It may be the most important meal of the day, but at the height of the pandemic, hotel breakfast was not all it was cracked up to be. Guests woke up not to the tantalizing smell of sizzling bacon at a vast, bustling buffet, but to a cold, pre-packaged muffin. Or nothing at all. Scrambling to comply with a rash of regulations, some hotels packed up the chafing dishes and prepared only âla carte served strictly by staff — hands off the tongs, please. Others plastic-wrapped their meagre offerings within an inch of their life. Some didn’t even brew coffee, so as to eliminate e and crowding. Breakfast, for a time, was toast.
So long, sumptuous spreads (for some)
Prior to the pandemic, many hotels felt they had to keep up with the competition by beefing up their breakfasts, adding omelette bars, pancake and waffle stations, fresh-baked cinnamon rolls, as well as healthier options such as smoothies, Greek yogurt, fresh fruit, oatmeal and avocado toast. Some properties topped out at 40 items, straining the food-and-beverage budget, not to mention grappling with the resulting waste of all that leftover food.
“The cook-to-order breakfast buffet is the brand standard for Hilton Garden Inn,” says Perry Singh, general manager of Hilton Garden Inn Saskatoon. “So, you had to have the buffet, all the self-service items, a couple of cooks, as well as a greeter at the host station, and your servers. Based on the occupancy we went down to — single digits — from a financial and waste perspective, it just didn’t make sense. We closed our restaurant completely and went from buffet service to grab-and-go.”
Michael Morton, vice-president, Brand Management for BWH Hotel Group, says different jurisdictions imposed different restrictions, so some hotels had breakfast, some had a modified offering and some had none at all. “The brand directive for Best Western was to have, at minimum, a grab-and-go option. We wanted to be cognizant of cost and all the revenue the hotels had lost and were losing.”
Thank you for your service
Patrick Dube, chef for restaurants Les Labours and Le Bercail at the Hotel & Spa Le Germain, Charlevoix, has long been proud of his lavish breakfast buffet. Once the pandemic hit and the restaurants closed, however, he took to delivering grab-and-go items directly to guestrooms, which proved a challenge since the hotel comprises five buildings, each 150 metres from the kitchen. So, the property bought two small cars as a kind of taxi service to ferry food among the buildings, which was especially useful in winter when temperatures in the region dip to minus 20 degrees Celsius.
“I bought 150 little tables for the rooms because people had no place to eat,” says Dube.
Jacky Bruchez, Food and Beverage director for Germain Hotels, says some guests, however, didn’t even want staff coming to their room. “So, there were some grab-and-go boxes they could take with them, a simple continental breakfast of fruit, yogurt, parfait and toast.”
Dube says now that restrictions have eased, the full breakfast buffet, with guests serving themselves, is back on at Les Labours.
Managing morning meals
The pandemic was a wake-up call for how hotels operate, including how they manage the morning meal. Building on what they’ve learned, Singh says Hilton has revised its standards and structure to ensure operations run more efficiently.
“[We’ve] moved away from the traditional buffet — it looks fantastic but from a cost perspective it didn’t make sense — [to] a re-vamped continental buffet, with healthier options like power bowls, which are full of fruit, chia, flax and hemp seeds. All the hot items are cooked to order off of a menu. We don’t have chafers full of sausages, bacon and potatoes like we did in the past.”
And in the past, it is. Singh says these changes, including no more hosts and greeters, no cook-to-order stations, and just one server during weekdays, are here to stay. And with inflation, “Costs are skyrocketing, from wages to food, [so] it’s very hard to drive the bottom line.”
He says these changes didn’t help significantly with that bottom line. Aside from eliminating some items from the continental side, bacon and eggs are staples, he says, and are still stocked, regardless of the higher costs.
But the changes have proven an upside to the pandemic. “In terms of food-and-beverage offerings, a lot of focus and emphasis has been on reducing costs while at the same time ensuring we can maintain our level of guest satisfaction and to grow it further. We can better maintain quality [by streamlining the service].”
The new normal
Shazma Charania, president, ZS Holdings Ltd., says its multiple Holiday Inn properties across Red Deer, Hinton and Edson opened and closed about a half dozen times. She says the brand offered several options to comply with municipal and provincial government guidelines, from complete shutdown to grab-and-go, to staff serving breakfast using disposable cutlery and plates, to now back to a full, self-serve buffet.
“Our brand standard is our famous cinnamon bun, and if we couldn’t deliver on that, because of supply-chain issues, we would give a product that was similar, and guests were fine.”
She says that now, with inflation to contend with, it’s costing more to service the same customer, but, “We would rather have the service open and provide a good breakfast versus having an empty hotel.”
Morton says, even prior to the pandemic, there had been discussions across brands about breakfast, such as, “Is this an opportunity to re-imagine what breakfast is?”
He says the company ran surveys that tested multiple options across 30 hotels and found limiting items worked best. Where once they offered five different breads, for example, they now offer two, and have reduced the number of cereals.
“We [also] realized a lot of cost savings by eliminating the waste of having all that product sitting out there, and by reducing the hours that breakfast would be offered. It was something we needed to do to truly understand what is important to the guest. Is it really important to have that much variety? And guests said no, but whatever you put out there, it better be good, it better be fresh, and it better be appetizing. It’s changed the way we do business, for sure.”
Singh agrees. “Every day the playbook is being written and re-written. We do something yesterday and today we have to course correct so we can ensure we are meeting the expectations of all our stakeholders, whether they’re owners or guests or team members or the brand, because their expectations are constantly changing with all the variables. It’s quite a time for this business right now.”
By Robin Roberts