To catch the pulse of major cities such as New York, you need only to observe what is happening with food and fashion. Chefs and restaurateurs race around in a half-crazed frenzy to pioneer the newest “it” movement. Although always different, the trends are mostly impermanent and result in sporadic bursts of business at best and complete misses at worst. Success, based on this “one and done” model, is usually short-term.
At Denihan Hospitality Group we’ve chosen a different path with a new vision. In our Restaurant and Bars division, which encompasses each of our hotels — Affinia Hotels, The James hotels, and several luxury independents — we’ve sworn off chasing trends and have traded the adjectives “hottest” and “latest” with “timeless” and “relevant” to create something far more powerful and lasting—an authentic experience.
The first step toward authenticity in a hotel restaurant is identifying the underlying concept that will resonate with the neighborhood and its residents, thereby establishing an inherent relevance. Achieving this is no easy feat as it involves a multitude of criteria extending beyond an owner’s personal vision or a chef’s preferences. The neighborhood residents are some of your most important constituencies. They will comprise the majority of your first customers and you must win their affections and allow their palate preferences to play into your guiding theme.
Failing to incorporate local preferences, or simply choosing not to, imposes an immediate disconnect with the local crowd, making it nearly impossible to create something that feels truly authentic. The biggest pool of customers of a new hotel restaurant is generally those that live closest, willing to give it a chance out of convenience. If your restaurant can meet or exceed expectations, then the most valuable form of promotion can and will take place—word-of-mouth marketing. From there, you’ve opened the doors to becoming a destination.
Many guests choose a hotel for its location, and not just for convenience. These travelers try and obtain a certain feel and ambiance often indicative of their own preferences and reflective of that neighborhood. In a Food Network-crazed world our guests want to have a culinary experience that represents where they are staying.
Second to developing the right concept with the right local appeal is finding the most appropriate chef to embody it—the culinary genius whose dishes will determine if locals become regulars. However, many developers and owners turn the chef hunt into the be-all, end-all of this lengthy process. Having a big name on your menu does not guarantee success. There are a lot of hotels that can attest to that. The concept, the personality, and the vision must work cohesively.
In my role as Vice President of Restaurant and Bars at Denihan Hospitality Group I am lucky to have the task of developing and directing this entire process from concept to execution. I get to research (so many tough nights eating out!) and identify the most appropriate themes and concepts. From there I find the most talented individual that truly speaks to the vision. It’s the careful and thoughtful collaboration with the right chef partner, the right designer, and the right creative company that yields the right result.
A perfect example to illustrate this is that of The Benjamin, an independent luxury hotel owned by Denihan. Three years ago, The Benjamin was doing well as a hotel, yet its restaurant was not profitable or well frequented by hotel guests or local residents. The hotel’s restaurant was losing $1.2 million a year and was a constant nagging issue, preventing the hotel from truly flourishing. At that point the decision was made to start from scratch and construct a new restaurant concept rather than build from the existing platform. We had a dud and we needed a bold move—not a band-aid.
Before jumping into the actual renovations, we took a methodical yearlong approach to come up with our strategy. In what neighborhood was the hotel located? Where did the locals eat and what did they prefer? How do we create a city wide destination as well? How do we want to tie it into The Benjamin brand as a complementary but independent restaurant brand?
Being in Mid Town East we knew we wanted it to be an all occasion place. One where you could have breakfast in the morning with a client, drinks with the guys in the evening, and host your parents for dinner. It had to be elegant without being fussy and the food had to be special without being tricky. It needed to appeal to commuters and tourists alike. We were thinking classic simplicity and clean lines, no flashes of neon or of-the-moment design trends—only aesthetics to reflect an all-day, all-occasion vibe.
After settling on a concept, we explored many possible partners, with Geoffrey Zakarian, an esteemed chef known for his classic French training but American contemporary style, on the top. The combination of his incredible technique and the restaurant’s café vibe instantly fused.
With these two key elements set, the menu, design, and décor details fell into place. Each part of the establishment echoed our initial vision and tied the hotel, the local New York scene, and what we knew about our guests’ expectations together effortlessly.
It has been three years since the creation of The National, and it is now perhaps the only profitable unionized restaurant in the city—an especially exciting feat considering it is a hotel restaurant. The restaurant provides its guests with an all-encompassing, enriching culinary experience that takes classically prepared food and elevates it with a twist of culinary joie de vivre.
Denihan Hospitality Group’s trend is to create a genuine experience. To build a true following out of a hotel restaurant owners and developers must look past elements that will fall out of fashion. The quest is to find something forever chic and that speaks to the neighborhood and the people it envisions entertaining.
Sims Foster is the vice president of restaurants and bars at Denihan Hospitality Group and has played a major role in transforming the traditional business model of hospitality ‘food & beverage’ into one which abides by a core philosophy of running highly successful bars and restaurants that just happen to reside in hotels.