Inside Amway Grand Plaza's Thriving Baking and Pastry Kitchen
The high-volume bakeshop is a true underground success.
Underneath the storied Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is a hidden foundation for the hotel’s F&B program. Guests never see it, but the products produced there touch customers anytime they eat on property.
The 3,400-square-foot baking and pastry kitchen at Amway Grand creates key menu items for eight F&B outlets (see At a Glance sidebar), in-room dining, offsite catering, and banquets, plus the adjacent JW Marriott’s six.one.six restaurant, and events at the 250,000-square-foot DeVos Place convention center connected to the hotel.
Around the clock, a staff of 18 makes and bakes—on a busy day—2,000 rolls and thousands of dessert portions for restaurants and events, one-of-a-kind wedding and specialty cakes, fresh pasta and pizza dough, dozens of burger buns, breads, and pastries, and much more.
“We impact every event and every restaurant here, and we are interwoven into the day-to-day operation,” says Douglas Orr, executive pastry chef at Amway Grand Plaza. “The culture of our bakeshop is to service our guests, and to utilize our team for their talents. We have great people with attention to detail and positive attitudes, and it comes through in our products.”
While a skilled staff is vital to any successful F&B operation, Orr and Assistant Pastry Chef Sean Newhouse—who have worked at Amway Grand for 27 and 11 years respectively—cite their kitchen and the tools within it as a crucial component to delivering their daily delights.
“Our kitchen is U-shaped, and we have a bread side, a pastry side, and a dry storage area in between,” notes Orr. A 3,400-square-foot kitchen devoted just to baking and pastry is a luxury in today’s footprint-challenged back of house, but Orr and Newhouse insist not an inch of their real estate is superfluous.
Time is an Ingredient
“It’s our intention to impress the guest with presentation, then elevate that with flavor and texture,” Orr says. That statement could double as the guiding principle for Amway Grand’s bakeshop, since the goal isn’t simply to churn out as much product as possible but to ensure everything meets a high standard of quality.
“We use the best ingredients available to us, and we prepare everything in a timeframe that balances quality and execution. We try to achieve something people will want to photograph and talk about, but at the same time, when they taste our desserts we want to create a memory, or bring them back to a memory from their past,” says Newhouse.
One way Amway Grand’s bakeshop is able to balance high volume with lofty levels of quality is having three continuous, strategic shifts, so preparation and production are always in motion.
“When I first started, our main production time was on first shift, but it was very crowded with everyone trying to use the ovens and tables, so we moved that production to second shift, which gives us some overlap for banquets later. If they need more rolls for an event, for example, someone is there to help. So we now have total coverage and the workflow is more efficient,” explains Orr.
Staffing for shifts is broken down to four bread bakers (including lead baker, Rudy Seguria, who created and arranged the bread display on the cover of this issue) and five pastry cooks on first shift, while second shift is all production with four people, and third shift has three breakfast bakers.
The first section of Amway Grand’s U-shaped bakeshop is devoted to breads, doughs, and baking. Equipment for that area includes a bread moulder, two walk-in Doyon rack ovens, a Rondo Kombi dough sheeter, and a Thunderbird mixer.
This area also is responsible for making pasta and pizza dough daily for Wolfgang Puck’s two venues upstairs. The pizza dough in particular is a perfect example of the bakeshop’s “Time is an Ingredient” motto.
“That dough doesn’t even see an oven for at least eight days,” says Newhouse. “We have a seven-day pre-ferment, and from that we make a sourdough, and then we mix the dough, and it has to sit overnight before anyone can use it.”
Another specialty item created by Orr and Newhouse is the French bread served at JW Marriott’s six.one.six restaurant, which earlier this year transformed its concept to approachable classic French bistro fare. Like the longtime restaurant adage of bread being a harbinger of the meal quality to follow, they needed a baguette that would match the authenticity of the food.
