Casino E&S: High Rollin'

Casino restaurants are becoming more customized and upscale to draw in players and hotel guests, keep them there and bring them back.

“In the past when casinos would put out a $1.99 buffet you weren't looking to make any money from the buffet, you were looking to make money off the gambling,” says John Egnor, president of JEM Associates, a consulting firm based in New Jersey whose projects include the Borgata Hotel Casino in Atlantic City. “Now, gaming has become another amenity as opposed to the real reason to go to the casino. It's not a casino anymore, it's a hospitality.”

The number of gaming or hotel positions to dining seats has almost become a 2 to 1 ratio, with 15 percent to 20 percent of the property's overall revenue coming from foodservice operations, Egnor says. In years past, the ratio was more like 7 or 8 to 1 with foodservice generating about 5 percent of a casino's overall revenue.

Part of the reason foodservice grew so much is because people began associating a specific type of experience with a particular casino. In other words, they started generating some individual brand equity. “Fifteen years ago, casinos were gaudy and all the same — you had the Golden Nugget. Now, you have Paris, New York-New York, Luxor — they're all highly themed places from around the world,” Egnor says. “They become destinations to visit, and I think that trend is going to continue.”

As a result, operators have sought to strengthen customer loyalty to their casino, or brand, forcing them to create venues other than gambling that make people want to stay and also come back, Egnor says. For one, they're using chefs' selling power to bring customers in the door and keep them there. And, they're offering added foodservice options.

“Customers can go to the snack bar for a quick bite, they can go to steakhouses, they can go to Italian restaurants, Asian restaurants, tapas bars, noodle bars ... their choices are almost limitless,” Egnor says.

At Harrah's Rincon Casino and Resort in San Diego, customers with total rewards cards receive points for gambling, regardless of whether they win. Similar to frequent flyer miles, customers can redeem their accrued points at the casino's restaurants and snack bars. “The points open up a whole new world that customers may not have experienced and bring them back again,” Egnor says. “People might have reservations about experiencing a gourmet restaurant because they don't want to spend $35 for an entrée, but if they have the points they're going to experience them.”

Mike Myhren is a 43-year veteran consultant and president of FSA Design (a division of dealer R.W. Smith & Co.) who has designed foodservice operations at multiple Harrah's, including the San Diego location, and has also worked on the Bellagio and Flamingo in Las Vegas. Myhren says casinos use the points to retain mainly their best players. “Eighty percent of the gaming revenue comes from 20 percent of the players,” he says. Harrah's also has a facility called the Diamond Lounge where the best players can go for complimentary beverages and snacks.

Myhren's work at Harrah's included ground-up construction of the casino buffet, plus two expansions thereafter — one was adding the Corner Grille, a 1,200-square-foot snack bar that serves hamburgers, french fries, gyros, tandoori oven specialties, and rotisserie chickens that guests can purchase with or without their player points and then take back to their room. The other is a 1,450-square-foot Asian restaurant, Fortunes, which seats 36 people.

The 8,000-square-foot, 370-seat International Buffet contains a variety of stations with foods from across the globe including Italian, American, Asian and Mexican stations, plus a carvery, salad bar and dessert station.

At the Italian station, sauté ranges for pastas and sauces line the front while a pizza press flattens balls of dough and a wood-burning oven cooks them at the rear. During the weekends, staff use the sauté ranges to make omelets during brunch. At the American Bounty station, a combination rotisserie and broiler display roasting meats in the front while operators unload the cooked items from the rear and carve them up out of site. However, at the carvery, meats like roast beef are sliced at the guest's view.

A Chinese range that accommodates two woks and a fryer make up the Asian station. Another sauté range sits at the Mexican station for fajitas and, again, omelets on the weekend. The back of the house consists of an elaborate production kitchen with four steam kettles, two tilting braising pans, a single-rack rotary oven, a single-rack combi oven, two steamers, three double-deck convection ovens, plus a broiler, griddle, open burner range, and fryers. The back kitchen also contains a “garde manger,” or cold food prep area, with tables and sinks as well as a 60-quart mixer, and a 45-quart vertical cutter mixer for slicing vegetables and other products.

A pastry shop in the back has a rotary rack oven, deck oven, convection oven, candy stove, a spiral and 80-quart vertical planetary mixer as well as a 20-quart mixer. The back also houses a small meat prep area with walk-in refrigerators, freezers and dry storage.

