By Natalie Hope McDonald
Menus at museums, zoos and aquariums can range between the very basic (water and snacks in the gift shop) to the very sophisticated (multi-course meals in a formal dining space prepared by a famous chef). Many venues – which may not have a background with hospitality – have opted to outsource food services to partners, like the Barnes Foundation does in Philadelphia. At this world-renowned art museum, the city’s popular Starr Catering Group manages the fare, which ranges from a seasonal a la carte menu to small bites at the swank coffee bar.
An expanded kitchen is actually in the works at the Barnes with a grand opening planned this season. As construction proceeds, dining services has moved to a temporary space on the lower level near the gift shop. It has displaced the coffee bar, which is now located in the court. The finished space (hopefully ready for the spring and summer crowds) will be serving Mediterranean-inspired salads and entrees made with locally sourced ingredients with the accompaniment of a specially curated wine list, local beer selection and classic European desserts.
Last year, the museum experimented with an interesting seasonal pop-up shop featuring Philadelphia-based ice creamery Weckerly. The partnership, which featured an ice cream cart on the fountain plaza, yielded French-style custard ice cream for a limited time (about a week) in late August/early September. And by all accounts it was a sweet success.
Keeping it Simple
At the Sea Life Grapevine Aquarium in Grapevine, Texas, there is no formal café. There’s not even really a snack bar. But the venue, located in the Dallas/Fort Worth region, is well known for its showcase of aquatic life – and for birthday parties.
Parties are one of the few ways guests can enjoy on-site meals, in this case, a selection of pizzas and sodas geared for kids of all ages.
Amy Estrada, a spokesperson for Sea Life, said, “We do have bottles of soda and water available at admissions, but that is the only thing we have available for purchase as far as food and beverage goes [outside the catered parties].” Keeping things simple seems to be working well for the venue that has directed more time and money into exhibitions that guests have come to appreciate.
David Lawrence, a spokesperson from visitor services at the University of Michigan Museum of Art, also said that food and drink are kept to a minimum at the museum. “We sell some snack-type things in the museum store,” he said, “but nothing you can really eat inside the museum.”
Guests are actually discouraged from eating near or around the art. The main focus of any eating or drinking that may go on at the venue takes place during private events. The 93,000-square-foot facility features both spacious and intimate event spaces for catered receptions with alcoholic beverages permitted. The museum has become a popular place for everything from weddings and school events to corporate meetings and fundraisers.
Otherwise Lawrence said the gift shop does a good job of selling “cookies and chocolate, mostly.” It’s been a hit with the many school groups that visit.
Where Seafood Rules
At the Muse restaurant at the Anchorage Museum in Alaska, lunch and dinner is served in a dining space with beautiful views of the downtown area. Entrees range from citrus and soy-glazed salmon to lighter bites like burgers, salads and appetizers.
“Muse at the Anchorage Museum is a unique venue when compared to typical museum eateries,” said Kari Sellars, a spokesperson for the restaurant. “We provide an artfully inspired dining space, overlooking a beautiful lawn in the heart of downtown Anchorage.”
The fashionable venue has become a bit of a hot spot for socializing and after-work cocktails. Special events themed around art have also been introduced at the restaurant, like a paint night for would-be Van Goghs. Other events are geared around food and drink, like Battle of the Breweries and a monthly wine tasting.
Even the menu, with its share of seafood, also steps into an eclectic realm with flavors ranging from Creole to Southwestern. “We look to create equally artful menu items,” explains Sellars, “often highlighting Alaska’s amazing seafood. We want to complement the visitor experience attending the museum with the meal they have with us.”
The contemporary Alaskan cuisine features both fresh seafood and local produce in a very sleek atmosphere attracting a lot of young professionals after hours and museum-goers during the day. Happy hour has become especially popular thanks to appetizer and dessert specials, and wine and beer flights, not to mention the venue’s close proximity to the busy downtown area of the city. Most of the beer selections come from local microbrews.
The restaurant, which hosts about 30,000 visitors annually, is also looking for new ways to appeal to locals and tourists alike.
“This summer,” said Sellars, “we’ll be providing wild Alaska seafood street tacos on Tuesdays for the museum’s Lunch on the Lawn. This event serves as a food truck roundup, and we’ll be out on our patio with our own variation of this trendy option.”
Sellars said the restaurant’s best-selling snack or light meal is the Alaska Salmon Sandwich and Muse BLT. “For heavier meal options,” she said, “we’re excited to be offering gourmet house-ground burgers and wild Alaska fish and chips.”
A New Café Is Testing the Waters
Home to more than 200 animals ranging from anteaters to zebus, the Sunset Zoo in Manhattan, Kan., offers plenty of close-up views of wildlife in the plains. The zoo’s Expedition Café, which features a brand new menu, is now also open seasonally from March through November.
Courtney Dehn, a spokesperson for the Sunset Zoo, said that the concession stand has only been officially open for one season so far. Previously, management had been contracted out to a local restaurant, but the zoo has since brought food service back in-house. She admitted that they are still testing different food combinations and menus to see what ultimately works well. It’s really about what customers want.
“I think the most important consideration is your audience,” said Dehn. “One of our main goals when creating the menu was to have a nice balance of typical concession food (like pretzels, nachos and popcorn) and healthier options (like vegetable shakers and yogurt) to offer our guests.”
Limited space means items that are selected need to have selling power – and meet a range of dietary considerations, like increasingly popular vegan, vegetarian and gluten-free preferences.
The zoo also considers the environmental impact of what and how it serves its guests. “We wanted to be mindful of the packaging and make sure all of our options were presented nicely,” she said, “but also ensure that we aren’t creating too much waste.”
So far, the best-selling snack at the stand is the soft pretzels, while the most popular meal is the cheeseburger basket, comfort food that comes with a bag of kettle-cooked chips.
The stand served about 4,000 people last season. In addition to food, beverage items have also been a key to driving sales. Bottled water is the top seller, especially when the weather is hot and visitors are trekking up and down the hills (the zoo is well known for its hilly terrain).
Also popular in summer are iced slushies. And the park has two Pepsi vending machines to sell more drinks. “We’ve also toyed around with the idea of satellite stations around the zoo with drinks and other popular ready-made items during special events or busy days,” she said, “but haven’t actually executed that yet!”