Concessions and Carts:
Trends in Location-Targeted Food Service at Zoos and Aquariums

Visitors love to be at live exhibits during feeding times. Penguins upstage each other in pursuit of fish, pandas lounge looking disinterested and cuddly nibbling on bamboo, and everyone wonders if the person feeding the sharks or the lions is going to get bitten.
For visitors, catching animals when they dine may mean spending the day, or even the morning or afternoon, and working up an appetite themselves. Zoos and aquariums have weighed in on how they feed the humans with food concessions and carts.
Regional Influence
Part zoo, part botanic garden, and part natural history museum, the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum in Tucson, Ariz., exhibits animals native to the Sonora desert in the most natural setting possible. Set on 100 breathtaking acres, the attraction’s hungry visitors can enjoy the region’s flavors too — from fine dining to fast-food.
At its finest is Ocotillo Café, a full-service restaurant that Nick Ruman, executive chef and food and beverage manager, described as offering “native and southwest tastes to complement the region of the Sonoran Desert.”
Ocotillo, which is open for lunch and dinner seasonally, serves an upscale menu that includes tacos, filet mignon and sustainable seafood flavored with such ingredients as prickly pear and chile peppers as well as beverages for adults to savor, like beer, wine and prickly pear margaritas.
Other food concessions, placed strategically throughout the museum’s grounds, offer more casual fare for families, tour groups and schools that want to grab a quick bite. There is Cottonwood, an ice cream shop, and Pheobes Café, with coffee, pastries and sandwiches to serve guests on the go. And Ironwood Terraces, a cafeteria-style grill with four stations, works in local flavors on its menu. Here, guests can go all-out with Mexican food or, for example, just choose green chile peppers to top hamburgers.
Three’s a Charm
Visitors can spend the entire day at the Singapore Zoo and then walk over to the neighboring Night Safari to take advantage of its nighttime entertainment. These two attractions as well as Jurong Bird Park, located across town, are well equipped for hungry tourists, even ones that want to be wined and dined.
The three parks are part of the Wildlife Reserves Singapore, and “all food and beverage operations are managed in-house,” said Agnes Toh, assistant director of food and beverage. Its 12 concessions include fast-food, cafeterias, scoop shops and a fine-dining restaurant.
“Most of our outlets offer comfort food that people are familiar with. For example, Ah Meng Kopi, at Singapore Zoo, is a fuss-free breakfast cafe that serves local favorites, such as kaya toast [toasted coconut bread] and soft-boiled eggs, with traditionally brewed coffee or tea, said Toh. “Ah Meng Restaurant, located within the hub of the zoo, plays host to the popular buffet-style Jungle Breakfast with Wildlife program in the mornings, and offers local favorites, such as laksa [a spicy noodle soup] and nasi lemak [coconut rice and spicy accompaniments wrapped in banana leaf] the rest of the day.”
Then there are good old American-style burgers at Bongo Burgers at Jurong Bird Park and Night Safari. The burger joints have similar African décor and draw customers in with air conditioning at the bird park and an al fresco dining area where guests can watch tribal dances while they eat.
Ulu Ulu Safari Restaurant, at Night Safari, seats 600 people and serves up Singapore’s finest. “[Ulu Ulu] showcases Singapore’s must-try favorites, such as chili crab and chicken rice,” said Toh, “primarily because this park attracts mainly tourists.”
Supplementing the concessions at each park are food carts, placed strategically throughout and serving beverages, ice cream, snacks and weekend-only hot dogs.
“We follow the guideline that guests should not go more than 300 meters without, at least, a drink option,” said Toh. “Drink-vending machines are also positioned throughout the parks for the convenience of guests.”
Carts can be challenging, though. “We receive rain about 100 days a year, and since the carts are exposed to the elements,” said Toh, “we need to ensure our cart operators are able to close up the carts quickly and … be on standby to ensure the carts are re-opened just as quickly when the weather clears up.”
Wildlife Reserves Singapore’s food concessions have been profitable so far in 2010, said Toh, and it is a trend she sees continuing upward in 2011.
Beachy Keen
When it’s beach weather, guests don’t have to decide between a day at the beach or a day at the zoo, thanks to Jungle Island in Miami, Fla. Guests can stop at the park’s private beach during their visit to Jungle Island’s live animal and bird exhibits.
The beach offers a swim area, inflatables, water slides and plenty of Florida sunshine, and guests can relax with frozen treats, piña coladas and other beachy refreshments.
Inside the park, Jungle Island’s year-round restaurant is the Lakeside Café, which overlooks Flamingo Lake, and offers affordably priced standard fare, including soups, salads, sandwiches, burgers, pizza, hot dogs, grilled chicken and a daily special.
