburger and fries, we’re going to give you a really good cheeseburger and fries.”
Three years ago, the “sheer amount of change”—vendors, menu, signage, concepts—was a lot to deal with, he says. Centralizing broadline distribution/sourcing, replacing of the previous model of allowing properties more leeway, they achieved savings while upping quality of each product. “We now had negotiating power, which we never had before.”
Whether it be allergy-based or not, people are eating differently and want to know what’s in their food. “We’re transparent,” notes Hammond. “We want our guests to know that we understand when it’s important to be organic and non-GMO. We call attention to this so parents can see it. And when we did this, we never took anything to the guest and charged them more for it. It was time for us to change what we were doing. Our guests wanted this, and we didn’t do this with a price the guest had to fund. We took on the increased costs because it was the right thing to do.”
Hammond says the majority of allergies they encounter are peanut and tree nut allergies. “Right off the bat, we removed anything within our control and from our recipes that used peanuts or tree nuts. You will not find peanuts or tree nuts in any of the products we actually make. It doesn’t mean that some of the suppliers we use don’t manufacture things with nuts, but we don’t handle them, and we don’t put them in our recipes like we used to. That’s been a game-changer. Parents with kids with those allergies don’t have to worry about that in our restaurants anymore.”
“The challenge will always be the education of other F&B people,” Cunningham says. “For instance, if they’re in an outlet, and the guest asks about a gluten-free product, they need to have the same knowledge our culinary team has. We have gotten the chefs more involved, speaking directly to guests.”
Cunningham recalls a recent comment from a guest, who was thrilled that she came to a property that understands her child’s allergy and that the chef met with her and designed a special menu for her child while they were there. “That attention to detail is now prevalent throughout Great Wolf Lodge,” Cunningham says. “When we interview our culinary team, especially the senior level, they know and understand they’ll have to deal with guests directly and not just stay in the back of the house.”
Worth the Cost?
For a kid-centric brand, how could guest satisfaction for that demographic not be worth the cost? Hammond says guest feedback is “more positive than it ever has been. That’s what we looked at first. Our sales have increased because of brand awareness and the quality change. Covers and revenue went it up, but it’s all byproducts of guest satisfaction.”
Tad Wilkes is editor of Hotel F&B.
Stamping Out Allergy Issues
To adjust for the new approach to F&B, including production of allergy-sensitive fare, Great Wolf Resorts had to rethink its kitchens.“This varied throughout the lodges due to size,” says Great Wolf Resorts’ Corporate Director of F&B Chris Hammond. “But some properties were able to dedicate space to prepare allergy-friendly meals, and all have separate cooking utensils, pots, pans, knives, and cutting boards. For our newest property, we outfitted them with a line of gluten-free-labeled supplies from Cambro and San Jamar. Some of the items include a carrying kit that contains a cutting board, knife, spatula, and tongs that are all purple, along with storage containers that are labeled as gluten-free and are purple as well.”
Back-of-house changes haven’t been drastic, Cunningham says. “Most of that engineering has been in the product we buy,” he explains. All Great Wolf Resorts use non-GMO rice bran oil in all fryers. “We never have to worry if a kid wants chicken tenders and French fries,” says Christian Massey, director of F&B at Great Wolf Lodge in Williamsburg, Virginia.
“We’re preparing those onsite; they’re breaded in rice flour with seasonings and buttermilk. It’s all gluten-free. If someone has celiac disease and wants a burger and fries, we’ve got gluten-free buns for them.”
Since Great Wolf no longer uses nuts, that was an easy challenge to work around, and items such as dairy, shellfish, and soy are not used in the allergy-friendly “zone,” Hammond says. “Since we deal with a variety of allergies, and several could be made at the same time, separation is key,” he says. “Sometimes we will even go to another kitchen to make sure it’s safe.”
Hammond recalls a recent guest who brought up a good suggestion, when their daughters ordered the same thing yet had two different allergies. “We created the stamp (pictured) that will be stamped, with the child’s name on it, so guests can be further reassured that their children or themselves have exactly what was specially prepared for them.” —TW
A Loyal Community
Word of Great Wolf’s attention to allergy-sensitive detail has spread.AllergyEats Founder Paul Antico says Great Wolf is “praised constantly” on AllergyEats’ social media. “I won’t say Great Wolf is at the Disney standard, but they’ve developed quite an amazing reputation, which makes it easier for people, especially in the summer, wondering what to do with their kids,” he says. “It makes it an easy option.”
The buzz grew so loud that Antico had to see for himself, taking his family to a Great Wolf property. Three of his five kids have food allergies, which led the former financial advisor to create AllergyEats as a resource for similar families.
“My oldest is now 18, so we’ve lived with it for a long time,” Antico says. “He’s got a tree nut allergy. My middle child, 14, has tree nut, dairy, and sesame allergies; he recently got over egg and peanut. My six-year-old has an egg allergy. So when we go places, it’s not easy for restaurants. It’s multiple kids with different allergies, so even making sure they give each kid the right meal can be tricky. What you find with restaurants and hotels is that some get it and will go through as many steps as possible to accommodate this large, vocal audience. But others just want to go about business the way they learned in school. There is some market share shift going on.”
The professional restaurant watcher says Great Wolf’s buzz is well earned.“They were very well trained, which is critical,” he says. “They would always send a manager over to the table. He wouldn’t just speak about that meal; he’d even talk about the next meal. He took the time to walk us through what was on the buffet line and was willing to make something separate in the back if we needed. Those are Disney-esque steps. [Great Wolf’s] whole business relies on kids, and they’re smart; if you want to attract their families, you’ve got to be allergy-sensitive. This community talks a lot and is very loyal.
“I keep seeing people on our social media pages and others say they’re going to Great Wolf instead of other day-long destinations, like a Six Flags,” Antico says. “It’s a really big deal. You want the kids to have a good day out. The last thing you want to worry about is feeding them. You can’t always know a meal is going to be safe; there’s always a risk. But you know your best chance of being safe are places such as Great Wolf that really make the commitment. I’ve analyzed tens of thousands of companies over the years, and I’ve seen that the commitment of the owners and CEOs drive the commitment of everyone else.” —TW