“They were outsourcing their bread and having some difficulties with consistency. After a bit of trial and error, we came up with a dough that we par-bake in our deck oven and they finish at the restaurant, and it’s a perfect, crusty French loaf,” Orr says.
The pastry half of the U-shaped kitchen features an embedded, decades-old Ferris wheel oven made by Middleby Marshall, which Orr estimates was installed in the 1920s when the hotel was called the Pantlind and has been rebuilt four times since 1987. There are five shelves that hold six sheet pans each, for a total of 30 sheet pans baking simultaneously. It has a steam control for better bread crusts, and it’s used to bake pies, puff pastry, and much more.
“That oven heats and bakes the most evenly out of all our other ovens except the convection ovens. I can’t imagine the hotel without it,” Newhouse says, adding that a closet next to the Ferris wheel oven is serendipitously warm enough to keep their chocolate melted for on-demand use.
The pastry area is where wedding cakes, portioned desserts, chocolate sculptures, sweet amenities, seasonal gingerbread houses, and other items are created. “Everything is sectioned off, and we have two production tables for banquets, a table for restaurants, and a table for cakes, so everyone has their own station and their own space to work,” says Newhouse.
Orr says that their highest-profile items are “wedding and special occasion cakes. We’re known for having not just high-quality cakes but the talent in our bakeshop to do just about anything the guest has in mind.” One example Orr is most proud of is a 90th birthday cake for former President Gerald Ford, who was raised in Grand Rapids.
“The special occasion cakes are more challenging than the wedding cakes,” Newhouse says. “People come in with photographs of what they want their cake to look like, so we try to replicate it using different kinds of textures, sugars, and chocolates.”
According to AHC+ Hospitality Corporate Executive Chef Josef Huber, both Orr and Newhouse are “passionate about what they do and are extremely detail-oriented. We can show them a picture of a handbag that a client wants replicated as a cake for their rehearsal dinner, and they’ll put the time and effort into figuring out how to do it perfectly,” he says.
Portioned desserts are another area where Orr and Newhouse flex their creativity and resourcefulness. For example, the top-selling dessert at the hotel’s AAA Four-Diamond Cygnus27 is a chocolate sphere that slowly dissolves on the plate when chocolate syrup is poured over it. Another signature dessert, smoked chocolate flourless cake, came about because there was a surplus of cedar sheets in the kitchen.
“We like to challenge ourselves using molecular gastronomy, and even methods that are used for savory presentations, which we adapt for pastry. One day Chef Huber said, ‘Why don’t you find something to do with these cedar sheets?’ They had extras they were using for salmon. So we created a smoked chocolate flourless cake where we smoked the chocolate before making the cake, then put slices of the finished cake on cedar sheets, which we lit to produce a bit of cedar smoke for a memorable presentation,” says Orr.
“Without the equipment and space the hotel has given us, it would be more difficult to create items like the chocolate sphere or smoked chocolate flourless cake. I feel like I have unlimited freedom here to do whatever I can dream up, and I’ve never been told not to try something. So that keeps us invested in improving what we do every day, and I don’t think it’s a common situation at other hotels,” Newhouse says.
Even with a sizable kitchen and plenty of equipment, a minor wish list in the bakeshop includes a chocolate tempering machine (they currently temper chocolate by hand), a blast freezer, and an iPad for transferring dozens of paper recipes into their archives.
“We try to provide them with what they need,” Huber says, “and in return, they provide for our guests."
- Opened in 1913 in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as the Pantlind Hotel.
- Re-opened in 1981 as Amway Grand Plaza, and currently part of Hilton’s Curio Collection.
- 682 guest rooms, 12 Junior Suites, 21 Tower Luxury Suites, nine Plaza Luxury Suites, and two Grand Suites.
- 47,000 square feet of meeting and event space, with four ballrooms.