Myhren says designing casino kitchens differs greatly from designing traditional restaurants. “It's amazing how much business they can do,” he says of casino foodservice operations. “Buffets can feed anywhere from 2,000 to 5,000 people a day and it's not unusual to do eight turns. Coffee shops operate 24 hours a day, a casino steakhouse can serve 450 meals a day, and you have a lot of employees so you need an employee cafeteria.”

He compares designing various foodservice operations within a casino like putting pieces of a puzzle together. The key to making those operations come together to create a bigger picture, Myhren says, is adjacencies. “You're trying to get the right thing next to the right thing.” For example, at Harrah's, Myhren arranged the receiving dock and warehouse next to the kitchen so staff can pick up deliveries quickly. The main kitchen feeds into the buffet with the employee dining room close by so both can share the warewashing area. And both the main and employee dining rooms use the same china and tableware so dishes are not mixed up.

Harrah's main restaurant, Fiore Steak and Seafood, is located near the buffet for easy access to the shared production kitchen where the restaurant receives most of its product including soups, stocks, roasts, and salads from the garde manger. However, the restaurant does have its own 800-square-foot exhibition-style kitchen, 400-square-foot oyster bar, and 480-square-foot support kitchen with freezers and refrigeration.

What do all these high-end, high-volume casino restaurants require as far as kitchen design? You need some seriously high-end equipment, and make sure it's durable, as many casino foodservice operations run 24/7. Equipment must be able to withstand that wear and tear and not break down at a most inopportune time, which, in the world of casinos, can mean anytime.

“You don't want to have a piece of equipment out there that's going to fail prematurely,” says Alan Krakowiak, assistant vice president, project management, for Buffalo Hotel Supply Co. in Amherst, N.Y., who has worked on the Seneca Niagara Casino in Niagara Falls, N.Y. “You're going to be cleaning it constantly and using it constantly so you need equipment that's going to take the stress of a 24-hour operation. It might cost you a little more for that product but in the end the benefits outweigh the costs.”

If and when equipment does break down, having a 24/7 technical-assistance program is important. In addition, equipment should be easily serviceable. For example, make sure the control panel is easy to pull out and not buried or blocked behind pieces and pieces of equipment, Krakowiak says.

As far as equipment goes, not only do casinos purchase multiple units, they have the opportunity to purchase customized units. Designer brands and show pieces are growing in popularity as more and more casino kitchens take on an open, exhibition-style design.

Customization is the name of the game at the IP Hotel and Casino, formerly Imperial Palace, in Biloxi, Miss., a three-floor barge with a first-floor casino lobby ripped from its moorings by Hurricane Katrina last year. Casino owners were already considering renovating and expanding the property, and then the storm hit, giving them the urgency to do so. Ken Schwartz, president of SSA Design, worked with Egnor, of JEM Associates, to gut and reconstruct the lobby completely as well as the second-floor buffet where a power loss during the storm spoiled all the cold food storage. Designers also renovated both the front and back of the house at the hotel's 32nd-floor, 7,000-square foot-steakhouse called “thirty-two.” All kitchen equipment as well as furniture, finishes, tables, fixtures and china were replaced because they had fallen by the wayside pre-storm and were do for an update, Schwartz says. In addition, designers installed a temperature-controlled, wine rack closed-in by wine-colored walls that greet guests in the foyer and separate the main dining room. The rack holds up to an incredible 7,000 bottles.

The third floor, which contains a casino, meeting spaces and a small buffet kitchen, remained intact, as did the 1,088-room, land-based hotel adjacent to the casino barge. In all, renovations were on the fast-track, taking only 100 days to complete, utilized about 400 construction workers, and racked up a budget of $60 million, and that was only the first phase. “Normally, with a project like this you wouldn't even be in the design phase by 100 days,” Schwartz says.

Prior to renovations, the buffet spanned 1,200- to 1,500-square-feet. “Now, it's considerably more at 6,800-square-feet with 500 dining room seats,” according to Schwartz. Renovations brought in new ventilation, refrigeration, dishwashing, beverage and liquor systems, and some new storage shelves. Most of the back-of-the-house cooking equipment was reusable, however. While putting together a new ventilation system, designers sought out energy-efficient systems to save costs, and they also chose silver, dome-shaped hoods with a more decorative appeal to hover over the open buffet stations.

