Grande Lakes Orlando: Remote Hotel Event Logistics
Whisper Creek Farm adds a reason for groups to stay on-property while feeling far away.
Grande Lakes Orlando figured that if events on the grounds and packages involving on-property gardens are a good idea, then giving them an even more remote feel—without ever leaving the property—is an even better plan. After all, they had the space.
The 500-acre Grande Lakes estate is home of both the JW Marriott Orlando and The Ritz-Carlton Orlando Grande Lakes. Also on the property—a half mile from the JW Marriott and a mile from the Ritz—is Whisper Creek Farm, an 18,000-square-foot event space with an adjoining fruit and vegetable garden. The space can accommodate smaller groups for intimate plated dinners and up to 600 for reception-style events. The Whisper Creek concept continues to grow and evolve, but it began with a much smaller scope, as John Janucik, executive chef at the JW Marriott Orlando, recalls. The first garden was for sourcing of ingredients for the hotel’s Primo by Melissa Kelly restaurant.
“We kind of adopted Melissa Kelly’s concept from Maine, where she has a full farm, and pretty much everything comes from the land for her,” Janucik says. Then, they came up with the concept of Whisper Creek Farm: The Kitchen, a lobby-located restaurant which would draw from Whisper Creek Farm, the now-expanded outgrowth of that initial garden. “We’ve got about 7,000 square feet of vegetables and fruit. Then, we had some issues with the deer and wildlife getting in there, so we put up a fence with a couple gates. It grew and became what it is now.”
The space around the garden had a whisper of its own, inspiring the team to use it for events. “We put a big picnic table out, right in front of the garden,” says Janucik, who has been at the property about two years. “Like we do chef’s tables in the kitchen for site visits, we started to do some things out there. Obviously, summer is a tough time for that, so it’s more so in the winter months, where it gets a little cooler outside. From there, we started to do small events out there, and it became very popular.”
“The farm is something we developed as an oasis for guests to go that’s incredibly different,” says Tim Blunk, associate director, meetings and special events, at the Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes. “It was concepted as a space where we could garden, have livestock, and source ingredients for our restaurants.”
Row by Row
Events started around four years ago, for smaller groups of 200 to 300. Soon, Grande Lakes expanded to use more of the available space, adding chicken coops and a duck run. They also raise quail now and have increased the size of apiaries for honey production.
“Whenever we do events out there, we try to tie all of that in,” Janucik says. “We use the chickens, ducks, and quail primarily for egg production, and the honey we use everywhere in the hotel, including in our Surplus beer.” More recently, the capacity for events has risen to upwards of around 850, for standing receptions. There is no minimum group size, but groups must buy a $5,000 minimum package.
Events usually take place at night, with string lighting on posts for subtle illumination. Janucik describes it as “farm chic,” with picnic tables, communal seating and candles on tables. Many events will include live music on a small stage in the back area.
As for the food itself, Janucik prefers to put together menus made to order, usually incorporating onsite grills. “We’ll cook steaks, and we have a big smoker, so we can do brisket and ribs—more of an upscale country barbecue,” he says. “But we’ve done weddings out there also where we do plated filets, grilled there. Plating is more difficult for that, but we’ve done that. We want to stay local and seasonal, so whatever we’re planning out there at the time, that’s how we build the menu.”
Janucik’s team can break up the space with four or five action stations, such as a pork belly station near the grill and something like short ribs or a brisket dish on the other side. “We’ll have a cold buffet set up with stuff like salads and mason jars,” he says. “Everything’s individualized more than in a regular buffet, on smaller plates, so people can grab them and taste different things. We’ll have a bar set up with some cool bourbon cocktails or whatever the bartender’s working on that day—like a bacon-bourbon smash or infuse a drink with honey from one of the apiaries. They can talk through it with the guests about where everything came from.”
While there is a basic farm menu as a starting point, each group’s menu is customized, based on both group preferences and what’s available seasonally. “We have Fresh Point, which is our main produce company, so if it’s a large group we can’t service from our farm, they’re our liaison to the small farmers,” Janucik says. “They’ll give us a weekly chef sheet of what’s available, and we can build the menus from that.”
Events at Whisper Creek Farm are labor-intensive to produce. “If we’re doing 200 people, we’ll need a leader and maybe four to five stewards,” Janucik explains. “They will load up the truck with all the stuff, drive it over there, set it up—trash can areas, break-down stations. They’ll usually have to make three trips with the truck: one to bring out equipment, another to bring trash receptacles and empty Queen Marys for breakdown stations, and the last is usually for the plates, glassware, and silverware.”
“We’ve really turned our production area at the farm into something very useable,” Blunk says. “We’ve got a whole arrival area for vendors and our culinary and banquet staff. It’s a gravel parking area that gives them the ability to work, but it’s still hidden behind the oak trees and foliage.”
