Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » January/February 2010

Doubling Up On Brunch
Washington Duke Inn drives Saturday business with Sunday success tactics.
By Denny Lewis

Washington Duke Inn brunch expansion
Conference groups, university students, and local brunch fans are taking advantage of the fun, relaxed atmosphere of Saturday brunch at the Washington Duke Inn.
Washington Duke Inn brunch expansion
Since Don Ball, director of F&B (above), and Executive Chef Jason Cunningham(below) began offering brunch on Saturdays in the Fairview Dining Room, the outlet has seen increased revenue during its slowest weekly meal periods.
Washington Duke Inn brunch expansion

Washington Duke Inn brunch expansion Washington Duke Inn brunch expansion
Offering brunch on both weekend days also provides operational benefits. "We were prepping [unique] menu items for one day," says Chef Cunningham. "We’d often over-prep and then try to run the extra items out as lunch features during the week."

Hotel F&B Extras
Click here for additional photos of Chef Cunningham's brunch platings and buffet presentations.

One approach to a slow meal period is to let busier times absorb it. But with busier times generally less busy than ever, a better approach may be to inject the slow times with elements of what makes those busier times busy in the first place.

Set on 300 bucolic acres on the Duke University campus and situated just outside the bustling Research Triangle Park, the Washington Duke Inn & Golf Club in Durham, North Carolina, has the enviable position of being able to thrive on a two-fold image of both heritage and progress. The inn’s services and amenities gear themselves toward honoring its historical ties with the university and the community while keeping up with the preferences of business travelers visiting the technology mecca.

The inn’s F&B program also keeps one foot in tradition while striding forward with the other to satisfy the modern tastes of its guests. Despite a strong, proven program and high levels of guest satisfaction, even a booming property such as the Washington Duke Inn can uncover a meal period, day, or outlet that proves to be a weak link.

With 12 years of experience at the inn under his belt, Director of F&B Don Ball is intimately familiar with all operations at the property. In a program review that coincided with the impact of the recession, Ball sat down and evaluated his outlets, their daily performance, and meal period revenues. He looked at the information without preconceived notions—that is, he wasn’t automatically looking to add, downsize, or slash service—and let the numbers tell the story.

“The epiphany was that Saturday [in the Fairview Dining Room] was our lowest volume day and that we had the fewest covers on Saturday morning,” he recalls.

Of the inn’s three dining outlets, the Fairview Dining Room is the most formal and hosts power lunches during the week and a jampacked jazz brunch on Sundays. Ball looked at the flagging Saturday breakfast and lunch periods and considered his options. The sales were not so dismal as to discontinue service, nor would Ball deprive guests and regulars of the opportunity to dine in the beloved Fairview atmosphere. Instead, he looked at the massive success of Sunday brunch that anchors the dining room financially and is an institution for the community and began devising ways to bring that excitement to Saturdays.

The more Ball researched the possibility, the more promising it looked. He discussed the logistics of the new brunch with Executive Chef Jason Cunningham—who prepares the food for the Fairview Dining Room, Vista Restaurant, the bar and lounge, room service, and banquets and catering all out of one kitchen—and Cunningham was enthusiastic about the opportunity. Ball’s service staff took the study right to the tables, asking Saturday and Sunday patrons and weekday lunch guests about their preferences.

“We found that weekday diners who came here were in business mode, and when they came on Saturdays, they were more in leisure mode,” Ball explains. “So we decided to offer a more leisurely experience on Saturday.”

Business indications for the front and back of the house pointed to greater efficiencies and cost savings by expanding to a two-brunch weekend. The meal periods were already fully staffed anyway, and kitchen labor and food costs could benefit from more efficient preparation and less waste.

Within a month, Ball rolled out the new scheme for Saturdays. The result was a slow-build of weekend guests gradually embracing the luxury of jazz, Bloody Marys, Mimosas, Bellinis, and an indulgent meal they had been only allowing on Sundays. Ball says covers have increased by 30 percent and revenues are up 50 percent over previous Saturday breakfast and lunch sales. Further feedback from guests showed a marked desire for more “breakfasty” items on the menu rather than the heavier lunch entrées, and revisions to satisfy that preference have made revenues even stronger for both brunches.

Revenues and guest feedback indicate that Saturday brunch was just the tweak the F&B program needed, and Ball sees the group of loyal clientele still growing for Saturday brunch. Conference, function, and wedding groups have begun taking advantage of the fun, relaxed atmosphere of the Saturday brunch; Duke students are coming in to spend their “Duke Points” on morning-after food; and many regular brunchers are showing up on the extra day to get an additional brunch fix.

Two days of brunch provide operational benefits as well. “[When we had only Sunday brunch], we were prepping [unique] menu items for one day,” Chef Cunningham says. “We’d often over-prep and then try to run the extra items out as lunch features during the week. We were having some challenges moving that product.”

The two-brunch weekend also gives the inn an added opportunity to promote the dining room’s jazzy alter-ego to weekday visitors. New guests drawn in by the energy of brunch are translating to incremental covers across days and meal periods at the inn. “Not only has the revenue been a home run for us, but the guest reaction has been tremendous,” says Ball.

Denny Lewis is a professional freelance writer based in Arlington, Massachusetts.

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