Trends: A Savory Side Hustle in Charleston Marriott Lobbies

Charleston Marriott adds profit-inducing F&B elements to an existing branded lobby F&B concept.

The Charleston Marriott uses local and other unique cheeses, including varieties from Bermuda Triangle in Arcata, California. “We do want to make sure we always have a supply of those cheeses, from a marketing standpoint, so we don’t want anything too unique or in too small a quantity,” says F&B Director Kristen Bowles. Pictured: Bermuda Triangle’s Truffle Tremor. Photo by T. Depaepe.

Dubbed “The Great Room” over 10 years ago, the lobby concept at many Marriotts, as the name implies, resembles a formal living room. Of course, a decade ago might as well be 50 years ago from the perspective of how the use and atmosphere of hotel lobbies have changed in that span.

Two hotels with the Great Room that have found a way to answer the more contemporary demand from guests in lobby function are the Charleston (South Carolina) Marriott and the North Charleston Marriott.

“They saw that everyone was converging in the lobby, and the idea was to open up the spaces to make them more approachable, bringing the F&B forefront into the lobby,” explains Michael Rosen, who, until leaving in December, 2016, was VP of F&B at JHM Hotels, owner and operator of the two hotels. “It made sense, but also, what can you do other than hummus or spinach-and-artichoke dip, to bring a little sexiness to the operation? It depends on your location and what kind of brand you have. North Charleston is where the [Boeing 747] Dreamliner is being built, and it’s the U.S. home for Mercedes and Volvo; it’s blowing up. We knew a more sophisticated, international crowd would be coming into North Charleston, not just looking for shrimp and grits and everything Southern.”

Rolling Out

In his travels, Rosen observed a lot of sameness in restaurant charcuterie boards or cheese boards, with pre-cut, mass-produced cheese. That’s when the wheels of creativity went into motion—literally. Presentation and quality would be points of difference in a new lobby cheese program.

“For us, it was quite easy in going back into more of a French service, with a cart,” Rosen says. Naturally, the first step would be to find the ideal vehicle. Rosen wanted a “clean, modern” cart, not a “chunky” cart with brass. One company he found online in Brooklyn custom-builds carts. “It was very sleek and very clean and made such that they actually called it a cheese cart. It has a rolling glass top, so you can display your quarter cheese wheels and things under the glass, and then there’s a little door where the paper, digital scale, and knives can sit. It’s all very self-contained for everything you need for the program.”

After finding the right rig, Rosen says the F&B team created the cheese presentation at the North Charleston property. “We’d bring five or six local cheeses, all within a one-day drive of North Charleston. It would be everything—a soft, a semi-soft, a hard, a bleu, and so on. We used Atlanta Foods International. They have one of the biggest cheese programs in the country. We would charge it by the ounce.”

Guests can try one- or two-ounce cheeses along with condiments. The cart in winter might highlight a spiced pear jam or quince jam, for example; summer could let a peach or muscadine jelly shine. “We went from a hummus plate that two people would share for $9 to an experience, where the guest is being educated on the cheeses, where we at least double the check average for two people,” Rosen says.

Staff education comes from vendor literature about the cheeses (“basically CliffsNotes about each creamery,” Rosen says). Cost for the hotel is around $16 a pound ($1 ounce), so the guest pays $6 to $7 an ounce. “You make your money back on a quarter pound.”

The cheese cart program went into action around November 15, shortly before Rosen’s departure, at both the North Charleston and Charleston (Downtown) Marriotts. The latter began with around 20 cheeses, narrowed them to six or seven, and has been alternating them, says Executive Chef Jeffrey Robinson. But it’s not all about direct profit.

“A lot of the cheeses are more high-end,” he says. “I’ve costed out some of the plates that we’ve done, and it’s around 50 to 52%. We knew it wasn’t going to be a 25% food cost item; it’s just something we wanted to offer to the guest, as a different experience, to remember Charleston by.”

Total Engagement

The North Charleston property uses Napa Technology wine-dispensing systems in its M Club, Marriott’s concierge lounge. In all the new Marriott prototypes, Rosen says, the old concierge lounge on the top floor is no longer; it’s on the first floor as part of the Great Room.

The cheese cart is also in the Charleston Marriott (Downtown), which was renovated in 2016, with more to please guests. “In that hotel, we put a 12-bottle Napa Technology system in the Great Room, in addition to in the concierge lounge,” Rosen notes. “So, you have the full experience. Now, the whole Great Room is engaged. People like the playability factor with their food. People like to be in control, to be able to go up and get the wine. And from a cost standpoint, we don’t have the loss.”

Wines on the wine wall (12 wines on tap—four per unit, three units)—are rotated often, sometimes based on groups coming in or Charleston city-wide events. “We look at the calendar and swap out the wines as appropriate,” says Kristen Bowles, F&B director at the Charleston Marriott. For example, in February, during the Southeastern Wildlife Expedition, they featured animal-themed wines. “The cart catches peoples’ eyes as they are walking through our Great Room, and it’s a conversation piece in addition to just wine.”

Bowles cites a 20% increase in sales at the wine wall because of the interest and conversation generated by the cheese cart. “A lot of people come over who may have been intimidated by wine or our servers’ wine knowledge,” she says “We set the cheeses out and offer them to guests walking by; we’re not necessarily charging for all of it. If they want to order a plate, they can. It’s a tool to get them into our space and introduce them to our wine program.”

The cheese cart is out from 3 to 6 p.m., so it’s “always in your face,” Rosen says. Someone who might not have a glass of wine during that time may have wine with their cheese, or if someone just thought of having a glass of wine, “now they have $30 worth of cheese on their plate.”

Robinson has noticed guests who’ve come back for the cheese. Because Charleston is such a dynamic restaurant town, the wine-and-cheese offering helps the hotel take what it can get on those nights a guest leaves the property. “It is a good chance for them to get in one course before they head out for the night,” he says.

But as often as not, the Great Room can help capture that guest on a given night. The hotel’s Saffire Restaurant & Bar is just “a stone’s throw” from the lobby space, and Bowles attests that after a nibble of cheese and a glass or two of wine, many guests are hooked for the evening. The savory Great Room beginning often continues into Saffire for other flavors and a full dining experience.

Rosen is quick to point out that the cheese cart and wine wall lobby program is not a fit for all hotels. “I don’t see this working out in a Marriott such as the one in Greenville (South Carolina),” he says. “Even though Michelin is right across the street, that hotel gets more of the transient guest that helps support it when the regular guests aren’t there. In a major city, it would be a massive home run; it activates your area. People like to be places where things are happening. A Sam Adams-printed menu and $5 well drinks isn’t going to cut it.”

Tad Wilkes is editor at Hotel F&B.