Obie's Butler Pantries Make Room Service More Private
In the mystery of who solved the problem of intrusive in-room dining, the butler did it.
Hotel room service has changed dramatically over the past decade, primarily driven by budget considerations—in-room dining departments are often a money-losing proposition due to labor costs—and changing customer preferences. In particular, many guests wish to avoid someone entering their room for delivery, followed by small talk and signing the check before the sequence of service is complete.
In response, some hotels have dropped traditional room service, replacing it with something akin to a delivery drive-thru, where bags of food in take-out containers are placed in front of the door. Many of those properties also offer guests the option of going down-stairs to pick up their order, saving even more labor.
While many luxury hotels are keeping traditional room service intact because guests expect that option as part of the higher room rates, the face-to-face aspect of in-room dining delivery is sometimes seen as the least enjoyable element of that service.
At Obie Hospitality—a luxury boutique brand with properties in Eugene, Oregon, and Boise, Idaho—market research echoed that sentiment among their target demographic, who still wanted an upscale presentation for in-room dining but didn’t want to interact with staff in the traditional sense.
“Not interfacing with guests is really the antithesis of what we do as a hospitality company, but our guests prefer not to have people in their rooms delivering food,” says Brian Obie, president and CEO of Obie Companies, which owns and operates two hotels, with a third scheduled to open in 2020 in Eugene.
Obie decided the solution to maintaining chef-created plate presentations without face-to-face in-room delivery was to add butler pantries to each guest room of his new-build hotels: Inn at the 5th (currently rated number 15 among hotels in the U.S. on TripAdvisor) which opened in 2012 and has 69 rooms, and the 110-room Inn at 500, which opened in 2017.
The Obie butler pantries are approximately the size of a small refrigerator (2’ x 3’ x 2’) and can be accessed from the hallway. After a customer calls in his or her order, and it’s prepared, a delivery person unlocks the butler door outside the guest room and places the tray inside the pantry. Then, from a connecting butler door inside the room, the customer can retrieve the food from the pantry at his or her convenience. The main guest room door stays shut the entire time, and there are no noisy knocks to let customers know their food has arrived. Instead, they receive either a text or a phone call (which the guest chooses at check-in), and the bill is automatically charged to the room.
“I’ve traveled in Europe, and I’ve seen some of the old hotels where they bring food up through a dumbwaiter, and that sparked the idea,” Obie says. “I woke up one night and said, ‘Why don’t we just have another door—like a cabinet—to put the food into?’”
From a financial standpoint, each butler pantry can cost up to $750, which, says Obie, is one reason they’re not more common among budget-wary hotel owners. “If you have 100 rooms, for example, that’s an extra $75,000,” he says.
However, the operational benefits far outweigh the price, says Curt Asmussen, managing director of Obie Hospitality and former GM of Inn at 500. He says the butler pantries add four distinct advantages to the hotel experience: convenience, privacy, security, and cleanliness.
“Convenience and privacy mean having items delivered to your butler pantry and not having to answer the door or be disrupted in the room at all,” he says. “Security is something we’re always focused on, especially with women, who make up nearly two thirds of travelers. Not having to open your door and let somebody into your room gives our guests peace of mind when they order.
“Cleanliness is a benefit both inside and outside the room,” Asmussen continues. “The butler pantry creates a space to put the tray away after eating, keeping dirty dishes out of view in the room. Outside the room, we’ve all been to hotels where the front desk team gives you a great welcome and you head up to your room, and as you walk down the hallway you notice one or more room service trays with half-eaten food and other waste. That can erase your positive first impression from the arrival.”
Keeping trays and dishes in the butler pantry and out of the hallway also pre-vents them from being broken or stolen, protecting inventory. Guests can call down to the front desk when they want their tray picked up from the butler pantry, or if they leave it in the pantry, housekeeping will remove it since they clean the butler pantries daily.
From a culinary standpoint, the butler pantries allow chef-crafted dishes to maintain their presentation from the kitchen, compared to the bag-drop room service alternative described earlier.
“We can create excellent plate presentations and offer multiple dishes because the butler pantries have two shelves. You can get a good amount of food inside them, and people can offload it any way they want, rather than having a server come in and put it on a desk or table,” says Richard Langston, chef/owner (and James Beard nominee in 2014) of Richard’s restaurant at the Inn at 500, which also handles room service at the property. About 6% of Richard’s sales come from in-room dining, and they’ve seen an increase in room service orders this year, averaging about 150 per month.
Staff at Richard’s can quickly deliver food without the interruptions of traditional delivery and the check-signing procedure, and return to the restaurant to focus on other tasks, making more efficient use of labor. The same applies to Inn at the 5th, where Marché restaurant next door oversees in-room dining.
Both Obie hotels are relatively new, opening in 2012 and 2017, so there haven’t been any maintenance issues with the butler pantries yet. Those at Obie have discussed adding lights or some kind of electronic notification when a finished tray is ready to be picked up, but it’s not a priority, since the butler pantries in their current form are highly rated on guest feedback surveys.
“It’s one of our most talked about features in online reviews,” Obie says. “The butler pantries turned out to be a signature addition for us, and we really take pride in having hotels that are designed specifically for our guest needs.”