Inside Gaylord Opryland's Giant Hotel Commissary
The 20,000-square-foot back-of-back-of-house is large and in charge.
Many properties use commissary kitchens to feed staff and handle prep for a few menus. But the commissary at Gaylord Opryland in Nashville is to others as the Death Star in Star Wars is to a mere weather satellite. The massive Death Star was capable of destroying entire planets; the Opryland commissary facility has the power to blow up limitations on hotel foodservice.
The resort created the sprawling 20,000-square-foot commissary, separate and about a half mile from the hotel, in 1997 when it added its last section, the Delta section, to the hotel, including large banquet spaces. Matt Foreman, executive chef of conference services, explains that they saw a need for offsite kitchens. For example, instead of making marinara in five different kitchens onsite, wouldn’t it be better to have one person make 120 gallons and send it to all the kitchens on the property that need it?
“It condenses the labor force,” Foreman says. “It also gave us the ability to add a bake shop. All the breads and pastries are made by hand each morning and sent out—not just to the hotel’s restaurants and banquets but also to Gaylord Opryland’s affiliated attractions around the city, such as the Wild Horse downtown, the General Jackson Showboat, the Springhouse Golf Club, and the Inn at Opryland across the street. They all utilize the commissary. That’s why it was built: to supply items to all those places and to enable us to make things from scratch.” And, of course, the facility feeds the staff of around 3,000.
Flex and Flourish
Like many properties, Foreman says, Opryland strives for restaurant-quality food in banquets, and it’s in this arena where having this back-of-back-of-house is especially clutch.
“We seat up to 5,000 people for a sit-down dinner,” Foreman says. “The soups, the sauces, the meat fabrications, the baked goods are all made inhouse at the commissary, from raw ingredients. We don’t add preservatives and additives. We can control the quality of the food from the time it hits the door to when it’s served to the guest.”
The commissary also gives Opryland muscle to flex in customizing menus. “A lot of our clients and meeting planners want a certain style of brioche or bread, or they want whole grains introduced into the food,” Foreman says. “We can do all that and develop recipes for them, because we can utilize our pastry shop, our bake shop, and our commissary pump-and-chill.” They also smoke all meats at the commissary.
Specialized equipment drives the commissary. For instance, Opryland has exacting control over its meats’ flavor profiles thanks to a vacuum-chambered protein tumbler; they can put around 300 pounds of meat into it and marinate it in 45 minutes. “Usually it would take overnight,” Foreman says. The hotel uses an outside company that makes Opryland’s seasonings to their specs and bags them. “This way, the portion control is never off, and there’s no human error in putting the spice blends together.” The facility also includes a shop for breaking down steaks.
A cold-production kitchen makes pastas, salads, cole slaws, and more, and peels fruit. “Anything custom and cold, they’ll produce it for the hotel and attractions,” Foreman notes. On the hot side is the pump-and-chill kitchen, where they make all soups and sauces, which are pumped into bags and put through a chilling process “that looks like a cement mixer,” Foreman explains. “They’re put in super-cold water and then circulated for 30 minutes to a safe temperature. It cools down our ingredients, after we cook them, very rapidly.”
Blast chillers are also part of the prep. “In the commissary, say a piece of chicken comes through the door; it’s marinated and seared on one side, still raw, and placed into the blast chiller to cool back down to the proper temperature, then sent to the banquet kitchens for finishing,” says Foreman.
In the bake shop are huge proofers and four mixers that can do 250 pounds of product at a time, as well as a dough depositor for all the signature breads. “We bought it about three years ago for about $160,000,” Foreman says. “You feed dough into the hopper, and it will deposit dough balls the size you want, to make dinner rolls. At any given time, we can do 100 dozen dinner rolls, from scratch. We do a lot of baked loafs from scratch. We have an artisanal oven with a cement floor. You get a nice crust.”
Finishing the Job
Opryland has three specialized, relatively small banquet kitchens on the property, not in the commissary: pastry, garde manger, and a banquet hot kitchen. The latter uses four full-size Rational ovens that can fit a whole speed rack inside. This kitchen also has a six-burner range, three double-bay fryers, a flattop, a couple of kettles, 45 hot double-sided boxes, and a 1,000-square-foot refrigerator/freezer. It’s less equipment than one might find outfitting typical hotel banquet kitchens, because so much is prepped in the commissary, and these are “finishing” kitchens, Foreman says.
The bake shop at the commissary, for instance, supplies all the pies and cakes, but the pastry kitchen will do a lot of the “fine work,” says Foreman. “They’ll do all the signature desserts for the restaurants. For banquets, they do a lot of mini parfaits and desserts. They utilize mason jars and parfait cups. We don’t do cakes and pies as we did before; it’s more individual, so the guest can try two or three different flavors on our buffets. They do all the wedding cakes. Charcuterie comes from garde manger. Each kitchen has its own chef, sous chef, and supervisors.”
Myk Banas came to Opryland at the beginning of 2017 as director of culinary. His former property also had a commissary, doing sauces, dressings, and butchery. “I had an idea what the Opryland commissary would be—a larger version,” he recalls. “But when I got here I was blown away by what they’re able to do. You would never think a property this large, doing the volume we do, could make as much food as we do from scratch. It’s unbelievable. The commissary is a large part of how we’re able to do that. At a property this big, think about the amount of bread that’s used on a daily basis. It’s pretty impressive. And then there are all the dressings, sauces, and soups and everything. It’s really helpful to the chefs, not just in catering and employee dining, but in all the restaurants.”
When the restaurant chefs order food, they place them in the resort’s system. “They may need a case of tomatoes and then ranch dressing,” Banas says. “The system knows that ranch dressing comes from the commissary, so that order goes to the commissary to fulfill it just as a vendor would. Everything is palletized there and delivered. It shows up at the restaurant’s back door, and it’s a scratch product that they’ve had influence over.”