“We [also] have a concession stand, located inside the jungle at what is called the Crossroads, which serves a smaller-scale version of what is offered in the café.” said Andrew Juska, vice president of food and beverage.
Currently, the park has one permanent concession station that is equipped with ovens, warmers and cookers to serve hot dogs, pizzas, pretzels, snacks, beverages and ice cream. “When business warrants, we set up a concession on our beach, La Playa, and other areas inside Jungle Island, including our Garden Outpost.”
The park plans to increase its food carts in 2011 to take advantage of the outdoor-eating trends observed of guests in 2010. “A lot of our guests tend to stay outside and enjoy the attractions, shows and exhibits,” said Juska. “Currently we are looking into purchasing self-contained carts that we can wheel to different areas in the park, where guests are either watching a show or other entertainment that we have available.”
With more people dining outside, Juska said, “the operating challenge is to provide a variety of items and enough of a price point so guests do not settle for less just because they are not inside at the café where the check average is higher.”
New Year, New Menu
Set on 23 acres in West Palm Beach, Fla., the Palm Beach Zoo has a reputation for its beautiful grounds and live exhibits. Perhaps that’s why its Tropics Café, which overlooks Baker Lake, is popular for weddings, bar and bat mitzvahs and corporate events.
The restaurant, located at the heart of the zoo, takes in views of the park and has a lakeside outdoor deck, a concession window for fast-food service and a covered dining area. During regular hours, Lakeside Café offers soups, salads, sandwiches and “the best Rueben in town,” according to Gary Brier, executive chef and food and beverage manager. For special events, the Lakeside Café tranforms into a fine-dining establishment.
Currently, the zoo also has a hot dog cart by its fountain area near the entrance. “Kids play in fountain and cool off,” Brier said.
Brier, who graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y., became food and beverage manager this past summer after serving as the zoo’s chef for 10 years. Since taking over, Brier has tweaked the menu by adding healthy items and snacks, like raisins, applesauce and granola bars, for kids (and adults), in response to a customer request.
Other changes afoot are a revamped menu that will go into effect in early 2011, said Brier. “We will keep prices in line, if not lower than other attractions,” he said. “We’ll make a profit still, though we’re a nonprofit, the money helps to pay staff and feed the animals.”
Brier has also started the process to get a license to serve beer and wine, which he hopes to implement this year. When that happens, he expects special-event bookings to increase.
“We’re expanding our concessions,” said Brier. “We’re looking into doing a snack shack.”
See Food, Seafood
Owned by the seafood restaurant chain Landry’s, the Downtown Aquarium in Denver, Colo., is also a dining destination, with a full-service dining area amidst the aquarium’s 150,000-gallon tank as well as a bar and a snack shack.
“The menu is obviously heavy on the seafood,” said Katrina Current, restaurant manager. The attraction’s catering services are in high demand for private parties and corporate events. And the restaurant offers things like holiday brunches that bring guests in primarily for the food.
The Dive Bar is in fact an upscale bar with a weekday happy hour that is popular with the after-work crowd, and the Beach snack shack serves the usual hot dogs, pizza and nachos.
Though 2011 plans have not been announced yet, Current said, “We do pretty good. We’re the only aquarium for miles and miles.”
Local and Sustainable
The Denver Zoo in Denver, Colo., is dedicated to “green practices,” everything from giving visitors $2 off admission if they used public transportation to get to the zoo, to making buildings energy-efficient, conserving water and implementing park-wide recycling programs.
In fact, the 80-acre attraction was the first zoo in the country to have International Organization for Standardization 14001-certified sustainable management system for its entire operations.
That mindset carries over to its food concessions and carts that are all managed by K-M Concessions, a Denver-based company that operates in 30 zoos nationwide, said Stephanie Ruckriegle, director of catering.
“We’re concerned with sustainability and incorporate local products whenever possible,” she said. “For example, our chef does this dish that’s made with local potatoes.”
What’s more, she said, the national purchasing power that K-M Concessions has allows them to serve fresh food with a low impact.
The zoo currently has three restaurants, Samburu Grille with a patio area overlooking the Predator Ridge exhibits, Northern Shores and Brown Bear. The concessions offer a variety of food items, including the standard burgers and hot dogs.
Depending on the weather and time of year, though, the zoo also has three to six food carts, placed strategically in the “traffic footprint” of the park, Ruckriegle said, and to take advantage of crowds around zoo babies.
“We’re lucky here. The weather has been good, and we’ve done fairly well in 2010,” she said.
With a new 10-acre, $50-million Asian Tropics exhibit with Asian elephants and rhinos opening in late 2011 and visitor anticipation around its construction, Ruckriegle sees the food concessions growing. –

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