The buffet line consists of seven stations. One of the stations serves Southern foods and uses fryers and a breading machine. Light fixtures beneath a refrigerated ice pan offer a dramatic look for the steamed shrimp that rest on ice. An Italian station features multi-tiered granite shelves for displaying pizza as well as a sauté line with open burners, pasta cookers and a gas-burning oven with a stone façade. The carvery features a meat smoker, a charbroiler island, and two flame-shooting, vertical, gas-fired rotisseries, which can roast different types of meats at one time because they won't drip on each other as they would in a horizontal rotisserie. Woks grace the range at the Asian station, which also features a duck oven. Atop a slab of chilled granite rests sushi, while noodle bar items rest on heated granite.

The Tex-Mex station features a rotating granite and glass-heated “Ferris wheel” of sorts with four shelves that hold ribs, tostadas and other foods for guests to reach in and grab. The buffet also features a salad bar as well as a dessert bar with freshly baked cookies and brownies and a station for crepes and bananas foster set up with induction cookers surrounded by cold pans containing toppings. Pralines and fudge rest on chilled granite, and two glass display cases refrigerate cakes and pies. The station also features two chocolate fountains — one milk and one white — for dipping as well as an ice cream station.

At least one or two staff members man each station, where pots and pans hold food instead of stainless-steel steam table pans. This provides a more aesthetic look. Everything, from the station construction itself to the ventilation, and even some pieces of equipment were custom-designed, Schwartz says. “We didn't want the buffet to look institutional, we wanted it to be very unique and very dynamic, and the only way to do that was to design one-of-a-kind items and have them built,” he says.

By July or August, Schwartz and his team expect to open a Brazilian restaurant at the IP with a little more than 10,000-square-feet and about 150 seats. This is part of another expansion phase costing $15 million. Around that time, they also plan to open a pool bar restaurant that will take up some 2,800-square-feet and have 150 seats and feature a “tropical” theme.

At the The Western Door, a steak restaurant at the Seneca Niagara Casino, Niagara Falls, N.Y., aesthetics were also the name of the game, Krakowiak says. The space features a 900-square-foot exhibition-style kitchen with refrigerator doors clad in cherry wood and an oyster-and clam-shucking station equipped with a mirror for guests to watch the preparation. In addition, glass display cases spotlight rows and rows of pastries and specialty desserts. The Seneca also offers a 400-seat buffet, a 175-seat casual sports pub, two snack bars and an employee dining room. A multi-million dollar project brought in an adjoining spa hotel and casino with 604 rooms, a 200-seat, 24-hour café, a 70-seat Asian restaurant, a 120-seat Italian restaurant, gourmet deli, casino bar, lobby lounge, room service and 30,000-square-feet of banquet rooms.

“This is not your normal hot dog snack bar anymore,” Krakowiak says of casino foodservice operations. “Now, they're giving away steak sandwiches.”

But Schwartz, Egnor and Krakowiak would agree that while aesthetics make for a nice front of the house, the back of the house is by far the most important part of a casino foodservice operation.

“You need to make sure you have sufficient back-of-the-house space because there are a lot of things happening and a very large workforce,” Egnor says. “And more than half of that workforce doesn't work eight hours straight, so you have a constant flow of people, and it can become a real bottleneck in the back to the house. That's going to affect staff's attitude and their attitude is exactly what comes into contact with the guest.”

Key E&S for Casinos

- Blast chillers - Steam and/or tilting kettles - Combi ovens - Retherm ovens - Cook-and-hold ovens - Convection ovens - Wood-burning ovens - Gas-fired hearth ovens - Walk-in refrigerators

- Walk-in freezers - Reach-in refrigerators - Reach-in freezers - Hot-holding boxes - Cold-holding boxes - Ice machines - Display cooking range suites - Char grills - Open burners

- Broilers - Prep tables - Chef's table - Butcher block carving boards - Stockpots - Standing mixers - Dry storage space - Heat lamps

Storage space is also a must. John Andrews-Anagnostaras, president of Landmark Design Inc., a Las Vegas-based consulting firm, made room for 20,000-square-feet of dry and freezer storage space while renovating the foodservice facilities at the Sunland Park Racetrack and Casino in Sunland Park, N.M. “We had a huge beer cooler because there were days when the track sold 40,000 beers,” Andrews-Anagnostaras says.

