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Turning Keys With Flying Spoons
Embassy Suites takes a generational approach when developing its new lobby dining concept.
By Michael Costa

(L–R) Embassy Suites’ Kris Beck, director, brand operations support; Rick McCue,VP for brand performance and support; and Cindy Patton, senior director, new product and service development.

Flying Spoons’ tableware, Fornasetti wall plate, identifying chandelier, and Howard Miller wall clock.

(L–R) Embassy Suites’ Patton, McCue and Beck enjoy comfortable seating in front of the Fornasetti plate collection.

Flying Spoon Floor Plan

They’re known as Generation Y, Millennials, and even Echo Boomers. Whatever you call them, this group of more than 60 million will rival their Baby Boomer parents in consumer clout.

While no can agree on which exact birth years define Generation Y—approximately between 1980 and 2000—there is consensus among hotel brands such as Embassy Suites that ignoring them now would be a mistake for the future.

“Embassy Suites was always a model designed by Baby Boomers for Baby Boomers,” says Rick McCue, VP for brand performance and support, Embassy Suites Hotels. “But as time passes, Generation Y is going to be our main source of customers.”

What this means from a food and beverage standpoint is the need for a concept that appeals to the on-the-go, meals-when-I-wantthem, where-can-I-plug-in-my-laptop habits of Generation Y.

Specifically at each hotel, the restaurant has to be replicated as a flexible, turnkey food and beverage solution for the new-build “Design Option III” Embassy Suites properties, which can be scalable from 150 to 300 suites, depending on the location.

The brand answered this challenge with Flying Spoons, a “hip casual” concept featuring extended serving hours, low labor requirements, and high design. It was three years in the making— the culmination of intensive research and beta testing at two properties under the pseudonym “Marketplace.”

The first officially branded Flying Spoons opens this fall in Jackson, Mississippi, and 40 to 50 more are slated to open through 2010. As ambitious as those plans are, Flying Spoons actually started as one simple idea.

“We said, ‘Here’s a box in the lobby blueprint. What makes sense in that box?’ And that led to where we are now,” says Kris Beck, director, brand operations support, Embassy Suites Hotels. “If I’m opening a restaurant in a hotel, I’m not opening the same old place that you see everywhere, because they usually don’t work,” he adds.

Generally speaking, Generation Y was raised in the era of computers and electronic gadgets, and they’re rarely without them, especially when they travel. When they eat, they do it on their own time. They want something fast, but not low quality, and usually carry their electronics with them during meals, so they’re likely to stay in a restaurant even after they finish eating.

Around these insights, Embassy Suites designed the framework for Flying Spoons:

HOURS: 5 a.m. to 1 a.m.

MENU: A handcrafted take on fast-casual cuisine, with salads, panini, soups, and light entrées, like lobster enchiladas. A Starbucks coffee bar is also part of the offering.

DÉCOR: “Hip casual,” populated with multiple seating choices, geared toward the length of time someone plans to stay: booths, traditional tables and chairs, tallboy tables, and wingback chairs with ottomans. There are also outlets in every area for guests to plug in laptops, MP3 players, cell phones, and other electronics. Each Flying Spoons has 45 seats.

LABOR: Minimal staffing, usually one or two associates on duty during most time periods. No hostess, restaurant manager, waiters or waitresses, or line cooks in the kitchen.

“I think we straddle fast-casual and full-service dining by hitting the middle. The restaurant invites you in without having to make a big commitment. You don’t have to feel guilty because you’re sitting with a cup of coffee and a cookie. No waiter is coming by with gritted teeth wondering when he can turn your table,” Beck says.

McCue says it’s not overly branded because there’s a danger in trying to be too hip, which would likely turn off their Gen Y customers, and Gen X for that matter, as they are extremely savvy when it comes to being marketed to. “There’s not a spoon hanging in every available space. We’re doing hip things in subtle ways, creating a sense of design to make it intriguing.”

In the back of the house, Beck says the key to this model’s success is how well it cross-utilizes food, labor, equipment, and tableware with the rest of the property’s food and beverage programs.