- Eight F&B outlets (the AAA Four-Diamond Cygnus27, The Kitchen and The Kitchen Counter by Wolfgang Puck, Ruth’s Chris Steak House, the lobby-located Rendezvous, GP Sports, Lumber Baron Bar, and Starbucks) plus in-room dining.
- F&B revenues are equal to room revenues, with an approximate 50/50 split.
- Managed by AHC+ Hospitality, who also manage Grand Rapids hotels JW Marriott, Courtyard by Marriott Downtown, AC Hotel Downtown (Opening in 2019), and Hyatt Place Hotel Downtown (opening in 2019).
Amway Grand Plaza says ‘yes’ to the full spectrum of offsite catering.
Amway Grand Plaza offsite catering.
Offsite catering for hotels usually comes in two forms: larger events that are held at an independent venue or site and smaller jobs at businesses or private parties, which can range from multi-course meals to box lunches.
At Amway Grand Plaza Hotel in Grand Rapids, Michigan (see At a Glance sidebar) they combine both options for a collection of clients, which adds up to 20% of the property’s overall catering revenue.
Amway Grand allows a generous radius of approximately 50 miles from the hotel for off-premise catering, which has resulted in working every kind of location imaginable. “We’ve catered on airplanes, hilltops, boats and yachts, beaches, parking lots, churches, personal homes—you name it, we’ve been there,” says Josef Huber, corporate executive chef, AHC+ Hospitality (pictured above).
Amway Grand averages about two large offsite events a month, like weddings and gala get-togethers, then rounds out their off-premise business with smaller functions. Staffing for servers and culinary comes from the hotel’s existing F&B operation, so additional help isn’t usually required. Portable equipment, such as grills and transport carts, also is sourced from regular inventory.
Huber says focusing just on F&B and transportation is key to a successful ongoing offsite catering operation. That means renting chairs, tables, flooring, lighting, a DJ, and more, and letting someone else handle those logistics so you can concentrate on culinary. He also recommends sending supplies and equipment a day before, then food the day of the event.
“The one piece of equipment that is invaluable for off-premise catering is a refrigerated truck with a freezer section and a liftgate,” Huber says. “Also, it sounds obvious, but double-check that you’ve secured everything in the truck beforehand to prevent damage during the journey.”—MC
The benefits of putting down roots in your hospitality career.
It’s no secret that food and beverage professionals change jobs and employers often. At the management level in particular, rarely does someone stay in one place for more than a few years, and for many it’s an accepted part of rising within the industry ranks.
But at Grand Rapids-based AHC+ Hospitality (see At a Glance sidebar) stability in F&B has helped create a culture where deep knowledge of the operation leads to nimble moves, anticipation of concept changes, understanding guest needs, and continued profitability as a result.
“Our Amway Grand Plaza Hotel is like very few others in the world outside of Las Vegas, in that our rooms and F&B are equal in revenues,” says Gerhard Schmeid, VP/director of F&B at AHC+ Hospitality, which manages Amway Grand Plaza.
Tenure starts at the top, where AHC+ Hospitality VP and Managing Director George Aquino has been with the company for 26 years. Schmeid and Corporate Executive Chef Josef Huber have each been there for 21 years, while Amway Grand Plaza Executive Pastry Chef Douglas Orr and Assistant Pastry Chef Sean Newhouse (see main story) have worked at the hotel for 27 and 11 years, respectively.
“If you want to achieve a work/life balance, you’ll stop hopping around,” says Huber. “I think staying put gives you the chance to develop your team, who in turn will carry your thoughts and F&B mission through the way you taught them. After a while it becomes automatic. You don’t have to spend crazy hours at the job anymore just to make sure things are done how you want them to be done.
“Also, after 21 years, I can say I’m part of the community here. If I go out, people say hello and mention that I catered the weddings of their parents or kids, or we cooked for a local event they attended,” Huber continues. “You become a builder of relationships and a trusted person that guests and locals can talk to, and they feel good about coming back to see us.”—MC