Although exhibits and attractions generally take center stage at zoos, aquariums, museums and botanical gardens, the truth is that all visitors eventually get hungry. Cue the many restaurants and concession stands waiting in the wings at these facilities. The success or failure of their role often boils down to what kitchen equipment they use, plus its daily care.
When Food and Beverage Director Patrick Hartnett first took over operations at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Denver, Colo., pre-made, frozen pizzas were being purchased to serve at its T-Rex Cafe. Hartnett was convinced the facility could put out a much better product, so the decision was made to buy a dough sheeter and a mixer. “Now we can make up to 400 pizzas in four hours and the quality is simply unsurpassed by anything that you can buy frozen. The dough sheeter has had a large impact,” Hartnett said. The museum hosts 1.3 million visitors annually and can serve up to 4,000 meals a day during peak periods.
The pizzas are cooked in an impinger oven. “I can make a pizza in 4 1/2 minutes, without looking at it, spinning it or doing anything to it. It goes in, it comes out,” Hartnett said. This sort of efficiency makes the museum’s efforts to have its restaurant menus mirror traveling exhibits easy. For example, an exhibit called Traveling the Silk Road prompted Hartnett to put a spin on traditional pizza ingredients and use red curry, feta and sesame chicken. “That way we have a completely different product that goes along with our traveling exhibit. The exhibit experience is emulated through the food.”
The Intermezzo Cafe at the Clay Center for the Arts and Sciences of West Virginia in Charleston, W. Va., also relies heavily on their impinger oven for pizza plus a great deal more. “We couldn’t live without it. We can cook chicken fingers and warm things up in it. It’s great for a lot of different things,” said Chef Wayne Poythress. The Clay Center welcomes around 125,000 visitors per year.
One item Poythress dreams of adding to his kitchen is a steamer. He considers it a healthy way to cook and likes this particular piece of equipment’s versatility. “You don’t have to just steam in a steamer. You can wrap stuff in aluminum foil and it will warm up. I’m sure you can even bake in a steamer if it’s sealed,” he said. He would advise making sure every pan in your kitchen fits in your chosen steamer model before making the investment.
Panini presses are by far the most valuable piece of equipment used in the Glasshouse Café kitchen at Fairchild Tropical Botanic Garden in Coral Gables, Fla. “Since we don’t have a commercial ventilation system, we rely on electrical powered equipment and our panini presses allow for a wide variety of hot menu options,” said Frank Randazzo, owner of Randazzo Management, the company that operates the Glasshouse Cafe. The Garden plays host to 350,000 visitors annually.
When considering the addition of a new piece of equipment, Randazzo applies the same principle he does when buying food products – he sticks with reputable vendors and never compromises on quality. “Always buy from a reputable manufacturer so that your equipment is reliable. Never buy cheap products because they cost more in the end in maintenance and repairs,” he said.
Sugarsnap is the exclusive food and beverage provider for ECHO Lake Aquarium and Science Center in Burlington, Vt. They run the Cafe at ECHO where the aquarium saw 135,303 visitors last year. Lack of a hood system has them relying on their oven as the main source of food heating. “We receive deliveries from our commissary kitchen three times a week and heat and finish the food on-site daily. Our oven is indispensable, from baking fresh cookies to heating homemade macaroni and cheese. We use it for almost every product we serve,” said Perry Farr, retail manager at Sugarsnap.
Since the Cafe kitchen is used for event catering at ECHO as well, space and storage are important factors when adding new equipment. Farr likes to make sure everything is movable, on wheels or easily stored in their existing space. “If we can’t roll it, move it or utilize it for events catering, I don’t use it in our kitchen,” she said.
The Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans, La., is home to a family of museums and parks that includes a zoo and aquarium as well as a butterfly garden and insectarium. The institute also offers restaurants and concession stands. “The number one foods that are sold here are chicken strips and fries. So naturally every restaurant has a fryer, it’s the most important piece of equipment,” said Bernard Hayes, director of food and beverage concessions.
The Audubon is in the process of building a new kitchen in one of its restaurants, and special attention was paid to what fryers to install. “ There’s a lot of new technology out there that makes things easier. You can filter the grease a lot more efficiently because there’s better filtering technology in the new fryers. Now you can do it at the press of a button. And it cleans the grease and then it sends it back in. Or you can change the grease totally,” said Hayes. “More than anything though, you want a piece of equipment that’s a no-brainer. You don’t want to confuse the worker. You want to look for something that’s easy and dummy-proof.”