Chefs in their whites carved turkey, prime rib and ham at the Hyatt Regency Sacramento. The cheerful babble of dozens of different conversations married with the sounds of a pop music duo. And, of course, there was Santa steering guests toward a few of his favorite things at the dessert station.
The downtown hotel’s lobby hummed with activity as roughly 800 guests converged there over a six-hour period for a Christmas Day brunch. While holiday buffets definitely keep cash registers jingling for hoteliers, industry veterans told me, they’re twice as nice for another reason. If guests are impressed with the food, the displays and the staff, they’ll start thinking about booking their next event there, whether it’s a wedding, a business meeting or a holiday party.
“Their chief importance is marketing,” said Ned Barker, president of Grill Ventures Consulting in Atlanta. “It’s a wonderful opportunity for hotels to engage the local guest in a way that they could not normally do. The locals don’t necessarily frequent the restaurants in some hotels. ... You take 800 people from the local community. How many of them know somebody or even have a relative who’s a potential marriage candidate in the next two to five years? This is really great exposure that advertising dollars just can’t buy, or at least you’d have to spend a lot of advertising dollars to share that type of experience.”
The goal of every hotel manager, Barker said, is optimum usage of their space. Weddings and other social events fill guestrooms and ballrooms on the weekend. Business conventions and meetings take care of the weekdays. Then holiday buffets draw diners when hotel rooms aren’t quite as full.
The Hyatt’s executive chef, Jason Poole, sees major holidays as his moment to shine. He was sitting in the eye of the storm Monday, having just survived several hectic weeks of corporate holiday parties. He had only six members of his 30-person kitchen staff doing prep work for a seafood buffet on Christmas Eve and then the Christmas Day feast. He had ordered all the food 10 days earlier: 12 turkeys, 18 prime ribs, 6 hams, 60 pounds of salmon, 120 pounds of shrimp, 150 lobsters, 300 pounds of root vegetables and much, much more. Each of the buffets was priced about $50.
“There are turkeys that need to be brined, prime ribs that need to be brined,” he said. “The hams need to get desalinated, so there’s lots of things we have to do in advance, before we even start on the cooking process.”
Although Poole is 32, he’s had plenty of experience. He’s been working in hotels and restaurants since he was 14. He got his associate’s degree in culinary arts from the Johnson & Wales program in Charleston, S.C., and he started working for the Hyatt hotels right out of college the summer before the 9/11 tragedy. He held onto his job by taking on the roles of dishwasher, steward and cook. For Christmas Day, he scheduled 11 staff in the kitchen and brought in about eight runners to replenish the buffet. That doesn’t include a staff of 30 or so servers.
Yet the Christmas buffet isn’t the Hyatt’s busiest holiday. Easter and Mother’s Day bring in more traffic. This year, Poole also brought back the Father’s Day brunch and introduced the Christmas Eve seafood buffet for dinner.
Hyatt general manager Scott VandenBerg told me, “Jason noticed that every year on Christmas Eve, we sell out in our Dawson’s restaurant, but there’s still demand beyond what we can take, so he created this seafood buffet for this evening to accommodate additional guests and offer something that is unique and different from the Dawson’s dining experience.”
All told, the Hyatt served more than 200 guests for Christmas Eve. Barker applauded the staff’s ingenuity: “You’ve got a creative, hardworking chef, and Hyatt’s got enlightened management willing to try some things.”
VandenBerg said the recession has made it challenging for him and his team to fill his roughly 500 guestrooms, 15,000 square feet of ballroom space and 25,000 square feet of meeting space.
“There’s a break-even point on putting on a brunch,” he said. “We really need about 250 covers to make a break-even point, so if we can’t get those type of numbers, it really doesn’t make economic sense to put on a brunch. So with the Father’s Day brunch, it just kind of dwindled during the economic downturn. This year, Jason said, ‘Let’s try it again. The economy’s picking up. I think with some advance advertising and promotions, we should be able to do a nice job of it,’ and indeed, that’s what we did. We started advertising it actually at the Mother’s Day brunch for Father’s Day, … and we got a lot of repeat customers. It was very successful.”
Receipts from corporate holiday parties grew by about 20 percent this year, as compared with 2012, VandenBerg estimated. That business dropped precipitously at hotels around the nation in 2009, and it’s been fairly stagnant at the Hyatt except for a 5 percent uptick last year.
Such trends make it even more important that hotels use buffets and other opportunities to market to new customers, said Gregg Carano, VP of corporate food and beverage of Eldorado Hotel Casino in Reno. His father, Don Carano, built the Eldorado in 1973, and Gregg has worked there for 40 years, except for the four-year break he took to get degrees in culinary arts and hotel management. Carano said he’s learned that every entry point matters, explaining that a customer came in to buy a cake from the Eldorado bakery and called later to arrange a corporate event.
“A holiday buffet is a chance for all hotels to allow their chefs to show what they have and what they can do with their food,” Carano said. “It’s a chance for them to upgrade their seafood items and their proteins. … We have 800 rooms at the Eldorado, and on Christmas Day, we’ll do close to 3,000 buffet customers.”
The Eldorado uses its convention space to accommodate the large crowd. The Hyatt’s setup is more intimate, but it has expanded over the years to include three eating spaces: the Vines breakfast-lunch spot, the Dawson’s dinner restaurant, and the Amourath 1819 lobby lounge. Sitting in Amourath on Christmas Day were sisters Amy Jorgensen of Davis and Placerville’s Julie Jorgensen, and the Hyatt won praise from them.
“We made our reservation about a month ago,” Amy Jorgensen said. “We’ve eaten here before. The food’s delicious and the atmosphere is great. … We’re the single sisters. We did Thanksgiving with the family. We’re celebrating Christmas together.”