It’s not easy for city hotels to find space for new restaurants and extra banquet square footage within an existing footprint. When the property in question is the former New York Helmsley Hotel, an iconic turn-of-century property only blocks away from Grand Central Terminal and the United Nations building, the quest for space is even more challenging.
And yet, when Host Hotels acquired the Helmsley in spring 2011 in order to convert the 774-room property to the Westin Grand Central New York, topping the renovation menu was the creation of a new restaurant and additional B&C territory.
The Westin’s solution was a bold one: to close Leona’s, the existing 135-seat, white-tablecloth restaurant at the back of the lobby, and open a new street-view concept at the lobby’s front—away from the kitchen.
“We knew moving the restaurant to the front, without the nearby kitchen support, would be the biggest challenge,” says Westin Grand Central F&B Director Cristian Vasquez, whose team considered installing a small hood out front for grab ‘n’ go items, then rejected the idea due to lack of space. “But we figured that the revenue from the new lobby-level B&C space would make up for [the inconvenience].”
Gerber Group, the New York-based hotel bar and nightclub developer known for its work with Starwood Hotels, Host Hotels, W Hotels Worldwide, Noble Investment Group, and Ark Partners, took the lead in concept and design. The result was THE LCL: Bar & Kitchen, opened in January 2013. THE LCL’s name plays off the nearby train lines, its locally sourced menu items (including produce from the Westin’s own rooftop garden), and the local patrons the owners expected to attract in addition to hotel guests. THE LCL occupies 2,600 square feet with seating for 40 in the main dining room, 20 in the lounge area, 10 at the bar and 32 in the communal dining area. THE LCL features a street entrance as well as lobby entrance.
As of June, THE LCL was serving about 100 daily covers for lunch and dinner, plus about 30 daily room service meals from the existing kitchen. The cover tally has nearly tripled since Helmsley days. “Revenues from THE LCL and the Madison Ballroom have risen maybe 75% compared to the time when only Leona’s was operating,” Vasquez notes. “The old restaurant was closed two days a week, empty much of the other time. THE LCL is sleek, modern, and bustling.”
The footprint formerly known as Leona’s has been converted into the Madison Ballroom, adding 2,800 square feet to the hotel’s 15,000 total square feet of B&C space.
The distance from kitchen to THE LCL is about 70 feet—nearly three-quarters the length of a basketball court. Some 40 feet of the path traverses the Westin’s elegant, marble-clad lobby, while the remaining distance is a service corridor.
“Servers walk along the edge of the lobby and enter THE LCL through its side door,” Vasquez says. Tray covers help retain food temperatures during transit as well as with keeping a low profile in front of guests.
To further maintain food temperatures, especially during THE LCL’s cold January debut, the team added hot-air curtains at the kitchen and the employee entrance in the service corridor to counteract the wind tunnel that occurred in stormy weather.
The distance factor required extra help. “We added a back busboy, a front busboy, plus a walkie-talkie system,” Vasquez says. “The back busboys deliver food to tables, aided by servers during peak times. The front busboys clean tables and deal with soiled dishes. The barbacks assist the bartenders with daily bar duties and with the delivering of food between kitchen and bar.”
A large walnut armoire, fitted with a POS system, drawers for silverware, linens, and glassware, and storage areas for bus bins, helps disguise LCL’s nuts-and-bolts operations. Bussers return soiled dishes back to warewashing using three-shelved carts covered with linen. Soiled glassware, however, is cleaned in an undercounter glasswasher located behind the bar.
The lobby-level kitchen, staffed by five FTEs and a sous chef, currently serves mainly THE LCL and room service; the Madison Ballroom’s larger events are served from the Westin’s third-floor banquet kitchen.
The first-floor kitchen saw a number of equipment upgrades during the Westin’s renovation, mainly replacing older pieces with more efficient versions. Space constraints and the existing hood dictated that the layout, however, remain the same. THE LCL menu was crafted to match existing kitchen equipment.
“We added a Garland/Manitowoc fryer, with four baskets instead of one,” Vasquez says. The unit saves on labor and oil costs thanks to an automatic oil filtration system that filters oil two or three times a day. Other equipment upgrades include a new US Range range, grill, and flattop griddle; a Cleveland Range tilting skillet; Vitamix blenders for both kitchen and bar; and a double-stacked Garland/Manitowoc convection oven.
A Look Ahead
Six months into operation, Gerber Group CEO Scott Gerber is optimistic that this won’t be the only THE LCL.“With the tremendous success of our first location at the Westin New York Grand Central, THE LCL brand is already being fast-tracked with expansion plans to appear in additional Westin properties,” Gerber says.Janice Cha has covered the foodservice industry for more than a decade, focusing on kitchen equipment for several years.