Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » July/August 2012

Seasons in the Sun
Buffet revamp ignites high guest scores and revenues at Mohegan Sun.
Story and video by Michael Costa

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp

Mohegan Sun buffet revamp
Click to view photo gallery.

New England is known for its changing seasons: vibrant falls, snow-packed winters, spring thaws, and warm summers cycle around the calendar. But there’s another season in New England that has only changed once in the past 16 years.

Seasons Buffet at Mohegan Sun—the second largest casino in the U.S.—opened when the Uncasville, Connecticut, resort debuted in 1996. Until last year, it remained relatively untouched because revenues were consistently strong, especially at a property with more than 30 different places to eat.

In 2010, management analyzed guest scores and saw unmet potential instead of steady success, so a $10 million “change of Seasons” was initiated, shutting the old buffet down in February 2011 and re-opening in July 2011.

“The original Seasons had about a 74% guest satisfaction rating, and we were getting a lot of requests for larger menu variety and more value,” says Mark Smith, director of F&B at Mohegan Sun. “Once the new Seasons opened, our guest scores went over 80% right away, and we average around 84% or higher now. It’s definitely a testament to what’s being produced on the buffet.”

In addition to improved scores, revenues increased too, due to a bump in prices. For adults, breakfast went from $11.95 to $15.00, and lunch and dinner from $18.95 to $21 and $25, respectively. Kids eat for approximately $10 less than adults do, depending on the meal period.

Since covers remain high, often surpassing the old Seasons, annual revenues have risen from around $16,000,000 to $22,000,000, operating on a food cost of 40%.

“On a good Saturday here with breakfast, lunch, and dinner, we’ll see 6,000 people and $100,000 in revenue. About one-third of our food cost goes through Seasons, so we really needed to knock this update out of the park,” says Richard Zazzaro, VP of F&B.

Vegas-Style Variety
Before any changes were put in motion at Mohegan, Zazzaro and his team developed a plan to transform Seasons into a state-of-the-art, high-volume buffet that would keep their traditional New England clientele happy while attracting more international customers, especially those from Asia [for more on Mohegan’s Asian demographic, see sidebar.]

In September of 2010, Zazzaro traveled to Las Vegas to gather ideas for the new Seasons, eating at 20 different casino buffets there. The ones that impressed him served smaller batches of food, executed front-of-the-house cooking, and maintained smooth customer “flow” during service—all ideas later incorporated into the new Seasons.

To accurately emulate a contemporary Vegas-style buffet, executives at Mohegan decided to permanently close the resort’s other buffet, Sunburst, so it wouldn’t compete against the new Seasons, and expanded the existing Seasons footprint by about 20%, finishing with 26,000 square feet and an additional 200 seats— just under 800 total.

They also expanded the buffet line to 250 feet and radically changed the original template for food display and delivery. “The old Seasons was double-sided with chafers, so guests had an ‘A’ side and a ‘B’ side. Whatever was found on one side was duplicated on the other,” says Smith.

The new Seasons showcases eight visible cooking stations behind a winding buffet line, so customers can watch food being prepared and ask staff questions about menu items or ingredients.

“We transferred our labor to the front. Now the person who used to work a tilt skillet in the back is working a pizza oven or using the woks at our Asian station. Our New England station has a flat-top kitchen suite, so what the customer sees actually looks like a kitchen, with pot racks and utensils hanging around it. It looks very natural and not institutional,” says Zazzaro, who adds that about 70% of the menu produced at Seasons is made in front of the guest.

Hot prepared food is put in residential-style vessels and placed on induction tops or hot shelves, while cold items are often placed on chilled platters or in iced wells. The overall result is contemporary and “cost effective because we’re not overproducing,” says Executive Chef Richard Doucette. “We can adjust our volume based on actual guest numbers each day. The food turns over faster, and it stays fresher in smaller dishes.”

Menu Mastery
Even the most stylish cast iron, ceramic, and stainless steel vessels are useless if the food inside them doesn’t meet customer expectations. It’s no coincidence the largest station on the buffet is based on New England cuisine, and that menu had to stay true to what Seasons’ core guests demand.

“They want generous portions, so we can’t give them some little center-of-the-plate thing with sauce drizzled over it and say, ‘Here you go.’ They want lobster, clam strips, oysters, fried shrimp, macaroni and cheese, big Caesar salads, fresh-baked bread, and soda in a 20-ounce glass,” says Zazzaro.

Satisfying their main customer base gave the F&B team at Mohegan the freedom to take the rest of the menu in an updated direction, with modern takes on Asian cuisine, barbecue, Italian, and Mediterranean dishes and desserts, attracting younger guests in the process.

The Dessert Station in particular was completely overhauled from the previous Seasons. Gone are the giant portions, replaced with single-bite treats. “Now guests feel comfortable taking multiple desserts because they’re smaller, like a three-ounce piece of cake that’s individually decorated,’ says Doucette.

While the new dessert template has been a hit, removing made-to-order omelets was not. “We tried to do eggs in a frittata style, and our regular customers went nuts,” Zazzaro recalls. “After about four days, we put some induction burners out there with an omelet chef and brought it back.”

Ice cream was another area needing a tweak. Zazzaro originally used a self-serve, soft-serve ice cream station when the new Seasons opened, but, “it was a nightmare. Customers were often messy, and the place looked like a wreck, so we went to a hard dip scoop instead,” he says.

A progressive menu decision that was an instant success was the inclusion of as many as 20 gluten-free items, as well as sugar-free desserts, throughout the buffet. The food is clearly marked and placed among the regular items, not buried at the end of each station as an afterthought. “Our cooks are always ready to explain to the guest which items have nuts or contain allergy-sensitive ingredients,” says Karen Higgins, restaurant manager at Seasons.

Future Flow
While much thought went into menu planning (there are more than 200 total items on the buffet, and seasonal dishes are added quarterly), an equal amount of work went into deciding how guests would navigate the new footprint. Instead of customers lining up on one end and moving through the buffet linearly, there are “plate points,” where guests simply walk up, grab a plate, and work a “zone” of the buffet.

Initially, some guests were confused by the non-linear approach, raising the average stay in the buffet from 55 minutes to nearly 70 minutes, but with staff help, they learned to navigate the stations, and turnover times are now under an hour again.

Another learning curve for customers was understanding that they didn’t need to overload their plates but could take advantage of the new smaller portions to sample more of the menu in multiple trips. Hot food is consumed before it gets cold, leading to higher guest scores.

“When customers walk through our door now, there’s amazement that the price point went up just a little bit, and in return they feel they’re getting the value they seek in their dining experience,” says Smith. “And they continue to come back, day in and day out.”

Michael Costa is industry relations editor for Hotel F&B.

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