In Design Option III, Flying Spoons is 1,600 square feet. Previous Embassy Suites models had 4,000 square feet of restaurant space. But not every location needs a full-service, fully staffed outlet. The reduced footprint for Flying Spoons means the central hotel kitchen that’s used for banquets and the brand’s complimentary breakfast can also be called into action for Flying Spoons.

“The financial advantage is all upfront. It’s a 30 to 50 percent reduction in construction costs over previous models because Flying Spoons is smaller,” Beck says.

According to Jim Holthouser, senior VP, brand management, Embassy Suites Hotels, a typical year for the brand formerly involved “between two to five franchise deals. However, the first year we offered Design Option III, we sold 22 franchises. And last year, we sold more than 30.”

Beck says once the Flying Spoons kitchen logistics were decided, the next task was creating a menu and labor model that operated as a single entity.

“There are some items you can’t leave off a menu because of customer demand,” says Beck. “You need a burger, a chicken Caesar salad, and a club sandwich, to name a few. But then you look closer at those ingredients, and ask, ‘How can we cross-utilize those?’ Those core items led us to the rest of the menu.”

Using ingredients that span more than one dish—the crab for the crab salad sandwich is also used for the crab Caesar salad, for example— simplifies everything, including labor. Back-of-the-house prep doesn’t take long, and during slow periods, one cook runs the show, including making salads and sandwiches for guests at the counter.

“We can take somebody off the street and teach them how to work Flying Spoons in a couple of weeks,” says Beck. “Executing the menu is simple. Here’s your picture of the finished product, here’s the recipe, and it should look like this when you’re done.”

For hot food like soups and certain dinner entrées, Flying Spoons uses sous vide products, heated in a commercial microwave, which also saves labor.

Because staffing needs are low, Holthouser says Flying Spoons can easily stay open from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m., giving guests an early option before the 6 a.m. complimentary breakfast or a late-night snack outside of room service.

The same cross-utilizing philosophy extends to tableware and glassware. Flying Spoons doesn’t have its own high-priced customized pieces. Instead, they use the same type of flatware, 11-inch porcelain plates, and glassware from Libbey and Cardinal that are used for banquets, breakfast, and the nightly manager’s cocktail receptions.

All of the items can be used in other parts of the hotel if they’re needed, and they’re already back-of-the-house compatible with washing and storage. Beck says it was “a simple and easy decision” to continue using what they know will work at Embassy Suites, through vendors with whom they already have a relationship.

Once the overall concept for Flying Spoons was finished, Embassy Suites needed to test it. They set up Flying Spoons prototypes at their Fort Worth and Detroit Metro Airport properties under the name Marketplace and watched the outlets evolve without the pressure of having to succeed as an official Flying Spoons.

“We’ve learned a lot from those locations as to what really works for the customer,” says McCue. “Both places exceeded all expectations and hit numbers beyond what was projected.”

What worked, according to Beck, was “a lot of unexpected traffic coming from outside the hotel for coffee and baked goods in the morning. The properties thought the concept would be a guest amenity, but they’re attracting outside business from local passersby.”

He also says the Detroit Metro Airport location did very well in capturing business travelers for sandwiches and salads during the day.

At the Fort Worth property, he credits the coffee bar and an inviting interior keeping customers inside.

“Right off the bat we had quite a few folks looking for their daily Starbucks fix. But patrons also enjoyed having a place to sit down that’s a little bit larger but still has a cozy, intimate feeling,” says Ken Schell, general manager, Embassy Suites Fort Worth.

The outside business at the prototypes is a bonus for Embassy Suites, but Holthouser says they haven’t lost sight of targeting Generation Y as their long-term customer base and are confident Flying Spoons will be around longterm as well.

“We aren’t winning the J.D. Power and Associates award (10 years in the food and beverage category) because we give our breakfast away. We’ve always prided ourselves on the quality and consistency of our food and beverage, and I think Flying Spoons is just an extension of what we’ve done really well in the past,” Holthouser says.

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



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