A “captive audience” could be described in hotel terms as guests who don’t have easy access to F&B outside a property. This is often due to a remote location, or in the case of many airport hotels, sites near the perimeter of a terminal or runways. Because those guests have few choices beyond the hotel, operators can be tempted to put food cost ahead of quality in order to squeeze a few extra bucks onto the bottom line. That can leave customers feeling unsatisfied and uninterested in rebooking next time they’re in town.
“The F&B at an airport hotel should not be about sustenance. It should be about the guest having a great experience,” says Don Falgoust, VP of F&B at FelCor Lodging Trust.
That mandate of giving the guest a “great experience” is reflected in FelCor’s Tap & Tavern concept, with locations at the company’s Embassy Suites San Francisco Airport-Waterfront and Embassy Suites Dallas Love Field. FelCor has additional Tap & Taverns in the pipeline for other properties over the next several years.
“We were planning a renovation [at the San Francisco property] and our COO, Troy Pentecost, said, ‘I really want to do a pub concept.’ So we did a pub concept, which made sense for this hotel,” explains Falgoust. “We have somewhat of a captive audience and there aren’t a lot of options nearby, so that gave us the opportunity to create a place with a freestanding feel for our guests.”
The San Francisco Tap & Tavern opened in August 2014 and exceeded $600,000 in first-year revenues. Second-year revenues are projected around $900,000. Overall revenue is up 60%, and beer and wine sales have increased by more than 200% compared to the previous concept, which was a restaurant with a bar/ nightclub next door. FelCor turned the bar/nightclub into Tap & Tavern and transformed the restaurant into a lucrative waterfront event space.
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Tap & Tavern has 90 seats and combines inviting, streamlined pub décor with a mix of bar chairs, highboy tables, four tops, couches, a communal table, and seasonal outdoor seating. There is no hostess, and guests can choose where they sit. It has scenic waterfront views with just a walking path between the hotel and the Bay, and SFO’s runway is visible in the distance.
Falgoust and his team researched gastropubs and restaurants throughout the Bay area and Napa, looking for ideas (Falgoust calls it “pixie dust”) to incorporate into Tap & Tavern. The overriding influence from those visits is reflected in staff attire (jeans and Chuck Taylors) and on the menu, which is a single page of carefully curated choices.
“It’s centered around Bay-area craft beer, a regional wine selection of 90 points or higher from Wine Spectator, and approachable food made with local ingredients,” notes Falgoust.
Tap & Tavern’s beer program in particular highlights difficult-to-find and limited-production brews from nearby Speakeasy brewery, Almanac Beer Company, Bison Brewing, Knee Deep Brewing, and others.
“When we mentioned the word ‘hotel’ to some of these breweries, they said, ‘No way. We don’t want to be in a hotel restaurant.’ So we invited them here, explained our vision for Tap & Tavern, and also showed them which of their peers we selected for our taps. After that, they wanted to be part of our beer list,” says former F&B Manager Cecilia Harris.
Former Executive Chef Michael Soria and Embassy Suites Napa Executive Chef Graham Zimmerman worked together on perfecting a lineup of gastropub favorites such as fish and chips, burgers, wings, “Frenched” chicken breast (cut with the wing joint attached), steak frites, quesadillas, mac and cheese, and more.
All those items are created in- house using ingredients from Bay-area suppliers, and it’s here where Tap & Tavern makes the biggest break from a stereotypical airport hotel venue. It would be cheaper to source those items from a broadline supplier and reduce food cost, but Falgoust says that’s missing the long view of compounding customer satisfaction and profitability.
“Food cost is dictated by so much more than what you pay for it, primarily yields, price points on the menu, and the care used in handling individual ingredients,” he says. “When we do tastings, it’s always quality first. We never consider price until the end.”
Soria adds, “Every dish we make needs to pair with our beer and wine menu. It’s challenging, but also refreshing, because we have the freedom to handpick the best ingredients from local purveyors, so our creative juices are constantly flowing.”
The high-end ingredient strategy means prices at Tap & Tavern compared to the previous concept “may be a bit higher, but that gets completely wiped out because our sales volume is much larger than before,” Falgoust says. “I want our venues to be $1 million or more per-year operations. That won’t happen by serving mediocre F&B.”
The average stay at Embassy Suites San Francisco Airport-Waterfront is approximately 1.5 days, and “even though we have a captive audience, we are capturing more of that audience because they appreciate the quality,” says Fettah Aydin, the hotel’s GM. “We have the choice to operate on the lower end of the F&B revenue cycle with a cheaper product, but we’re making a lot more money by aiming higher.”
Michael Costa is VP of industry relations for Hotel F&B.
Photos by Daryl Zape.