If a restaurant chef wants to change a recipe based on customer feedback, he or she can go to the commissary and have them customize or update recipes. “We essentially have our own factory where we can make the food we want so that we’re not as reliant on the house recipes of distributors,” says Banas.
Jason Kroll is one of the executive chefs, who runs about half the restaurants; Brian Owenby runs the other half. Along with Foreman, those are the three executive chefs on the property.
Logistics and Efficiencies
Banquets are a big business at Opryland, both in dollars and literal size. The biggest buffet was a lunch buffet a couple years ago, serving a little over 12,000. Foreman’s team had 30 different double-sided buffets going at the same time.
“The first people we seated were finished eating by the time we got to the end of the room,” he says. “We actually re-sat the ballroom in the middle of doing the buffet.”
Director of Catering Services Chris Brown defines “high volume,” in the Opryland world, as 2,000 or more. “Anything under that is average,” says Brown, who has been at the property since early 2017. “I’m still getting used to that being our average, but that’s the nature of this huge facility.” Formerly, Brown was director of F&B at Ritz-Carlton in Orlando, after serving as executive chef at JW Marriott Orlando Grand Lakes. Prior to that, he was at World Center Marriott, which was the largest property he worked at before Opryland.
The commissary fuels prep of food, but who is executing service at the event?
“You don’t necessarily have to schedule people just to plate up,” Foreman says. “We’ll pull people from other kitchens and have them plate up. For a plate-up of 5,000, I need six plate-up lines, all simultaneously going. If we have to pull in catering managers from elsewhere on the property, we will. When you’re doing numbers of that size, it’s an all-hotel event, and everybody chips in.”
Foreman says hosting multiple small events is more involved than having one big event. “One big event for 3,000 is one menu,” he notes. “If you have 30 small events, it could be five, six, or seven different menus going on at the same time. For lunch, we’ve maxed at about 25 different small parties. We typically try to menu-match as much as possible when these are sold to the meeting planners.”
They also offer groups an incentive to pick the daily buffet for that day; it might be a few dollars off the per-person price. “That’s how we drive our menu-matching and our efficiencies,” Foreman says. “It’s a lot easier to prep 10 items than it is 30 items.”
Additional logistical measures come into play to execute catering at Oprland’s offsite attractions. Brown says the biggest factor is timing, in how F&B is transported.
“It requires a good knowledge of how much you can fit on a truck and how you pack it. One of the biggest challenges we had was with our bag lunches. We now do box lunches so we can stack those boxes on each other on a pallet. They are produced in the commissary and delivered to our banquet back aisles. Servers take them and roll them out to the buffets for the guests.”
Refrigeration carts and hot boxes have proven a worthy investment, Brown says. “We keep up with the best equipment to maintain temperatures. Often, the food will be transported cold and heated onsite, which is a good way to maintain quality.”
The larger the facility, the more layers of management there are, and the more important communication becomes, Brown says. “The commissary is a whole additional department we must communicate with to make sure they get all the information they need to take care of our groups. That adds another aspect to the planning phase.” The attractions add another layer.
“That becomes part of our meeting experience—not only upselling those attractions, but managing through those as well,” says Brown. “We don’t manage all of them. The main one is the Opry House, which is a separate facility, but more than half our larger groups want an experience there because it’s so close, and they can accommodate groups of 2,000 or more. We manage the Wild Horse Saloon, and it’s an authentic experience that you can only get in Nashville; it gets our guests downtown. We want to make it easy for our guests to experience those but still have a one-stop shop in the planning phase.”
Standard recipes and records are also key in offsite catering, Brown says. “Equipment that is very important includes the unit that bags sauces, stocks, and soups. It puts them in a bag, and then you put these bags inside blast chillers that preserve the flavor. That goes into our refrigeration units to go out to locations. We also have one of the largest barbecue smoker units I’ve ever seen.”
Overall, says Brown, the mega-commissary is what makes meeting big expectations possible.
“Customers that come in are just like everybody else,” he observes. “They’re being asked to do more in a shorter period of time. Years ago, you’d have months of planning. Our top customers with larger groups now don’t necessarily have the time to put into the planning phase. Often, we’ll have a very large group come in, and we won’t get the specs until a month out. It’s being able to react very fast, get product, and create menus to provide the same experience as if it were planned six months ago. Having a one-stop shop for catering is important."
This feature originally appeared in the October/November 2017 issue of Hotel F&B. It is one of our Reader Favorites and is updated regularly.
This 120-gallon steam kettle is automated with paddles that stir the food and a graph that charts the cooking temperature throughout the cooking process. “This is used to cook our stocks, soups, fruit compotes for our baked goods, and stews,” explains Matt Foreman, executive chef of conference services. “It can also be used to mix our vinaigrettes and dressings, as the kettle has the capacity to chill foods also with cold water in the jacket instead of steam.”
For a property the size and scope of Gaylord Opryland, going big makes sense.
“The equipment in a commissary is not cheap,” notes Matt Foreman, executive chef of conference services. “It’s big and expensive. You have to have a huge operation to even consider a commissary or partial commissary facility. If it’s for a 400-room hotel, it’s not going to work.”
Foreman advises integrating sanitation systems and to have your employees trained on OSHA standards for all equipment. “The machines are big. Make them easy to clean.”
And, he cautions, don’t let your food quality suffer between your facility and the guest.
“Have a reliable way to deliver your food, such as trucks, and that’s a huge added expense. Our two trucks were $80,000 each used. There’s a lot involved. You’re not going to see a return on the investment in the first year or two, but you’ll see it down the road. That’s for sure. This helps us to really utilize everything we purchase and to make things inhouse instead of buying products at a premium from wholesalers.