In 2010, F&B management at Hilton decided to confront what had become a dollars-and-cents dilemma regarding room service. In particular, Hilton’s venerable New York Midtown property was “literally down to 30 or 40 breakfasts a day, and we have almost 2,000 rooms at that hotel,” explains Tom Walters, senior VP of F&B, Hilton, Americas.
“The consumer was not utilizing room service and we had a huge financial commitment to in-room dining, but there was no return on it.”
At the same time, Midtown’s well-reviewed, signature Italian venue Etrusca was also suffering. “It was one of the better Zagat-rated Italian restaurants in Manhattan, but it did very little business because it wasn’t what the hotel guest wanted,” Walters continues. “And then we had our three-meal restaurant [Marketplace] which was vibrant at breakfast, just okay at lunch, and dinner was quiet. So, when we assessed the landscape of what our guests actually wanted and what made the most sense for the hotel financially, we knew we had to evolve.”
Hilton’s confluence of conundrums in F&B eventually led to a bold concept called Herb N’ Kitchen [HNK], which debuted at Midtown in September 2013. Since then, four other HNKs have opened [Hilton Manhattan East, Hilton Chicago, Hilton London Metropole], with 10 more in the pipeline. HNK is the brand’s ultra-flexible lobby venue combining grab ‘n’ go, sit-down, take-away, retail, and a much-publicized room service reinvention.
While HNK replaced Midtown’s costly traditional room service department—doing away with carts, trays, dishes, plate covers, extended wait times, delivery surcharges, and staff assigned only to in-room dining—the execution of room service never vanished, contrary to some reports that Hilton was “killing” this historic hotel option.
“I think some of our guests didn’t know what was really happening because of reports in the media.” says Jason Tresh, director of F&B at Hilton Midtown. “Some said Hilton New York was not going to have room service any longer, which is entirely untrue. Our hotel has always offered room service, and now we do it in a different fashion through Herb N’ Kitchen.”
The in-room dining template for HNK was designed around contemporary guest “need states.” This means that depending on the time of day and a customer’s personal situation—just arrived from the airport, returning from a meeting, working in their room—he or she can choose to order from HNK in person and carry the food up to the room or call HNK from their room and have it delivered in eco-friendly HNK carryout containers and bags, similar to a quick-serve or home delivery option. The order is handed to the guest through the door, with no carts, no time-consuming hospitality rituals with the delivery person, and no service charge tacked on to the bill.
“Our S.A.L.T. [Service And Loyalty Tracking] scores and our customer comments told us the traditional way of room service was too expensive,” says Walters. “It took 40 to 45 minutes, sometimes an hour, from the time of the order to the time it actually ended up in the room. With Herb N’ Kitchen, we reduced the cost by 30% to 40%, and delivery is usually within 15 to 20 minutes. No one enters your room, you don’t sign a check, and it’s less intrusive. The vast majority of our guests like this solution much better than what we had before.”
Tresh adds that Midtown used to post a trip charge on the old room service menu, “so we would charge $5.50 per person just for ordering. We’ve eliminated that fee with Herb N’ Kitchen, and our streamlined approach has allowed us to reduce menu prices.”
Another motivator to re-invent room service was based on what many full-service hotels witness in their own lobbies every day.
“We’ve seen droves of pizza boxes and delivery bags brought into the hotel and guests coming down to pick those up, along with customers that carry in outside food and bring it up to the rooms,” says Shawn McGowan, senior director of F&B, brand initiatives, and programs at Hilton. “That’s where we were losing our sales opportunities. It was our guests’ way of saying we weren’t meeting their needs from a price point, product mix, or speed of service.”
When a customer opts for in-room delivery from HNK, one of the venue’s staff delivers the order to the room—just a knock and bag exchange without entry—then returns to work in HNK. Those at Hilton say this model saves a considerable amount of money, since there isn’t a separate room service kitchen, captain, order taker, delivery personnel, and an inventory of vessels to be collected and cleaned daily.
“The jobs at Herb N’ Kitchen are cross-utilized, so we have people working as a cashier one day, then stocking the next day, then they’re a barista after that. We spent about two weeks training everybody on each of the different roles,” Walters says.
At Midtown, many of the former room service staff transitioned over to HNK, while “a handful of people that were hitting retirement age didn’t want to take on a new role, so we gave them a severance package, and they left us. But the majority of our team members stayed and are working in Herb N’ Kitchen. It was a huge effort to change their mentality from just room service to being guest-facing inside Herb N’ Kitchen,” Tresh says, adding that Midtown worked with noted consultant Shane Green to help transition staff.
The Midtown HNK is the brand’s full-option flagship, with 250 seats, approximately 7,200 square feet, 14 front-of-the-house staff, and another 10 cooks in the kitchen. Tresh says those numbers can change depending on business levels. Hours are from 6 a.m. to 1 a.m., seven days a week.
