Trends for the Times
Food Service at Museums and Waterparks

By Kathryn Van Druff

Cafes and food courts at museums and waterparks have come a long way from obligatory burgers and chicken tenders with fries. Today’s attractions are serving up more savory dishes that entice guests to dine in rather than going back to their cars for a bagged lunch. Here are some of the top food trends at museums and waterparks for 2018.

A selection of foods at the Over There Café in the National WWI Memorial and Museum. The executive chef manager strives to satisfy the diverse appetites of the museum’s 330,000-plus annual visitors.

“We try to keep a balance of simplicity and variety,” said Jason Sutterfield, food and beverage manager at Hyland Hills Water World in Federal Heights, Colo. “Menus can oftentimes become too complex and slow down lines, but at the same time we want to make sure we have enough variety on our menus for everyone.”

Some new menu items at the park include Tsunami Sliced Pizza (a quarter of a 16-inch pie), Dole Whip Daiquiris (featuring rum), custard used in numerous dishes including ice cream sandwiches and “the Colossus,” a family-sized funnel cake sandwich, and ever-changing weekly specials such as foot-long hotdogs with creative toppings. Guests can also enjoy quite a few grab-n-go items like salads, wraps and parfaits.

“They have a wow factor for our guests, they are trendy items in our area, and they make us more operationally efficient,” Sutterfield said.

Attendance numbers are on the rise at Water World and the weather has offered a fortunate spike in traffic. The waterpark also launched a new attraction this year, adding to the increase with a marketing boost.

Maureen Sharaf, catering and café manager at Millstone Café at the Brandywine River Museum of Art in Chadds Ford, Pa., said that simplification is the best approach for their cuisine. The museum enjoys steady year-over-year visitation with peak attendance mapping to special exhibits and holidays.

“If you offer the freshest, best ingredients available, you do not need to expand your offerings,” she said. “There is definitely something for everyone on our menu.”

Chef Mike Kline of the Brandywine River Museum in Chadds Ford, Pa. The attraction offers gluten free and vegetarian menu options.

Sharaf listed a depth of flavors new to the menu this summer, including crispy brussels with pickled red onions and lemon paprika aioli, chilled rice noodle salad with an assortment of vegetables (roasted beets, green beans, sprouts, corn, and pickled beech mushroom) with lemon miso dressing, and a BLT spotlighting a local farm’s tomatoes. The café also introduced hot potato salad (featuring local new potatoes), a lighter take on a Lyonnaise salad with confit potatoes, radish, green beans, frisee, hardboiled egg, sumac and garlic scape pesto.

“Our guests are eating lighter and more conscientiously and that means offering menu items that include vegetarian and gluten free options,” said Sharaf. “People want to know what ingredients are in their food, and how far those ingredients traveled to get to their plate. Our patrons are sophisticated and educated regarding their diets and we strive to be respectful of that. We use local produce from the farm stand up the road, pickle and ferment our own ingredients, and make everything from scratch. It is what our guests want and how we want to feed them.”

Ingredients certainly allow a menu to become as diverse or as simple as an establishment would like. Jay Potter, visitor services café manager at the Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia, Wash., said that the café introduces new items regularly for variety’s sake, particularly with repeat customers in mind. 

“Sometimes these new items replace slower sales items and sometimes we use them to expand the menu,” he said. “We like to offer an expansive menu using a limited number of ingredients. This gives the customer choices while limiting the inventory that must be maintained.”

Each summer’s menu debuts fresh new salad selections, fruits, and frozen beverages. Many times the café’s offerings support special events like the Summer Splash! Summer Festival of Fun that offers traveling exhibits, performers, special guests, and more. Recently during Fire Rescue Spectacular weekend, the museum’s eatery offered a Fire House Sub Special with Fire House Frozen Lemonade.

A view of the dining area at the Over There Café in the National WWI Memorial and Museum in Kansas City, Mo. The museum outsources its culinary operations to an outside firm called American Dining Creations with Executive Chef Manager Mark Piette at the helm.

The Hands On Children’s Museum sees about 315,000 guests annually, and it is the most visited museum for youths in the Pacific Northwest. A new Museums for All designation sparked a 5-10 percent spike in admissions over the past two years as now families receiving state assistance can visit for free or on a deep discount.

At Stubborn Brothers Beach Bar & Grille, the restaurant most commonly associated with Ocean Oasis on the Wildwood Boardwalk in Wildwood, N.J., about 70 percent of the menu is new this year. Some of the new items include avocado toast back by popular demand, shrimp tostada, Thai calamari, quinoa bowl with shaved Brussels sprouts, potstickers, and pork belly and pineapple skewers, to name a few.

“We’re constantly seeking to do two opposing things,” said Food and Beverage Manager Kyle Morey, whose family has owned the Moreys Piers infrastructure for generations. “For those who want chicken fingers and fries and hotdogs and cheeseburgers and cheesesteak, we want it to be efficient to get that out quickly. There’s a relatively large portion of the population who’s not looking for that; they want a healthy experience. That’s been a big focus system-wide to condense our counter service menu. We basically tried to streamline those areas and high volume items to have more flexibility and freedom to select items that are more creative, possibly healthy, more labor time intensive, and more interesting to drive people back.”

The Morey family owns three piers on the Wildwood Boardwalk, including Adventure Pier, Surfside Pier, and Mariner’s Pier. Additionally, they own two waterparks, Ocean Oasis and Raging Waters, plus numerous dining establishments, including PigDog Beach Bar BQ, Jumbo’s Grub & Pub, Stubborn Brothers, Joe’s Fish Company, and a new addition, Wilhelm’s Bier Garten. A big focus across the organization is currently to drive guests to the restaurants as independent destinations even if they aren’t riding the rides or hitting up the water park.

An employee at Morey’s Piers in Wildwood, N.J. The organization owns two waterparks, and introduced many new menu items for the 2018 season.

The National WWI Memorial and Museum in Kansas City, Mo.,  outsources its culinary operations to an outside firm called American Dining Creations with Executive Chef Manager Mark Piette at the helm. Piette has worked in the museum’s cafe the past two years, making balanced changes to satisfy the diverse appetites of the museum’s 330,000-plus annual visitors.

New this year at the museum’s Over There Café are dishes like a pita bread appetizer with white bean hummus for dipping and the grilled salmon salad with ginger sesame vinaigrette and toasted almonds, creating a variety of textures on a single plate. The café also introduced new twists on old favorites such as tuna salad, Kansas City’s best tuna melt, and a Reuben that’s “kicked up a notch” on black Russian rye with smoked corned beef, fontina cheese, homemade thousand island dressing, and sauerkraut. 

Piette recently purchased a panini press and serves up three different hot-pressed sandwiches, including a vegetable panini, a meatball panini, and the Cubano, which features smoked ham, mojo pulled pork, all slow-braised with citrus and spices, swiss cheese, diced pickles, and mustard on a wide Cubano baguette. 

And, of course, there’s always something for the museum’s most treasured clientele. To match the touristy environment of the museum, the café introduced a selection of brown bag specials, with items like a ham and cheese sandwich, peanut butter and jelly, a chocolate chip cookie, fruit, and mini pizzas.

“We prefer to expand our customer base rather than our menu,” said Piette, who oversees the museum’s Over There Café. “We only seat 75 people in the café, and the kitchen can only handle so much, so we try to keep it at an equal level. We create new dishes and take some away.” 

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