It’s not just the animals at zoos and aquariums that work up an appetite: guests get hungry, too. Cuisine offered at these venues varies widely: from sit-down locations and food trucks to traditional snack offerings.
At the Los Angeles Zoo and Botanical Gardens in Los Angeles, Calif., Brent Heinisch, general manager of Service Systems Associates, which handles dining at the zoo and gardens, said that over the past 10 years, many changes were made in zoo dining, including a focus on “Healthier food choices mixed with traditional ‘concessions food;’ more vegetarian options as people are choosing to eat less meat over the last 10 years; and more local items showcasing Los Angeles.” He added that “there’s been much less soda consumed, healthier beverage options and more water choices, as well as more frozen beverages in summer months.” Other changes include fewer food carts positioned on zoo grounds to create a look that is “less like the State Fair,” according to Heinisch. A food truck was also added to the dining options, with a second planned to debut in 2020.
Asked if there’s a demand for sit-down meals at the zoo, Heinisch gave an enthusiastic response. “Yes, very much so. The L.A. Zoo currently has three sit- down locations.” Those include Café Pico, offering Mexican favorites such as tacos, burritos, and nachos; and the Mahale Café, where diners can find pizza by the slice, grilled chicken and burger baskets, kids’ meals, hot dogs, salads, deli sandwiches, and draft and canned beer. Mahale Café has outdoor seating allowing a top-notch view of the giraffe exhibit. The Gorilla Grill also offers outdoor seating and is located across from the gorilla exhibit. Top sellers include Philly Cheesesteak sandwiches and Italian sausage.
“We see a demand for sit-down locations because the L.A. Zoo is surrounded by Griffith Park,” Heinisch reported. “It’s open all day, and is very large – 133 acres, with lots of walking and exploring. So, guests like to sit down in the shade, rest and get off their feet while enjoying something to eat.”
Mahale Cafe is the largest revenue producing location at the Los Angeles Zoo, and for the 2019 calendar year, food and beverage sales were just over $1.5 million because it offers a great stop in the shade to sit all the way in the back of the zoo, he said.
New for 2020? “We will have an added location specific to healthy, allergy-free, kid-friendly food. Additionally, we’re planning for a new coffee shop, and we’re very excited about a classic Los Angeles landmark restaurant that will have a sister location here at the zoo. More details to come next year,” he said.
In Anchorage, Alaska, at The Alaska Zoo, coffee shop Assistant Manager Caren Sanders said there have been very few changes in the food offerings at the zoo. “We really offer standards because they do well for us. They’re easy for kids to eat, and they are also easy to carry while people explore the zoo. We generally do very well with items such as hot dogs, pretzels, pretzels stuffed with pizza filling, and jalapeno-stuffed pretzels, as well as with one unique regional item, reindeer dogs.” The latter are “a sausage that blend pork and reindeer meat. We get them from Indian Valley Meats, just outside Anchorage.” Indian Valley is a family-owned, custom processor of fish and exotic meat.
She added that “we get a lot of tourists visiting the zoo, and they have never had something like the reindeer dog, and they will always want to try it.” Also popular are snack items such as granola bars and fruit bars.
Sanders noted that at The Alaska Zoo, there is no real demand for sit-down meals. “I don’t know how it will be in the future, but what we’ve found is that people want to move through the zoo and look at the animals. The coffee shop is located in the middle of the zoo, it’s a stop to grab something while visiting, not a destination itself in the zoo.” She foresees no changes ahead for 2020.
The Sea Lion Caves, located in Florence, Ore., is a wildlife preserve and bird sanctuary, a part of the Oregon/Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve. According to Jenny Cocciolo, in charge of retail inventory at the caves, the food service program has remained unchanged in recent years with one exception: newly-added flavors of fudge, made in house. “We sell Pepsi products, water, coffee, and hot chocolate; pre-packaged candy, and beef jerky that’s made in Oregon by Old Trapper Smoked Products. We also offer freshly-made popcorn and our fudge.”
Asked why the fudge flavors change annually, Cocciolo noted, “We add new flavors to keep interest high in the product. We get the ingredients from the Calico Cottage candy company, and we mix it up here.” The company allows attractions and retailers to set up a “fudge factory” at their own locations. “They come out with new recipes every year, and sometimes we make up our own. Consistently, our most popular are chocolate walnut, peanut butter, chocolate peanut butter swirl, and Rocky Road,” she said.
As to each of the Sea Cave’s offerings, Cocciolo said, “We serve what we do because it’s a fun variety of items, and it’s easy and quick to grab on the go,” while people are enjoying the sea life and birds. There is, however, a growing interest in a sit-down dining venue. “We are located between two towns, 38 miles apart. People often ask if we are thinking of adding a restaurant, but it isn’t being considered at the moment.” For 2020, what’s ahead? “Different flavored fudge, for sure,” she laughed, although new flavor choices have yet to be determined.
At the Maui Ocean Center in Wailuku, Hawaii, Assistant Food and Beverage Manager Tiffany Devita said food and beverage changes over the years include an expanding focus on sustainability and local dishes. “We have been offering sustainable alternatives to serve and suggest to our guests. Currently our ahi, or big-eyed tuna, are overfished in Maui waters. So, we looked for new, creative options to replace that. We also added a plant-based Beyond Meat burger to our menu that gets lots of positive feedback. It’s our chef’s special daily, and sells very well.”
Along with alternative items, Maui Ocean Center’s Chef Henry, who has been at the center for 20 years, looks to “new and creative ways to use local products,” Devita said. “We use locally-grown ulu breadfruit in our risotto; we like to take what people are used to eating and put our own personal spin on it. For example, we offer a fresh catch of the day which varies by what our fisherman brings us. Chef Henry serves it two ways: as a special lunch platter, and as a sandwich,” she explained. “For example, today we had sugar cane shrimp paired with grilled mahi- mahi and avocado butter sauce; we also had a fresh catch mahi-mahi sandwich. You can get a fish sandwich anywhere, but here, we try to take it up a notch.” The center also offers kid-friendly food items such as hot dogs and grilled cheese, as well.
Devita related a strong demand for sit-down meals. “We have two venues, and one is a casual facility where guests can grab sandwiches and wraps; but since this is a walking aquarium without a lot of seated attractions, families come in for lunch daily or for dinner on the weekends and they like to sit down and relax in our Seascape Restaurant, to regroup and catch their breath. Sometimes that is due in part to not being used to the heat and humidity in our location.”
The environmentally friendly, Platinum Certified “Ocean Friendly Restaurant” is even serving a multi-course Christmas Day dinner.
And for 2020, the trend toward sustainability and locavore cuisine continues. “We’re always looking at new, local items to add to the menu. We’re getting rid of single-use plastic products in our grab-and-go packaging, and looking for packaging that doesn’t produce a lot of waste after eating. And of course, we are always looking for alternatives to overfishing.” With that in mind, the center is planning a new Mediterranean Taro Poke dish. “We have poke everywhere on the island, and we’re changing the concept with our local root vegetable, taro. Chef Henry flash-fries it, kind of like potato, and tosses it with ingredients similar to that in traditional poke. We call it our Land Poke. It’s a unique presentation, 100% vegan, and a very unique use of a local ingredient.”