The Park's foodservice operations include a new Spanish restaurant, Mariposa, designed by Landmark, and a 450-seat buffet that does about 12 turns a day; a bar and lounge; and a banqueting facility with 400 seats, serviced from the main kitchen. “To support those areas you need to have a lot of fire power,” Andrews-Anagnostaras says. A cook-chill system, he adds, can help handle the high-volume food production in casino kitchens. At Sunland Park's main kitchen, roast beef, prime rib and ribs are cooked in combi ovens, blast-chilled and stored in the freezer. Combi ovens or convection ovens are then used to bring the product back to temperature for serving.

All these temperature changes bring about some serious HACCP considerations. It is very important to make sure all employees are trained in food safety, and that HACCP plans are strictly enforced. Casino foodservice operations face an even greater risk of someone getting sick from bad food because of the number of people they feed and amount of food they produce.

Not all casino restaurants have cook-chill systems; a self-sufficient kitchen can also support high-production volumes. At Simon Kitchen and Bar inside Las Vegas' Hard Rock Hotel and Casino, all the food is made from scratch. There is no cook-chill system and virtually no freezers as everything is served fresh to maintain quality, according to Kim Canteenwalla, chef and partner of Simon in Los Angeles who played an integral role in the design of the 5,400-square-foot Las Vegas location. In addition, the restaurant does not rely on the casino-hotel's support system or outside vendors, with the exception of a shared warehouse space downstairs. Canteenwalla says the setup allows the chef to have control over kitchen processes, and the restaurant can handle large volumes of food by preparing everything on-site, including five different types of bread, buttermilk biscuits and blue cheese crackers.

“We're a partner with the hotel, but in a lot of ways we're independent,” Canteenwalla says. The self-sufficiency of the kitchen “gives us the ability to put forward our product in the best possible way,” he adds.

The kitchen covers about 1,100-square-feet of space with a display cooking line and a 350-square-foot back area that includes worktables and sinks, two walk-in refrigerators, and a reach-in freezer for ice cream and sorbets. A tilting kettle and 40-quart steam kettle hold sauces on-site, and a pastry area comes equipped with a double-stacked convection oven used mainly for baking but also for braising meats.

At the cooking line, efficiency is key, which is why the countertop comes equipped with a reach-in refrigerator that holds vegetables and other cold items, plus refrigerated drawers that hold meat, fish and backup sauces, and starches so cooks can easily grab what they need.

On the left side of the kitchen is a prep area for salads and cold appetizers. Nearby, a wood-burning oven cooks pizzas. The range, which forms a straight line, features a piano top with 12 burners — meaning the back burners are raised so cooks can easily reach over to use them as well as better see what they are cooking. The line also features an infrared broiler, which can sear foods up to 800 °F., and fast. A couple of fryers sit next to the broiler and nearby, a bread station with a bread warmer.

Consultant Adam Blumberg says another trend in casino foodservice is that many restaurants are choosing to install more energy-efficient equipment.

While working on the South Coast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, which opened in December last year, Blumberg sought out energy-efficient equipment for the space in order to save on overhead costs. Hoods with ultraviolet lights vaporize grease reducing the cleaning and maintenance requirements, he says. The South Coast Casino's kitchen also features hoods installed within ceiling grids, which provide a more aesthetically pleasing, spacious look for the exhibition-style kitchen, rather than installing them directly over the cooking stations. In addition, Blumberg installed newer forms of utility distribution systems with a single-point connection. In this case, all the utilities in the kitchen run to a stand, which chefs can move around without having to rip into the wall to access certain utilities.

As casinos grow in popularity, good foodservice options will continue to be the trump card that operators may cash in for the jackpot that is brand equity.

E&S Considerations

Durability: Make sure the equipment can last over time because casino kitchens run 24/7 and produce high volumes of food.

Aesthetics: Open kitchens are the trend in casino restaurants, which means customized designs, designer equipment and intricate detailing will put the restaurant at an advantage. Nothing is over-the-top with casino foodservice.

Efficiency: Look for energy-efficient products to save overhead costs, which will help with already large operating budgets.

Food Safety: HACCP plans should be strictly followed and training of staff in food safety and handling issues should be thorough, as massive numbers of guests eat at casino foodservice operations each day.

Self-Sufficiency: Casino restaurants benefit from cook-chill systems and/or self-sufficient kitchens with bakeries, butcher shops and other systems that rely on homemade production rather than outside vendors.

Fast-Track Construction: Both the design and building processes that occur often are the norm in casino foodservice construction so dealers and operators should be prepared for it. They should also be flexible, as initial plans often change dramatically.