The Dish
The Hottest Food Trends at Zoos and Aquariums

October 25, 2016 No Comments

By Natalie Hope McDonald

The Call of the Wild Food Court at the Minnesota Zoo serves up a steady supply of Aldo’s burgers in a dining room overlooking a lake. Open year-round, the dining destination is one of several spots in the Apple Valley where guests can enjoy a meal or a snack. The zoo’s other venues, including the Penguin Café and seasonal Wild Java, Country Fare, Grizzly Coast Café and assorted outdoor kiosks and carts, pick up the slack during peak times with everything from specialty coffee drinks and dessert to lunch and dinner menus.

At the Minnesota Zoo, specialty salads like Asian chicken, Caesar, Cobb, Greek and Southwestern are hand-tossed to order. Shown is Executive Chef Jodie Miller.

At the Minnesota Zoo, specialty salads like Asian chicken, Caesar, Cobb, Greek and Southwestern are hand-tossed to order. Shown is Executive Chef Jodie Miller.

Lancer Hospitality, which manages dining services, has introduced a few new concepts to the menu, said Josh Le, a spokesperson for the zoo. The new offerings include Ebert and Gerbert’s Sandwich Shop, a regionally branded concept for fast meals. “We made these changes,” said Le, “to engage zoo visitors with new, fresh and relevant concepts.”

Popular eats at the food court also include mixed green salads that cater to special diets, including vegan and gluten-free, as well as fresh-made pizza, bruschetta, bread, meats and cheeses and ice cream and yogurt smoothies. One of the popular kiosks (located near the Tiger Lair) also specializes in tacos inspired by different international cuisines from Korea, Brazil and Mexico.

“As we were building the concepts, we saw the desire for vegetarian meal options and were inspired to respond by adding multiple vegetarian items throughout all of our menus,” he said. “Zoo visitors seeking a fresh and healthy choice can opt for Mix’d Greens with micro greens and herbs grown on site in an Urban Cultivator indoor garden.”

Specialty salads like Asian chicken, Caesar, Cobb, Greek and Southwestern are also all hand-tossed to order.

To drive home the message about fresh ingredients and health, the chefs at the Call of the Wild developed a Create-A-Balance menu that offers healthy choices depending on dietary needs. The healthy choice menu allows customers to substitute certain items for fruit or baked chips, or even reduced-fat and vegan meals.

A sandwich from the Los Angeles Zoo’s Café Pico. The general manager of the zoo’s Taste of the Wild Catering at the LA Zoo, said that the most popular items include hamburgers, crispy chicken tenders and pizza in that order.  Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

A sandwich from the Los Angeles Zoo’s Café Pico. The general manager of the zoo’s Taste of the Wild Catering at the LA Zoo, said that the most popular items include hamburgers, crispy chicken tenders and pizza in that order. Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

“While there has been a great response to all of the new offerings,” said Le, “Aldo’s Burgers have been our most popular concept.” These burgers are made to order with fresh beef that’s seared and seasoned with a signature blend of spices.

Because the Minnesota Zoo is also interested in reducing the impact dining has on the environment, it has been sourcing more products locally and using recyclable and compostable products. The efforts tie into the overall emphasis at the zoo on the preciousness of the world’s ecosystem.

International Flavor

The Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association, which was created in 1963, continues to be the fundraising and support arm of the Los Angeles Zoo, home to more than 1,100 species of mammals, birds and reptiles on 133 acres. The zoo, located in Griffith Park, features many popular exhibits, like the Rainforest of the Americas and Campo Gorilla Reserve.

With an estimated 1.5 million visitors each year, the zoo’s dining facilities have a big job being able to serve people from around the world with unique cultural tastes. Jake Pugh, general manager of Taste of the Wild Catering at the LA Zoo, said that the most popular items tend to appeal to kids and adults alike, including hamburgers, crispy chicken tenders and pizza in this order.

More recently, Pugh said, “We have rolled out a fast, casual, authentic Mexican food concept in the last year. We focused on fresh ingredients that can be built and sold very quickly.”

An exterior view of the Los Angeles Zoo’s Zoo Grill. Menu items at the zoo’s eateries range from salads to hot, carved sandwiches and churros. Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

An exterior view of the Los Angeles Zoo’s Zoo Grill. Menu items at the zoo’s eateries range from salads to hot, carved sandwiches and churros. Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

Timing has a lot to do with what items are sold at the eight different dining destinations throughout the zoo, including Reggie’s Bistro and the Zoo Grill. Menu items range from the health-conscious, like salads, to hot, carved sandwiches and churros at spots like the Churro Factory, Café Pico, Mahale Café, La Casita and Gorilla Grill, many of which specialize in ethnic eats.

