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
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.