Safe Bet: A Casino Food Cart Village

Creative stations at Barona Resort & Casino put the cart before the house.

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Barona Resort & Casino’s F&B Director Clark Hickey and Executive Chef Duncan Firth strive to stay ahead of guests’ needs. Player requests for certain types of street foods led the San Diego-based casino to add mobile kitchen carts in its food court and buffet restaurants.

“We started to look closely at the types of food our players were requesting and realized the street food style cart model was a perfect prototype for delivering new options,” explains Hickey. “For instance, we had a huge demand for bánh mì [Vietnamese] sandwiches but didn’t have a space in the footprint of our Asian restaurant to produce them. So in 2011, we decided to create a bánh mì cart, and it was such a success. We’ve consistently added more.”

The popular bánh mì cart offers BBQ pork sandwiches,  BBQ beef sandwiches, traditional Vietnamese cold cut sandwiches, and marinated daikon and carrot salads. Other carts include a hot dog cart (all beef hot dogs, Polish sausage, and foot-longs); a pho/ramen cart (made-toorder soups including beef eye round, beef tendon, shrimp, Thai basil, fish cake, roast pork); a crêpe cart (with sweet and savory ingredients such as Nutella, strawberry topping, ganache, banana, ham, cheese, and mushrooms); a new pasta station (choose from spaghetti, fettuccine, penne, tortellini pasta, pesto, Bolognese, beef meatballs, grilled chicken, housemade sausage); as well as a buffet cart with rotating themes.

Barona saw demand for Vietnamese sandwiches but didn’t have the space to produce them in their Asian restaurant, so they created a bánh mì cart to satisfy customer cravings.
Barona saw demand for Vietnamese sandwiches but didn’t have the space to produce them in their Asian restaurant, so they created a bánh mì cart to satisfy customer cravings.

“The rotating cart started as a potato bar, but it wasn’t just baked potatoes,” says Firth. “We had yams, potato shells, curly fries, and lattice-cut potato chips with a ton of different toppings,” Firth adds. “It was so popular that our players and even our staff started submitting different cart ideas. It’s been a lot of fun for us to get such an enthusiastic reaction. We listen to all the ideas and do our best to incorporate them into our mix of offerings.”

Hickey says the additional themes mirror the variety of tastes and cultures that are reflected in the staff and the players in San Diego. The rotating carts have included sliders and sausages, chicken wings, Mediterranean fare, a nacho and taco bar, smoothies, tamalitos, and a summer salad cart featuring local produce.

A Big Deal

Just as important as the food offering, however, is the promotion involved in the unveiling of each new cart.

“Before presenting a new cart to our players, we make a big deal about it with all 3,000 staff members at Barona,” says Firth. “We want to make sure everyone gets to see and sample the food in our staff dining room. This way, everyone that works at Barona from housekeeping, to table games, to the casino floor, is equipped to sell the new concept to all of our players.

Carts should be visually appealing but also simple, durable, and workable for cross-utilization, says Executive Chef Duncan Firth.
Carts should be visually appealing but also simple, durable, and workable for cross-utilization, says Executive Chef Duncan Firth.

All departments at Barona, including visual design (responsible for customizing the signage and aesthetics of each cart), stewarding, the various kitchens that supply the carts, and the equipment vendors are heavily involved in the development of a new cart, Hickey says.

“There aren’t a lot of off-the-rack solutions for building and equipping the types of carts that we create here,” he says. “Putting together a cart that’s visually appealing but also effective and efficient for the cook is key. Think simplicity, durability, and cross-utilization,” adds Firth.

At a cost of any where from $5,000 to $10,000, the carts are customized inhouse and are fully equipped with hot wells, hand sinks, sneeze guards, and counter space for finishing items either on a cutting board, toaster oven, or induction range.

“We’re fortunate to have a talented facilities team that can add electrical, refrigeration, or water to the carts when we need it,” Firth says. “The buffet utilities are hidden inside hollow columns, which makes adding features to the carts much easier.”

Each cart is staffed with at least one cook, who encourages conversation and feedback.
Each cart is staffed with at least one cook, who encourages conversation and feedback.

Human Nature

In keeping with Barona’s focus on fostering relationships between staff members and players, as well as directly connecting with each player, each cart is staffed with at least one cook, who encourages conversation and feedback. On weekends and holidays, when the pace is busier, the carts are large enough to accommodate extra cooks.

“We’ve tried carts that are self-serve, but we found that the staffed carts are much more popular with our players,” says Hickey. “They enjoy the one-on-one interaction, and it gives us a chance to customize their experience. Again it goes back to listening to our players and reacting to what they want. They love that we are willing to try just about anything they can dream up. The number of appreciative and positive comments we get is staggering.”


Ashley Allen is an author and writer based in Leesburg, Virginia, whose work also appears in The Huffington Post.