Food for the Ages
Tailoring the Menu to the Demographic at Zoos and Aquariums

As hungry visitors to zoos and aquariums nationwide can attest, having tasty food items available is key to enjoying their experience at these attractions. Zoos and aquariums nationwide offer their tips for finding the right menu selections to fit the diverse age groups at their locations, and describe trends in dining.

At the Great Lakes Aquarium in Duluth, Minn., Executive Director Joe Montisano has gone with a spare and practical approach that suits visitors at his attraction “swimmingly.” 

“We got out of the full-service restaurant business a number of years ago,” he explained. “It wasn’t a good fit for us, and just wasn’t profitable.” He said that is due in part to his location, which is in the heart of downtown Duluth with many restaurant and other dining choices surrounding the aquarium. “Now, we provide a limited menu of items that is primarily directed at kids, as good snacks for them. We offer beverages for the children and parents: sodas, water, tea, and pre-made coffee drinks; we have pre-made Uncrustable peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cheese sticks, chips, candy, beef jerky, and ice cream. Dip n’ Dots and conventional ice cream brands are both very popular,” he said. “We direct a lot of the food items toward what children will eat, but parents will buy them too.”

As to industry trends, he said it all depends on the location of an attraction and how long it takes visitors to experience it. “We’re a two to three-hour experience, and we’re in that central downtown location. Previously, I ran a zoo in Florida, and we had a successful full service menu because the attraction was a longer experience and there was no other food around. We went through several different versions of that menu; before I left we had partnered with a restaurant chain. I would say that combining catering and the restaurant business into one venue is a trend toward making food operations more profitable.” As to adding new items to his menu at the aquarium, Montisano noted that “We are always looking for pre-packaged, tasty snacks that have a good shelf life.”

In Dubuque, Iowa, Deb Smythe, Café Coordinator for the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, speaking for Mark Girardy, food and beverage director, said their menu selection is “geared toward families in terms of their price-point, and being quick and easy to fix, so that people aren’t waiting too long to eat.”

With that in mind, she related, “Our most popular items are the wide variety of burgers, cold sandwiches, chicken sandwiches, and items from our specific children’s menu such as mac and cheese and hot dogs. All can be prepared quickly, and the sandwich items come with a side, which makes them really very reasonable on price.” She added that “Despite the fact that they can be prepared quickly, you can have a nice lunch here, and then get on with seeing the exhibits. The restaurant itself overlooks the Ice Harbor, and it has a very nice atmosphere, it’s not just cafeteria-style. We have an outdoor patio and can even serve guests outside. So, our menu reflects that experience.”

She said having healthier menu items as a real trend. “We have a Malibu Burger that’s a vegetarian item, and veggie sandwich, and in the summer, we will have four different salads that you can order along with a chicken breast as an add-on. We’re also adding a new item, a tortilla wrap cold sandwich, which cuts down on bread, and is a healthier option with lower carbs.” That item will be added this summer.

At the North Carolina Aquarium on Roanoke Island, J.V. Head owns the Shipwreck Café, which provides the food service for the aquarium. Head said that choosing the right menu for his venue gets a big assist from his own family: he has five kids of his own, and his wife and co-owner requires a gluten-free diet. “That helps develop our menus. Also, because we are primarily a tourist destination at the aquarium, we are quite aware that we have guests from eight months of age to 80 years, so we plan a menu with a wide appeal.” He described what he offers as “Half-geared toward adults, and half to children. Our daily specials are geared more toward adults. We have concession-type items such as ice cream and pretzels; we have deli sub sandwiches and wraps, a very popular chicken salad sandwich, and a Guiness-infused bratwurst served on a pretzel bun. Adults will purchase an item like that for themselves and get a hot dog for the kids,” he related.

He is seeing trends toward gluten free, vegetarian, and name-brand items on menus, and offers plenty of all three. “For example, we serve Nathan’s all-beef hot dogs, which we do in part because people know the name, and if they don’t eat pork, for example, we don’t have to convince them that it’s pork-free.” To make sure customers are well served, Head also keeps the labels of ingredients from food items such as pretzels, so if people need to know what is in an item, he can show them. “Gluten free and vegetarian items are a big deal and really need to be included on a menu. Having a reasonable price point is also important. I’m here to make sure you have a good time and eat at a fair price, not to gouge you. Healthy is also a trend, I like offering vegetable cups with Ranch dressing and fruit cups. Parents are really happy that is an option as a snack instead of just candy or French fries.” Head added that currently he is limited as to what food items he can offer due to the facility where the café is located, but recently brought on a panini sandwich, which is especially popular during cooler weather. 

Jake Crabtree is the corporate executive chef for KMSSA in Denver, Colo., which provides dining for zoos and aquariums nationwide. “I work nationally visiting and managing regionally,” he said. Choosing the right menu selection is key, and differs by attraction. “Number one, we focus on the demographic of the region, the cultural influences and flavors. If we’re at the Miami Zoo, in Miami, Fla., we tap into the Latin flavors; in California at the San Francisco Zoo, we tap into the Bay Area flavor profile, with items such as clam chowder in sour dough bread bowls. Number two: we look at demographics in terms of age, especially toward kids, because they’re a large section of the visitors to zoos and aquariums. We focus on healthy snacks, but we also offer an opportunity for parents to spoil their kids. So, we look into the flavor profiles of treats like ice creams. What we do overall is just focus on understanding our demographic in every single environment to the best of our ability — that makes us successful. We also locally source our food items as much as possible,” he stated.

As far as trends in food service goes at zoos and aquariums, Crabtree said customers are “looking for value in our offerings, and also looking for freshness, and made-to-order items. Being a culinary-driven company, that is one of our big things. We do look at the quick service world and at line speed, but freshness with a chef-driven twist is the coming thing.”

Among the new menu items Crabtree is adding, one of the biggest is an overall concept called Nourish 305, which is in place at the Miami Zoo. “That’s an experience that focuses on fresh ingredients and kind of a customer interactive experience. We have nice healthy salads with a wide variety of ingredients and saucing options, such as Florida rock shrimp or Moho pork, jerk chicken, or fire- roasted vegetables as options that guests can select.” At the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, in Monterrey, Calif., Crabtree said that location’s Chef Matt Bowden is a “trend setter for the industry in terms of sustainability.” With that in mind he is currently working on a shrimp alternative. “Its algae based and sustainable. It’s pretty impactful. He’s working with the local fishermen in the area directly, and provides super fresh micro-local sourcing. That’s our big focus there.”

At the Cheyenne Mt. Zoo in Colorado Springs, Colo., catering Director April Hall said “supply and demand” is what influences the zoo’s menu. “We take into consideration that we have all ages to serve and a variety of food allergies to be aware of. We have many gluten-free and vegetarian options on the menu.” Among her most popular items are hand-breaded chicken tenders. “That appeals to both children and adults; you can get them in either adult or kids’ sizes.” Hall sees trends toward more health-conscious foods over-all such as salads or fresh sandwiches, and fruit cups instead of fries as a side. “We do specials every day to keep things interesting, such as Fish Fridays and Taco Tuesdays or sometimes Meatless Mondays. We’ve had a baked potato bar that does well, too. As to new additions, we’re adding a special BBQ menu at our Overlook restaurant; it started as one of our specials and was so popular that we are creating it in full.” Also new: a Neopolitan pizza restaurant featuring fresh ingredients and fresh dough, which will be served at a two-story restaurant called Pizza with a View, opening in June. The new restaurant will also include wine and beer on tap and gourmet coffee.

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