Hotel F&B Magazine
All Back Issues » May/June 2012

Aspirations Aloft
Targeted select-service brand hones F&B appeal to hip demographic.
By Tad Wilkes

ALOFT clientele targeting

ALOFT clientele targeting

“We certainly had signature cocktails and seasonal cocktails to stay on-trend on the beverage side [at wxyz],” says Jeremy Cooper, F&B Director, specialty select brands for Aloft parent Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide (pictured below). “On the food side, we wanted to add... not a full meal...but something filling.” The latest menu rollout includes Aloft’s signature take on a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. Meanwhile, Aloft is refining its re:fuel pantry/grab ‘n’ go concept

ALOFT clientele targeting

ALOFT clientele targeting

ALOFT clientele targeting

ALOFT clientele targeting

Since STARWOOD launched ALOFT in 2008, the two core components of the brand’s F&B have been re:fuel, a pantry/grab ‘n’ go, and w xyz, using the classic select-service template of a combi oven, ready-to-heat/serve entrées, and a full bar in the afternoon and evening that switches to coffee service in the morning. Until more recently, however, Aloft didn’t have a truly targeted F&B program focusing on the actual food, themes, etc., that speak to its Gen Y demographic.

The positioning is “style at a steal”—a hip, cutting-edge brand in what Aloft views as a stale, interchangeable select-service segment. Its décor has reflected that, especially in the lobby. “It’s like going to your cool friend’s loft in New York City,” observes Jeremy Cooper, F&B Director, specialty select brands for Aloft parent company Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide.

Cooper and his team worked from late 2010 through mid-2011 to re-target that crowd with quirky, fun menus for w xyz bar. The first step was to create upscale comfort food that would utilize the existing infrastructure of a combi oven and limited staff; Aloft wanted no substantial new costs, and all food items needed to go from freezer to customer in three minutes or less. They also needed to be corporate spec’ed for consistency and interchangeability to keep prices low. Cooper and company worked with TurboChef, Cleveland, and US Foods to create an entirely new menu plan, along with training that would make the transition seamless. The result is the reboot of w xyz’s food menu, creating a turnkey solution for all 50-plus properties.

On the cocktail side, Cooper and his team worked with beverage consultant Elayne Duke to create a new cocktail menu and seasonal refreshes.

The new food and drink menus debuted last September. Overall revenue data/customer feedback is still coming in, but it’s positive, says Cooper. Aloft added no new staff, no new equipment costs, and no new footprint to execute the menus.

aloft-y expectations
“We went with a heavier Asian style in the initial w xyz food launch— things like pot stickers and spring rolls that were easy to eat,” Cooper says. “You can eat it by hand or with chopsticks; it doesn’t require a fork and knife, per se,” says Cooper, who, with North America Corporate Chef Richard Faeh, has spearheaded the evolution of w xyz and re:fuel food development. “We’ve kept a lot of that theme throughout, trying to keep it as neat and clean and easy as possible. As we evolved, we’ve brought in more regionality, adding some Tex-Mex, Southern style, or Caribbean flair in certain parts of the country. Guests are staying longer, drinking more, and eating more.”

Guest feedback drove the initiative for tweaks. “We are always communicating with our guests, through GEI [Guest Experience Index] surveys, through our property talent, and via social media,” says Starwood’s Senior VP of Specialty Select Brands Brian McGuinness. “[Guests] voiced their interest in having a wider selection of choices and some heartier options.”

Aloft identified a need to create a signature draw in its food, closer to that hearty end of the spectrum. “We certainly had signature cocktails and seasonal cocktails to stay on-trend on the beverage side,” Cooper says. “On the food side, we wanted to add another layer of consistency, especially in the bigger plate size. Not a full meal, not a fork-and-knife type of event, but something filling. Something we worked on in our latest menu development this past summer, which rolled out in our North American hotels this year, is our signature grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup—a retro-classic Aloft take. That’s something we’re seeing take hold now throughout our hotels.”

The relatively fast service of w xyz’s approach begs the question of whether extensive prep is needed to put everything on deck, ready to go. “It’s kind of a mix,” Cooper explains. “A lot of the food items we use are pretty much ready to go. Frozen products such as a pot sticker, a tamale, or a burrito can go straight from the freezer, into the oven, to the plate. Other items have more prep.”

The efficiency of F&B at Aloft is evident as w xyz cross-utilizes the talent [that’s the term Aloft uses to refer to its staff] working mornings at re:fuel, the 24-hour pantry offering fresh, made-to-order breakfast sandwiches. “When that person is tending to the breakfast sandwiches and maintaining the merchandising, they also have a set of prep items they’re preparing for w xyz for that evening,” says Cooper. “It may be slicing items or prepping and staging certain desserts...during the slower times—the shoulder hours toward the end of the morning. Once w xyz opens at 5 p.m., it’s off to a running start, so we need to make it as easy and efficient as possible.”

Aloft added to its library of menu items, to not restrict old items but build new items on top of them. “Ultimately, we wanted to grow the universe of turnkey options each hotel would have available to them,” says Cooper.

Cooper works with Cleveland Menu Printing for online brand spec menu development at w xyz. “Their system gives me corporate oversight into what is taking place at the individual property level,” he says, “so I can pull drinks and food items into the system and work with the hotel to get sales data, recipes, etc., to refine and push back through the system in our library.”