The dining destinations also make allowances for special dietary requests. “We have dietary and allergen-specific menus that are available at most of our service locations,” explained Pugh. “The on-site executive chef will also work directly with guests, delivering the information needed to eat their way through the zoo.”

For the sit-down eateries on site, the chefs are encouraged to be flexible when it comes to special requests, like dairy and gluten allergies, as well as being able to offer a selection of meat-free dishes. Pugh says the catering company has come up with a way to ensure that a range of requests can be handled in a timely and appealing manner.

“Our top three selling items are available at our highest-volume locations ensuring that the most popular items are available almost everywhere,” said Pugh. “In addition, we have at least two healthier items on every menu to provide that option for guests.”

Having substitutes for meals, like greens rather than fries, is one way to make this process easy for the staff while also meeting the needs of guests. “Juice and fruit are also available to substitute with carbonated drinks and French fries in combo meals at all major locations, as well,” he said. “The three lower-volume locations include more non-traditional menus (Mexican, built-to-order paninis and salads) to ensure there is plenty of variety throughout the park.”

Guests can also enjoy cold beer at the Mahale Café, which offers stunning views of the giraffes.

Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner

The Seattle Aquarium may be best known for its Window on Washington Waters, a daily dive show, but the venue, which opened in 1977 on Pier 59 on Elliot Bay, is also drawing rave reviews for its food.

Visitors to the Aquarium Café, with its outdoor balcony overlooking the beautiful bay, can choose from a wide array of menu items ranging from comfort food and kid’s food to more sophisticated adult dishes served up with local microbrews.

Angie Kemp, general manager of food and beverage for the aquarium, says that despite the fact that the restaurant has introduced many different types of menu items, slices of pizza still sell exceptionally well. “Fish and chips are also very popular,” she said.

Open daily from 9:30 a.m. until 4 p.m., the café covers all three meals for a variety of ages. One way to keep things fresh is by rotating menus and specials throughout the week.

“We have weekly specials that include two salads, two specialty sandwiches, two grill entrées,” explained Kemp. The breakfast menu also rotates each week, with specials like breakfast burritos and bagel sandwiches depending on the day.

“We also have a daily rotating soup that we make in-house,” she explained. “Specials are based on seasonality and what is available locally.”

Serving soups that are meatless is one way to satisfy herbivores. “Our soup of the day is usually vegetarian and sometimes vegan,” said Kemp. “One of the specialty sandwiches are always vegetarian and sometimes we rotate a vegetarian option into the grill specials.”

A sandwich from the Los Angeles Zoo’s Café Pico. The general manager of the zoo’s Taste of the Wild Catering at the LA Zoo, said that the most popular items include hamburgers, crispy chicken tenders and pizza in that order.  Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

A sandwich from the Los Angeles Zoo’s Café Pico. The general manager of the zoo’s Taste of the Wild Catering at the LA Zoo, said that the most popular items include hamburgers, crispy chicken tenders and pizza in that order. Photo credit: Jamie Pham.

A recent menu item was the tofu rice bowl. “We also have a gluten-free menu that we can hand to guests on request,” she explained, “and we make sure to have some grab and go snacks that will accommodate. We can accommodate most requests by altering the standard item’s ingredients.”

Ensuring a menu mix that’s appealing and that suits a range of dietary needs can be challenging. “We understand our clientele, which includes families, tourists and locals,” Kemp said. “We work hard to incorporate local, seasonal product to provide a fresh selection of items that showcase the Pacific Northwest. We also focus on sustainability and work within the Seafood Watch program to ensure we are also supporting the mission of the Aquarium.”

The Seafood Watch was created to help consumers and businesses make more eco-friendly choices that support the ocean. This means selecting seafood that is fished or farmed in ways that protects sea life and habitats. The Seafood Watch makes recommendations as “Best Choices” and “Good Alternatives,” as well as foods to “Avoid,” and helps raise public awareness of the issue through its consumer guides, website, mobile apps and outreach since 1999. To date, more than 56 million guides have been distributed, and the smartphone app’s been downloaded more than 1.5 million times.

The Seattle Aquarium is one of more than 200 partners across the country that works with Seafood Watch. As such, dining services is well versed in not only global efforts, but also local ones that can often come down to individual taste.

“Our specialty items regularly include vegetarian and vegan options,” said Kemp, “and we are accustomed to customizing our menu items to accommodate specific requests from guests. Our menu is prepared to accommodate kids with our kids meals, and adults with composed meal options, as well as snack selections if they are looking for a quick pick-me-up.”

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