Usually, Janucik says they have one cook on each station in addition to Janucik and one or two sous chefs to make sure everything is running smoothly. For a banquet, they use a banquet captain, who is in charge of the event. “Depending on the type of event, for 200, you’ll have 15 servers and three back-aisle people who will run food to the buffets and replenish,” he says. “You’re looking at maybe 30 staff members.”
Because of the extra steps required to host events at the farm, the Ritz-Carlton only holds about 30 events per year at the farm, Blunk says. But that low number also owes to seasonal weather changes. Generally, the farm will host from October through March, and then the rainy season comes and it becomes “a little dicey,” Janucik notes.
“December’s pretty quiet for the hotel; it’s more of a leisure house,” he says. “November is 50/50 with Thanksgiving in there, so really January, February, and March is our big period out there. We could do two functions a week out there when we’re rolling. Maybe more in the first quarter. Then we have a few scattered throughout the summer.”
But the JW Marriott does tours of the farm for any guest who wants to take a look, and front desk staff talk it up. “Whisper Creek Fables,” launched in early 2018, Janucik says, is starting to get popular; guests can go out into the picnic area, have a tour of the whole farm, and pick some things for the staff to prepare for lunch or an early dinner.
Tasting excursions are also an option for groups, Blunk says. “We’ll bring in sommeliers or cicerones and put them in the middle of the garden, and we’ll pick fresh products from the garden, such as radishes or strawberries—something completely edible we can do pairings with,” he says. “It provides a sense of entertainment for the guest.”
Building on the Buzz
Even with the growth to date at the farm, there is still precious little storage capability there. So, hotel staff load plates and china onto a box truck and take it to the farm. Grande Lakes recently poured a concrete slab/sidewalk to allow staff to roll carts and tables down from where the truck is parked. Before, it was difficult to pull it through a dirt area, Janucik explains. A small barn allows for storage of a few tables and other items, but not much.
“We work closely with Hello Florida, so depending on the scene and décor package, they will provide tables and chairs a lot of times,” Janucik says. “They have farm tables. Logistically, we don’t have the storage to have those on property somewhere. If we don’t use them, we bring our round tables from our banquet facility, but 99% of the time we do a décor package where Hello Florida provides tables and chairs.”
Currently, Grande Lakes is working with two farmers they’ve hired as well as a beekeeper, who goes out twice a week to make sure the bees are healthy and helps harvest the honey. “We’re trying to build the apiary,” Janucik says. “We have some offsite as well, so we can supply everything with honey. We’re up to 10 hives, and we’re going to try to get up to 20 by this time next year.”
But who is tending the gardens themselves? Janucik’s team works with a company called Bumper Crop, owned by two farmers who take care of the on-property gardens at the farm and elsewhere. “We have a small one at Quench, by the pool; we have one at Primo; and at Whisper Creek. We’ll get with them about what grows well in Florida and which times of year, and we sit with them and plan out six or eight months in advance of what we’ll plant. That’s how we go about building our menus, knowing what’s going to be available in the summer or winter. Quarterly we change everything, but really we change them every two weeks, with small tweaks of what’s out there.”
The evolving concept has met a distinct need for group clients.
“When I’m listening and doing discovery with a group or association, there are key words clients share with us—that they don’t know they’re sharing with us—that tell us whether the farm is a fit,” Blunk says. “They say they want something ‘unique,’ something ‘organic,’ something they ‘can’t see every day.’ They don’t want to be poolside or on a lawn or golf course—maybe they did that last year. They want to do something that takes them away from the resort, but still on-property. When you’re at the farm, you’re transformed.”
In overseeing events at Whisper Creek Farm at Grande Lakes Orlando, JW Marriott Orlando Executive Chef John Janucik has gleaned two important pieces of advice for hoteliers looking to take advantage of semi-remote pastoral areas:
1. Have a smooth (cement) pathway to move equipment.
“That was our biggest challenge, trying to wheel Queen Marys and carts down a dirt path,” says Janucik. “That didn’t work well at all. But you don’t want it to be too visible either; you want to keep that farm look.”
2. Consider a shelter structure that maintains the vibe of the venue.
“This is a great idea we’ve toyed with, but haven’t been able to do it yet, because of permitting. We’d like to build a big barn out there. Weather plays such a huge role, especially in Florida. If the rain’s coming in, we have to make the decision whether to keep it outside. We don’t want to bring it inside, because it’s not the same venue at all. But if we had a big barn out there, then we could actually do the event inside if the weather started turning on us. And that would also give us a place for storage. We could purchase more tables and keep them out there. It’s complicated with the permitting, but if we did it all over again from the beginning, that would be a key learning—to have an indoor backup. If we had air-conditioning, too, we could do a lot more events in the summer.”