For example, this monitoring has led to cross-utilization of tater tots from w xyz bar into the morning re:fuel breakfast service as “breakfast tots” and has increased use of easy-toeat Tex-Mex items at w xyz, such as tamales, taquitos, and empanadas.

seasons and signatures
Though w xyz began with a cocktail identity of its own, continuous reinvention is the model. Aloft worked with Duke in the beginning phase of the brand, creating the initial cocktail menu. “The bigger picture on the way we look at trends and innovation is with our creative advisory board working with our brand management and marketing teams, including myself, to identify trends in our target demographic, the industry, outside the industry, and in our guest feedback,” notes Cooper. Duke helps add to that think tank and create ways to execute its findings.

“As we continue to refresh our specialty cocktails and our twice-yearly seasonal cocktail program, she’s instrumental in that,” notes Cooper. “Elayne is much involved in the international mixology scene and very in touch with trends. We challenge her to come back to us with what is happening and how we can bring it to a level that’s appropriate for our specialty- select model. And we look at trends and hear feedback from our guests on what they want to see, how they’re using our hotels, and how they want to see things changed up, and we’re communicating that back to Elayne.” The team’s work with Duke is part of Starwood’s collaboration with Diageo for its North American core beverage program, StarBev.

Together, they’ve created drinks for a cocktail refresh theme called “Rewind,” inspired by ‘70s and ‘80s television shows, such as Hawaii Five-0, Dallas, and Charlie’s Angels, as well as recent retro-based show Pan- Am. Some drinks use specialty vessels, such as the Dan-No-No served in a giant scorpion tiki bowl for two. Others are updated plays on classic cocktails; the Good Evening Angels is basically an El Diablo. All the drinks require only training to execute, just like the food menu.

“Looking at Hawaii Five-O, we wanted to do something intentionally tropical and different,” says Cooper. “Tiki continues to be popular, and you see more and more bowls—drinks for multiple people or one thirsty person. We worked with Elayne in the development of the Dan-No-No cocktail. We ended up going with Cîroc Coconut vodka, so it’s a rum-style vodka, if you will. It’s visually appealing and took the guests by surprise, merchandised at the bar, seeing these elaborate ceramic tiki bowls, colorful straws, fresh fruit punch. It really made an impact. We have a lot of single travelers as well as multiple guests, so we did adapt it for our hotels to be able to offer as a single cocktail as well.”

Storage and inventory are “top of mind,” Cooper says, in developing drinks for a model as small and efficient as w xyz. “Working with Elayne, we always have a conversation about what our core beverage program is, what we have in stock, and how much we’re willing to add for a particular promotion or seasonal event,” Cooper says. “We’re cautious to make sure we’re not burdening the hotels with inventory that may be too specific to a certain drink. Our overall glassware is limited to four or five key styles, to accommodate multiple styles of drinks. Bringing in something special like the Dan-No-No in a tiki bowl was a one-off play in terms of a direction to the hotel. A specialty drink like that really only requires six to 10 maximum bowls to store at the hotel, so they were able to maintain those. The unique look of them made it appropriate even to stack them on the bar itself, so that it became a conversation piece about, ‘What kind of drink goes in that?’”

Despite the constraints of maintaining a tight, efficient model, Aloft doesn’t do away with drinks each time it adds a new one. “Like with the food, we don’t necessarily subtract cocktails [when refreshing the menu],” says Cooper. “A previous seasonal cocktail may fade away for a while, but it’s there in the library that hotels can build their lists on.”

While the best-selling drinks vary from region to region, Cooper says usually the most popular ones are the classic cocktails or twists on classics. “For instance, the Cosmo is one of the most popular drinks out there,” he says, “and our Cosmonaut, developed as a gin-based cocktail rather than vodka, has remained popular. Working with the importance of garnish and doing something different, a drink called the Fiji Lychee is popular. It has a lychee fruit garnish and an elegant look in a martini glass. We’ve done several different plays on mojitos, be it a muddle blueberry spiked with mint and rum. This past Valentine’s Day, we did a special Love Potion No. 55—again, thinking about our global footprint and vibrant Aloft community—marketing our fifty-fifth hotel, which was opening over that time period. That cocktail has done quite well with a fun, chocolatey, creamy combination of vanilla vodka, Cointreau, Domaine de Canton ginger liqueur, cream, and garnished with a strawberry on the side for dipping.”

Aloft even picks the brains of its Gen Y clientele for tipples. In fact, says McGuinness, Love Potion No. 55 was the product of asking Facebook fans to suggest chocolatey drinks. “We encouraged our users to submit recipes and festive anecdotes about each drink,” he says. “It was a fun way to interact with our Aloft Facebook page users while learning more about popular cocktail options to later serve up in our w xyz bars.”

Guests’ thirst for libations isn’t the only touchpoint where Aloft aims to connect with seasonal flavor; it’s part of the entire plan. “We want to make sure the entire Aloft experience is appropriate to the season, like in a retail environment where you walk into a store and know it’s fall or spring just by colors and the textures of clothes being offered,” says Paige Francis, Starwood VP of marketing for specialty select brands. “In Aloft, we want you to walk in and feel the same thing. We change the desk wrap on our front desk, we change the throw pillows and all these different elements, down to the cocktails.”

“By continuing to do beverage and building on that need for further, enhanced food items,” Cooper says, “we’ve really seen satisfaction with our w xyz bar increase, and it impacts the average check itself.”

Tad Wilkes is managing editor of Hotel F&B.

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