By Karen Appold
Getting food to sell well at zoos, aquariums and museums isn’t rocket science. At John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids Mich., Jodi Young, food and beverage manager, suggested having some unique offerings. “Many guests visit with their families as a getaway and are looking for something decadent or new that they might not allow themselves to eat every day, such as one of our signature elephant ears (like the chocolate hazelnut).”
The zoo, which averages between 510,000 and 520,000 visitors annually, also strives to entice visitors who are more conscientious with their food choices. A salad consisting of fresh spring mix greens, oranges, apples and sweet potato chips as a crouton replacement mimics the tortoises’ daily meal and offers visitors a unique look at what the reptile eats, Young said.
The zoo also sells classic concession favorites such as hot dogs, chicken tenders and French fries. Focusing on presentation is also key, as people eat with their eyes first, Young said. “Current customers sitting in a café or walking around with delicious-looking food will guarantee you more customers,” she said.
Doug Ratchford, concessions operations manager, Detroit Zoo, Royal Oak, Mich., has found that outstanding guest service and merchandising drives food sales among its 1.4 million visitors annually. “We believe that creating a culture that makes our guests feel welcome and comfortable is the first step to getting an upsell with each transaction,” he said. In addition, merchandising entails more than just a fixture with product on it. “We make all of our displays bold, plentiful and eye-catching. An over-the-top display featuring grab-and-go items will entice guests to make an impulse purchase.”
Fu Chen, owner and executive chef, Morikami Museum & Japanese Gardens, Delray Beach, Fla., works with the museum’s marketing team to promote the Cornell Café’s Pan-Asian offerings. “When we have menu changes, specials or something that will photograph beautifully, the marketing team creates a lot of buzz around it,” he said. “People come to the restaurant asking for those particular items.” The attraction has about 200,000 visitors annually.
At Bixby’s, located on the second floor of the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, Mo., Chef William Volny uses fresh, seasonal ingredients as often as possible. In addition, the menu always features items that are vegan, vegetarian and gluten free. The restaurant has floor to ceiling windows overlooking a park and sleek, modern décor to give guests a complete experience with fantastic views. The museum had 438,621 visitors in 2015.
Communication and presentation are key to increasing food sales, says Michael Behan, owner, Wild Side Café at the Virginia Living Museum, Newport News, Va. A walk-up service counter provides a great opportunity for the employee to guide the costumer through the menu. “We highlight a few specialty items that you normally wouldn’t find in cafés of our nature,” he said. “By quickly building a rapport with customers, they will better receive add-on sides and topping suggestions.” Because customers trying to decide what to order will often steal a glimpse of what’s being prepared, it’s important to make food look great. In addition, “keep shelves stocked. No one likes to buy the last item in an empty reach-in refrigerator.”
Steven Alves, executive chef, T-Rex Café & Deli at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, Denver, Colo., focuses on a few simple things to please guests—provide a quality product at a good price as quickly and efficiently as possible while providing great customer service.
At John Ball Zoo, its southwest chicken wrap is tops. “Nowadays, people are looking for a more sophisticated meal, as opposed to five years ago when hot dogs and French fries ruled the menu,” Young said. The wrap consists of a roasted red pepper tortilla filled with seasoned grilled chicken strips, lettuce, tomato and homemade chipotle mayonnaise. “It is filling, but is also a light meal on a hot day. It has a beautiful color between the orange wrap, green lettuce and red tomatoes.”
Because the Cornell Café is an amenity to a Japanese cultural institution, guests are always intrigued by its bento boxes. “Although they are the highest priced items on the menu, they are consistently a best-seller,” Chen said. “With three options to choose from—traditional, sashimi and vegetarian—visitors experience a little bit of everything served in a beautiful lacquered compartmented box. We highlight these items on our menu with a special icon symbolizing that they are a recommended choice.”
At the Detroit Zoo, Ratchford said popcorn and cotton candy are always among the top five food items purchased. “Both items are very accessible at every food location and are featured in large displays,” he said. “We use the ‘stack ’em high and watch ’em fly’ method.” In addition, a food stand positioned in the center of the zoo is dedicated to all types of specialty popcorn.
Bixby’s champagne brunch, hosted every Sunday, is its biggest draw. The spread includes seasonal offerings on the buffet and a la cart items, including seasonal benedicts and crepes. On the lunch menu, the most popular item is Bixby’s BLT. “We elevate the classic BLT by smoking our own bacon in-house,” Volny said. A salad on the lunch menu called the “Such & Such Salad” is made with produce from Such & Such Farm in Desoto, Mo. “This is completely driven by what is available from the farm; the freshness of the salad appeals to guests.”
Wild Side Café’s best-sellers are its Cam’s-adillas, Wild Side burrito and a Cuban sandwich. “The first two sell because they are unique to our café and are branded as such,” Behan said. “Most customers are expecting the standard hamburger, hot dog, BBQ and pizza. These specialty items turn a meal of substance into a dining experience for the museum’s 200,000 visitors per year.”