When Taste restaurant opened six years ago at the Sheraton Philadelphia Society Hill, it replaced an already successful bar/restaurant combo (the 45-seat Wooden Nickel and 65-seat Hadley’s Bistro-American) that was generating respectable revenues.
Many hotels would be satisfied with a certain level of profitability in an F&B venue, but when Dallas-based owner/operator FelCor Lodging Trust reassessed the restaurant in 2010, they saw potential for more business. With a substantial investment they reconfigured the Wooden Nickel into the Taste of today and closed Hadley’s next door, transforming it into a breakfast-only spot and utilizing it as a small event space when needed.
“The previous concept was a traditional divided bar and restaurant serving traditional offerings that any hotel would serve, and with all due respect, it was uninspiring,” remembers Don Falgoust, FelCor’s VP of F&B. “We needed a bar-centric concept, so we got rid of the separate bar and restaurant and created one big space.”
Falgoust and F&B Director Larry Mullan spent several weeks scouring the city’s freestanding restaurants for ideas to incorporate into the 70-seat Taste, and today, it generates about $1.3 million in revenues, with steady year-over-year growth since opening. It’s also the flag- ship FelCor bar-focused venue that’s the template for numerous other profitable F&B ventures in the company’s portfolio. Here, we detail some key factors that make Taste a hit in the City of Brotherly Love.
STAFF STABILITY: Sheraton Society Hill opened in 1986, and many members of the F&B team have worked there for a decade or more, including (right to left) Executive Chef Tracy Cywinski (28 years), Bartender Anthony Ricevuto (26 years), and Mullan (18 years.) Taste Manager Matt Kaufman has been there five years, and two other bartenders have put in 30 and 20 years, respectively. “It’s a seasoned and tenured staff that’s extremely stable,” explains Falgoust. “Their buy-in and enthusiasm for the Taste concept has been crucial to its success.”
DÉCOR: Taste hasn’t had to alter its décor since opening, which is a testament to the forward-thinking FelCor design team. “The build-out of the room and color palette is reflective of what we saw visiting Philadelphia’s top freestanding restaurants,” Falgoust says. The Wooden Nickel had a seven-seat bar near the doorway, so for Taste, they moved the bar to the center of the space and expanded, with tables and booths populating the room around it. A new plush, recessed seating area provides a more private experience and is popular with inhouse groups looking for a nightcap. “Our clients used to go back to their rooms after a night out in the city; now they come back here for a drink and something to nosh on before retiring,” says Mullan.
MENUS: FelCor acquired a waiver from Starwood to operate free of any branded menu standards, allowing Taste to offer its own variety of constantly evolving upscale comfort- food and small plates, such as their meticulously crafted gourmet burger, quesadilla, and the number-one seller: the iconic Philadelphia cheesesteak. “It’s the best in the city, and that’s not just talk,” says Philadelphia native Cywinski. Mullan—also a Philadelphia native—agrees, while Falgoust adds that at 39 of 40 FelCor properties, the burger is the number-one seller. The lone exception is Sheraton Society Hill, where the cheesesteak rules the rankings.
BEVERAGE PROGRAM: Beverages make up 65% of F&B revenues at Taste, led by wine sales at 35%. Taste was the first FelCor venue to only offer wines rated 90 points or higher by Wine Spectator, and it’s now a FelCor standard. Regional Pennsylvania craft beer is also on the menu, including Philly’s own Yards and Evil Genius Beer Company’s Stacy’s Mom IPA on tap. Falgoust says there was initially pushback from staff about upgrading the wine list, but the results have made believers out of everyone. “I was told there’s no way we could sell wine for $13 to $15 a glass,” he says. “Our Wooden Nickel clientele expected a $9 glass of wine and that it be filled all the way to the top. But when you offer higher-quality wine at a higher price point, the guest will accept the upgrade.”
SUPPORT COLUMN STRATEGY: One of the design challenges facing FelCor was the presence of a column behind the bar—part of a row of columns in the room supporting the structure of the hotel above Taste. However, while visiting a José Garces restaurant in Philadelphia, Falgoust and Mullan saw how the celebrated chef turned a similar problem into an asset, and they transferred that idea to Taste. “We had every architect’s worst nightmare with that column, and we saw how José Garces turned it into a service execution benefit,” Falgoust says. The column at Taste is now built out with shelving and lighting on all four sides showcasing the restaurant’s red wine selection, while underneath, a storage area houses additional inventory and supplies.
DEMOGRAPHICS: Taste is located in Philadelphia’s historic and tony Society Hill neighborhood, and while the venue’s clientele is about 90% inhouse guests (many from visiting business groups staying multiple days), local customers continue to increase, thanks to recent housing construction in the area and multi-million-dollar condos right across the street. Mullan says the bar at Taste now has a several neighborhood regulars visiting multiple times a week.
UNIFORMS: Falgoust wanted a complete change from traditional hotel restaurant uniforms so Taste could better reflect what was happening at Philadelphia’s freestanding restaurants. Gone were ties, name tags, and semi-formal attire, replaced by blue jeans, Converse Chuck Taylors, a casual white button-down shirt and contemporary apron, as worn here by Taste server Soraya McCullough.
Michael Costa is editorial director at Hotel F&B.