Driving Brunch Covers With Improved Fundamentals
DoubleTree Jackson builds loyalty with better quality and presentation
Sometimes, the difference between F&B failure and success isn’t in creating a drastically new concept but rather in doing a much better job with the current one. At DoubleTree Jackson (Tennessee), a wild uptick in success at Sunday brunch came from just upgrading from a half measure to a full effort.
“The previous brunch was tired and felt like a glorified hotel breakfast,” says Sergio Ghio, GM at the property, owned by Memphis-based Cooper Hotels. “You walked in, and it had the feeling of something like a Golden Corral buffet.”
That was until Angela Winkler, who had worked at the hotel in banquets before pursuing a private catering opportunity, came back to the fold in 2014 as director of F&B. When she arrived, the Sunday brunch was averaging only 30 to 40 covers, Ghio says; now that tally is around 100 and on some Sundays as high as 150. Brunch revenues also have increased by 35% since Winkler returned. Service is in a ballroom next to the hotel’s restaurant Twist Midtown Grill & Bar. The latter accommodates any overflow from the former.
“Brunch was untapped market that Angela found when she looked at the marketplace,” Ghio says. The only real competition at the time, Winkler says, was the local country club, which does a plate lunch, not a buffet, and, of course, is members-only. And yet, the DoubleTree wasn’t pulling people.
Winkler began moving toward the retooling of the brunch, which re-launched about two and half years ago, by simply talking to guests about what they wanted, instead of building the menu around cost-effectiveness. Now, the presentation is more appealing, and servers interact with guests, and guests interact with guests. The strategy focuses on pleasing current guests to keep them hooked, and the word of mouth brings more.
“Half the brunch crowd are here every week, and they know each other,” Winkler says. “It’s almost like a family gathering.”
Winkler added some basic “hype” to the brunch offering, she says, such as shrimp presented with sliced lemons, more attractive desserts, and a fruit display. “We’re in the South, so they want Southern food.”
Listening to guests led to featuring fried catfish and a roast beef carving station every Sunday, while other items rotate. “Some is based on customer demand,” Winkler says. “If I have five, 10, or 15 guests ask when we’re doing fried chicken again, I’ll do it every Sunday. I do it based on the rotation but also customer demand.”
“What Angela has done is made it a true brunch,” Ghio says. “The shrimp alone and the way she presents it, as simple as that is, people take plates and plates of it. With the catfish and fried chicken, it’s a true Southern brunch.”
A Profitable Presence
In Jackson on Sundays, it’s all about the after-church crowd, Ghio says, and as soon as local services let out, a line forms in the DoubleTree lobby. “Angela’s got the hostess and runners; she’s made it so it’s an orchestrated event every Sunday,” Ghio says. “It’s more upscale in the presentation, with servers coming around and table-touching. She did everything right. It’s a fun, family atmosphere.”
Expanding the span of brunch has made a significant difference in sales as well, Winkler says. The meal period now ends at 2 p.m. instead of 1:30. “Now, we get that later church crowd,” she says. “That extra 30 minutes brings in another 30 people or so.”
The net effect has been a huge boost in loyalty from locals who now feel connected to Winkler and the staff. She is present at brunch, where the crowd is 5% hotel guests to 95% locals, nearly every Sunday. But when she has to be elsewhere, folks note her absence. “Whether I’m at Walmart or Kroger or getting gas later,” she says, “they ask, ‘Where were you? Why weren’t you there?’”
Though Winkler is a guest favorite, the biggest star of the menu is the shrimp.
“We’re not talking about tiny shrimp; they are giant,” Ghio notes. “They’re presented nicely in a big, open platter. It’s one of the first things you see when you walk in. You walk in and get your table and walk over to the food. They all go right for the shrimp.”
The success has come without the help of brunch cocktails adding to sales during the first hour of brunch, which starts at 11 a.m. “It’s a big Bible Belt community,” Winkler explains. “Mimosas start after 12.”
In the back of house, there’s no magic wand to credit for the surge in guests. Most of the ingredients come from a broadline supplier, other than produce for salads and fruit displays, sourced from a company in Paris, Tennessee. Equipment is ordinary but effective.
“Our convection ovens are very, very important, but the thing that we really use the most is the skillet, in which we cook all the shrimp on Sundays. It’s in the back of house,” Winkler says, “On the brunch we do have an action station. Miss Doris (Rupert), who has been here about 15 years, prepares the omelets, French toast, and waffles made to order.”
Though Twist has a direct entrance on the hotel’s exterior, that hasn’t been a factor in drawing people, Winkler says. “People have been coming so long, it doesn’t matter where they enter,” she explains. “The outside entrance does help for people who have never been here. It’s separate from the hotel, even though they are close together. For those who have never been here, it’s like an invitation into the hotel.”
View from the Top
Winkler’s brunch vision, cultivating local loyalty, hasn’t gone unnoticed at Cooper headquarters. “I believe our biggest asset in regards to the success of Twist is in our constant community involvement,” says Andy Laubscher, Cooper’s corporate director of F&B. “Although our restaurant is located in a hotel which is part of a worldwide brand, we are very closely involved with the local community.”
Ghio and Winkler keep the word out about the brunch via ads on local radio, but Winkler says the growth in covers is mainly due to the word of mouth garnered by impressing regular guests. “The regulars kept coming, and they’d tell people, ‘Hey, you should go try it again. It’s a lot better than it used to be. It’s flavorful and presented well.”
Social media helps expand the reach of that word of mouth to the Sunday church crowd, Laubscher says. “Quite often, communicating brunch menus and targeting that particular guest makes for great conversations and anticipation in some of the local church programs.”