Other HNKs, such as Manhattan East, and London, have a smaller staff because they’re using the flexible Herb N’ Kitchen Market footprint, which replaces the traditional hotel gift shop, while adding basic grab ‘n’ go and retail options.
McGowan says it’s crucial to assess each Hilton property before deciding which version of HNK fits within the hotel, so they’re not shoehorning a cookie-cutter concept into a lobby. “Wherever we have the most footfalls is where we want Herb N’ Kitchen positioned, so we’re driving as much business as we possibly can,” he says.
Midtown’s HNK was built in the same lobby footprint as Marketplace and an adjacent Starbucks. Both are gone now. Midtown’s room service department is also gone, but not all of its equipment is. “We’ve repurposed a lot of it,” says Tresh. “Our room service tables and carts are being used in banquets to move product around, and our hot boxes are still utilized for food transportation.”
Herb N’ Planning
Walters, McGowan, and others at Hilton corporate, along with select consultants, took approximately 18 months to plan what would eventually become the first HNK in Midtown. In the process, Hilton considered several other ideas: a branded restaurant from a “very well-known food magazine,” according to Walters, featuring interactive F&B; a breakfast-only venue; and a basic, no-frills grab ‘n’ go option.
Once Hilton’s team went further into the research process, they realized a gourmet market similar to those of Dean & DeLuca, Eataly, Harrods, and Selfridges, was the direction they wanted.
“We visited all those places, as well as other relevant grab ‘n’ go concepts in New York and Chicago, and we studied how they were packaging their items, and implementing them within their concept and space. We wanted to make sure with Herb N’ Kitchen that we achieved that upscale gourmet market look and feel, not only from the instore presentation but the packaging as well,” says McGowan.
The packaging played a key role in menu development, since food needed to be portable and “maintain its integrity if it’s delivered up to the rooms,” notes McGowan. “Packaging helped determine how we identified products that should go on the menu.”
The top-selling item at Midtown’s HNK is flatbread pizza, using dough that’s made in-house from scratch. Tresh says a gluten-free version of the flatbread is also a hit.
Populating the menu with regional products is another successful sales strategy for HNK. For example, at the Hilton Chicago [see sidebar below] the top-selling food item is Connie’s Pizza—a local institution. Other offerings include Black Dog Gelato, Skinny Pop Popcorn, Filbert’s Soda, Frango Mints, and produce from Windy City Harvest. The hotel’s rooftop garden also provides tomatoes and herbs for other dishes. Local favorites on the Midtown menu include NYC’s Murray’s Cheese, Brooklyn Lager, Brooklyn Pita Chips, Pat LaFrieda burgers, and more.
Midtown doesn’t rely on local customers to sustain HNK’s business, but Tresh says office workers do visit for breakfast and lunch, while Chicago’s HNK sees about 15% neighborhood guests. However, HNK was created with inhouse customers in mind, giving guests the lower-priced menu they want, their choice of lobby pickup or no-fuss delivery, while keeping those F&B dollars in the hotel.
“We’ve seen incremental gains in the average check and in revenue per occupied room, so it’s been wildly successful, and we’re very pleased with how Herb N’ Kitchen has been received,” Walters says. “Before [Midtown’s room service department and Etrusca/Marketplace combined] we were almost seven figures in the red, and now we’re cost-neutral.”
Michael Costa is editorial director at Hotel F&B.
This feature is one of our Reader Favorites. It originally appeared in the November/December 2015 issue of Hotel F&B and is updated frequently.
Hilton Chicago weaves Herb N’ Kitchen
into its traditional room service program.
The 1,544-room Hilton Chicago was built in 1927, and befitting a hotel with decades of history, many of its clientele expect certain hospitality traditions such as room service to remain unchanged.
“We’re a very big convention hotel, we have some of the largest premier rooms in the city, and our hospitality suites are used throughout the week,” says Deanne Kelly, F&B Director at Hilton Chicago. “Those suites are serviced by our in-room dining department, and we’ve had a lot of feedback from guests in regards to in-room dining. Their expectations are that it stay the same.”
When Hilton corporate decided to put its Herb N’ Kitchen [HNK] concept [see main story] into the Michigan Avenue property, they respected client feedback by keeping traditional room service, even though HNK offers a streamlined, less costly approach to in-room dining. A guest can either pick up the order in the lobby, or an attendant will deliver it to the customer by handing a bag through their door, without a cart, tray, check signing, or other formalities.
Hilton Chicago added HNK as a second room service option for guests, rather than only keeping one menu and one delivery method. The in-room dining department is open from 5:30 a.m. to 1 a.m., so customers have “a choice of the traditional à la carte menu, plus items from Herb N’ Kitchen,” explains Kelly.
Whichever option the guest chooses, attendants from the in-room dining department are the ones delivering it, unlike at other HNK locations where HNK staff actually drop off the orders.
HNK also fills a daypart need at the hotel, since regular room service is closed after lunch from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. So during that afternoon period, “everyone is referred to Herb N’ Kitchen,” Kelly says. —MC