Stirring up Food Sales
Strategies from Zoos and Aquariums to Decide What’s Cooking

Zoos and aquariums are always working new menu items and food service equipment into their plans to best serve the dining public.

An extensive eatery remodel at Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., was unveiled last May to include Cindy’s Waterfront Restaurant, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Cafe and the Coffee Bar.  The guiding principles of the aquarium’s culinary partner, Cindy Pawlcyn, is to add an extra dimension to customer satisfaction besides the smell, sight, taste and even sound of food as it is prepped. Her menu item interpretations are based on the sustainability philosophy of buying local and organic.

The Northeast Wisconsin Zoo’s restaurant, The Mayan “Taste of the Tropics.” Guests especially enjoy sweet potato fries, double hamburgers and double cheeseburgers, spicy chicken sandwiches and animal crackers at the restaurant.

The Northeast Wisconsin Zoo’s restaurant, The Mayan “Taste of the Tropics.” Guests especially enjoy sweet potato fries, double hamburgers and double cheeseburgers, spicy chicken sandwiches and animal crackers at the restaurant.

“We walk the walk, not just talk about sustainability,” said General Manager for the culinary team, Karen Andrews. “We work closely with the menu from within the aquarium’s Seafood Watch Program guidelines using Best Choices or Good Alternatives only for sustainably-caught fish. We work closely with the fisherman and know how fish are caught. We make sure items are sourced locally, within a 100-mile radius. There are quite a few choices, we have a good relationship with farmers, flavors of the in-season foods are fresh, and we use all compostable take out and serving products.  People can feel good about their choices.”

Wait staff attends to tables in the 50-seat restaurant, where the menu changes daily, somewhat dictated by seasonality of produce and even fish behavior, which governs what fisherman bring in. For example, said Andrews in early October, “We’ll have no white sea bass tomorrow as they move on, rather California swordfish, harpoon-caught, which is a sustainable way to fish. In the summer they bring salmon, then switch to black cod for awhile. Dairy is local, we have an in-house bakery, except for sour dough bread from San Francisco, and everything has a story. The pizza dough and tomato sauces are made from scratch, organic, ingredients purchased locally from Swank Farms. Fresh whole milk, hand-shredded mozzarella cheese, and butter are all sourced.”

The cafe-side serves thousands of patrons and is different from the more complex restaurant menu as its food is served a la carte for quick service, so diners can eat and get back to the aquarium.

The features of the new equipment augment service to the thousands of guests per month that filter in to eat seven days a week, six hours a day,  Andrews said. “In August of this year, we dished up 7,000 individual pizzas. The equipment gets high use for high volume in banquets and in retail. We’re pleased with our new charbroilers, the customer-facing brick oven for our hand-made pizzas, and the self-cleaning convection oven that has a wash cycle that kicks on at the end of every day and cleans itself.”

Plans in the works to revamp the food service options at Brandywine Zoo in Wilmington, Del., in 2014 include adding a second remote location for popcorn and drinks at the front of the zoo. Currently one hot dog concession stand and snack bar serves up the basic snack bar fare of soft pretzels, popcorn and drinks, said Zoo Director Gene Peacock, “We’re a big hot dog zoo, we get a lot of moms with kids. We brought back the personal size cheese and pepperoni mini pizzas. It’s not historically done in the small 12-acre park but we’re developing a plan to expand the new location offerings before the new 2014 season kicks off.”

Contracting out for shaved ice, ice cream and cotton candy vendors during after-hours special events is the testing ground for experimentation. “We’re at the beginning stages of developing a master plan for 12 undeveloped acres we have to work with and will add more to concessions as it grows.”

The menu hadn’t changed recently at the Northeast Wisconsin Zoo restaurant, The Mayan ‘Taste of the Tropics’ in the 2013 season. Still, guests enjoyed addition of frozen drinks in lemonade strawberry and lemonade flavors. “It was a big hit and sales went up high with big demand every day,” said Guest Services Coordinator Lindsay Klarkowski.

Other successful additions were sweet potato fries, double hamburgers and double cheeseburgers,   spicy chicken sandwiches and small animal crackers, a big hit especially with younger children, Klarkowski said. A likely consideration is a sampler of cheese curds, mozzarella sticks and bourbon wings, items already on the menu. “There’s always big demand for doubles, and spicy chicken for those who want to add spice to their taste buds. We also want guests to be able to try new items they haven’t tried anywhere else,” she said.

After three seasons in a new 4,500-square-foot building that features seating for 100 indoors and several outdoor tables, Klarkowski is in the process of looking for new equipment for 2014.

New restaurant equipment and a new menu will surface when a rebuilt aquarium opens in 2014 at the Toledo Zoological Gardens in Ohio. Meanwhile, zoo-side, changes offered to guests in 2013 of stir fry orange chicken and rice, chicken and beef burrito wraps and soft pretzels at the concession stands were well-received, as was a beer garden. For 2014, the same Kbanda stand will serve beer and wine as well as take orders for appetizers from the Karoo stand location. Because the weather wasn’t the best this year, the new hard dip ice cream cart sales were mediocre, said Rick Thetford, assistant director of food stands.

In 2014, the menu will carry over, adding chicken and beef Philly sandwiches, also to be available at a new location.

Concurrent with a 100-year anniversary celebration in 2014 at the San Antonio Zoological Society, a new building will open in the park housing a full restaurant, complete with a pizza oven for fresh pizzas, a new charbroiler and fryers. “It’s very exciting,” said Assistant Supervisor for Food and Beverages April Gonzalez.

To maintain interest in 2013, boneless chicken wings with buffalo BBQ sauce, ham and cheese, turkey and cheese and chicken salad sandwiches, as well as sandwich combos with chips and a drink, were available to guests at the Riverview Restaurant and Fun Farm.

The only equipment added to a revamped area in 2013 were blenders for making strawberry, mango and strawberry-banana smoothies. A simple concession stand was transformed into a cafe, the Bear Den, with removal of popcorn and nacho offerings, keeping the hot dogs, and adding iced and flavored coffee, frappes, cappuccinos, muffins and the smoothies. Gonzalez noted, “It’s more of a quick service for an energy picker upper. The smoothies present a very good refreshing drink and once they’re served to customers, the people waiting behind them are anxious to order one.” –

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