It’s a quandary that sometimes keeps hotel F&B directors up at night: What is the weak link that’s holding back growth? First thoughts often rush to the cuisine and the menu. But it just might be environmental. One property keeps putting its finger on just the right move again and again.
At the Santa Barbara Plantation, a resort in Curaçao in the Dutch Caribbean, Jun’s Sushi began as a simple venue typical of many island resort lobbies; the front and back are open to allow sea breezes to flow through, with seating indoors and out. At Jun’s outset, a small sushi counter produced fresh items for people relaxing in laid-back lounge seating.
Rob De Bekker, director of operations, says when he started at the resort two years ago, he noticed Jun’s, new at the time, wasn’t doing well. He saw the strengths of the setting, but he soon keyed in on the biggest problem.
“We have a really pretty lobby with high ceilings and an amazing chandelier, with lounge seating all around,” De Bekker says. “We identified that people love to sit around in the lobby. It’s a great environment, conducive to having a great evening. But we also found that sitting in a lounge seat and trying to eat sushi isn’t practical. We found that if we had some higher seating, it would be more comfortable. So, on one of the terraces on the side of the lobby, we took the lounge furniture out and replaced it with five high-tops with four seats each. It’s only 20 chairs, but it really triggered people to sit down there. It’s overlooking some of the other dining areas.”
This one tweak at the end of 2015 communicated to guests that Jun’s was a dedicated F&B space. “Even if the tables are not all full, it would trigger people to eat in the lobby,” De Bekker says. “It really enhanced the flow of guests coming in. We upped our revenue 75% just because of that, year over year. The menu was already great, although we did do some menu engineering and tweaks, and changed to more up-to-date serving vessels. But the biggest contributor to the increase in revenue was the change in layout.”
Making Landfall at Shore
With that sea change for the better, it might seem natural to stay the course a while. But a restless creativity and forward motion of thought permeate Santa Barbara Plantation’s F&B department. Enter new F&B director Steve Vermote, who, with De Bekker, made the bold move of relocating the then-successful Jun’s from the lobby into an underused area within the resort’s Shore restaurant in December 2016.
“We moved it into Shore because, though we had a huge amount of revenue that came through Jun’s, we saw a demand for the beverage portion,” Vermote says. They sized up the limitations of the lobby setting and the opportunity to deliver a much better experience in Shore. “It was kind of tough in the lobby to get everything rolled out. On top of that, when you have a significant number of check-ins, they were flowing against Jun’s too much.”
Producing sushi for Jun’s from the Shore kitchen would be more efficient, De Bekker says. “It created a really nice dynamic between the two restaurant concepts,” he notes. “We have a lot of space in Shore, with a nice bar area, with a lounge area to the side that was always underutilized. We moved that around a little bit.”
That area is now called Jun’s at Shore, open from six to 11 p.m. Guests can still dine in open air but also enjoy craft cocktails from Shore’s expert bartenders.
Shore is a “semi-fine-dining restaurant,” Vermote says, but they had a lot of requests for sushi there. He says guests, for example, would say, “I’m hot, and I don’t want hot food right now. I want something I can have as a starter or a main course.”
Now, both concepts are one, divided down the middle by the bar. De Bekker and Vermote moved the lobby seating, which had worked well in the lobby, right into the former lounge area of Shore. “It looks perfect,” Vermote says. “People can choose between lounge seating and a higher table. In other words, it’s not 100% table seating with a silverware setting.”
Surf and Turf
With the bar there, not only has Jun’s revenue increased, Vermote says, they’ve seen an increase in food sales at the bar; the former bar bites menu is now bolstered by sushi platters.
“You can have 16 colleagues who can order a 16-piece sushi platter,” Vermote notes. “It feels a little more fine dining. A trend I also see there is that automatically as soon as people start ordering sushi, people tend to go from the ordinary beer to a higher class of wine or even Champagne. People associate these, more than beer, with sushi.”
The labor model hasn’t changed much, Vermote says. “Sushi requires a very minimal setup. Shore has an open kitchen, with glass around in it, so you can see it. In the past, you’d order sushi in the lobby, and you could see the chef making your sushi.” Now, people at Shore who are seated for dinner, not just those in the Jun’s corner, can see the sushi being rolled and also see their dinner being prepared. “On one side of the kitchen, we have a sushi fridge with two sushi chefs in sushi uniforms,” Vermote explains. “On the other side, you see flames coming up from the charcoal grill. It’s a very nice perspective.”
Meanwhile, Back in the Lobby…
The changes and relocation of Jun’s have even enlarged the opportunity for beverage sales capture in the lobby; there is still a bar in the lobby where Jun’s was previously, with more sofas—now that it’s not a restaurant—so people can enjoy the sunset in comfort. It’s ideal for sinking into the island vibe with, say, a glass of single-malt Scotch, without an awkward lap full of sushi.
“The lobby is a central location, so people now sit there and have a couple of drinks before they head into dinner,” says Vermote. “Before, people wouldn’t do that, because they had the feeling they were walking into a restaurant.”
While guests chill a spell at the resort and take their stays slow, the F&B leaders never sit still. The current incarnation of Jun’s is so successful that—you guessed it—they’re already planning to tweak it. Vermote says the progression of Jun’s has inspired them to transform Shore into more of a fusion concept.
“We’re finalizing details on that,” he explains, “but it’s one of the models we’re looking at, moving forward—with the full dining experience where you can have sushi, fusion, or a more fine-dining experience with a lovely T-bone. That’s in the pipeline for this year.”
Tad Wilkes is editor at Hotel F&B.