When Jasmine Cook sees guests happily licking ice cream cones at the Rodger Williams Park Zoo, she feels a deep satisfaction. “People are enjoying every minute of their stay here,” said Cook, the zoo’s Food Services Manager. “They all say how safe they’ve felt at the zoo. And that’s a huge deal: It means this is a place they can come back to, to take their minds off everything else that’s going on and just have a good time.”
It may look easy, but reconfiguring the zoo dining experience around the COVID pandemic has taken a lot of work. Salt shakers and ketchup bottles have vanished from tables; patrons now have to request condiments directly. Single-use and individually wrapped items, phased out during a decade of environmental awareness, are back. Hygiene protocols include wiping down tables after every guest.
But most notably, social distancing mandates have forced food managers to rethink everything from seating to the ordering and pickup routine — and in the process, broken the traditional rapport between food service workers and their guests.
“One of the biggest adjustments has been not engaging directly with the customer,” said Cook. “We used to go right up to the tables, chat with them — ‘How are you all today?’ We can’t do any of that now.”
When the Roger Williams Park Zoo reopened in June, the indoor dining room remained closed. Masked patrons now scan a menu screen before ordering at a window and receiving a buzzer; when it sounds, food is ready for pickup at another window. During the warm summer months, patrons eat either on the patio, where umbrellas shade diners at 19 tables, or at a picnic area near the gift shop.
As at many zoo eateries, the Roger Williams menu has been scaled back so the smaller staff can handle more complex logistics. “We used to offer four types of burgers,” said Cook. “Now we’ve got two on the menu, along with fewer specialty hot dogs.”
A streamlined selection and outdoor dining are also on the menu at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center in Glen Rose, Texas, since it reopened in mid-May. Dining operations actually resumed three weeks later to allow the team to put new protocols into place, said Kalee Roberson, a Team Lead. “We’ve got great cooks here who work tirelessly to make delicious food,” Roberson said. Offerings include meat and plant-based burgers, salads, and a children’s menu with staples like peanut butter sandwiches.
Roberson said the Wildlife Center has seen record numbers of visitors this past summer, reflecting the public’s desire to recreate in safe, outdoor spaces. To make sure hungry patrons are socially distanced, the Fossil Rim dining room is closed; diners input orders on sanitized touch screens, then pick up their meals to eat on picnic tables.
At Caldwell Zoo in Tyler, Texas, floor markings designate where patrons should stand six feet apart. The two-way traffic flow in the dining area has been reduced to one way, with strict limits on the number of diners and Plexiglass dividers between them. Outdoor seating has been the only option since the zoo reopened in mid-May, said Food Services Manager Heather Kraemer.
Sales of pre-packaged treats have shot up at Caldwell and other zoos and aquariums nationwide, as nervous diners seek to avoid potentially infected food handlers. At the Caldwell eatery, Kraemer said popular new items include frozen Sour Patch Kids, Lemon Chill, and Mini Melts ice cream. “And lots and lots of bottled water,” she added.
Many smaller zoos and wildlife centers do not have kitchens or restaurant facilities, finding it more practical to sell snacks and drinks. One of those is Great Cats World Park, a privately owned zoo in Cave Junction, Ore. “We were hoping to break ground on a restaurant this year, but obviously due to the Covid-19 outbreak, we’re putting that on hold,” said Manager Farrah Conti. The facility was shuttered for two months between March and May, and when it reopened, the existing selection of pre-packaged snacks turned out to suit the moment. In the Park’s gift shop, visitors can buy sodas, juices, protein and granola bars, ice cream and other grab-and-go pick-me-ups.
Proving that there’s more than one recipe for success, Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Fla., has succeeded with its plentiful gourmet offerings, all made from scratch on-site. “Our sanitation program is such that there is no concern among the guests, the staff or my bosses whatsoever,” said Food Services General Manager Thomas Yeatman. When the zoo reopened in mid-May after a month-and-a-half-long closure, it cut no corners on a menu that includes a tomato and mozzarella salad, Mediterranean Baja bowls, turkey wraps, and a variety of burger toppings. Along with upscale takes on traditional zoo eats, Brevard Zoo also has a pizzeria, an ice cream stand, and kiosks for both Dippin’ Dots and Icees.
“We’re small enough not to have to adjust our menu too much,” Yeatman noted. “We pride ourselves here at this location on offering some pretty elaborate fare that one would not necessarily find at a zoo, along with the typical things that many people do want when they come to a zoo.”
Brevard was especially fortunate not to have to alter its dining arrangements, either: All of its existing seating was already outdoors. “We were pretty lucky in not having to worry about that,” Yeatman said. The biggest operational changes were around hygiene, following CDC and local guidelines, as well as protocols from the concession’s corporate headquarters. Face masks and plexiglass are ubiquitous, and along with the daily temperature check, arriving workers also face a verbal symptom checklist. “I ask every single worker every single question every single day when they come into work,” Yeatman said.
Another change is the return of disposable, single-use items. Like many zoos and aquariums, Brevard Zoo had consciously phased out plastic straws, utensils and the like. “We’re four miles from the ocean, and on a coastal property, we need to be cognizant of doing everything we can to be environmentally friendly,” said Yeatman. But with patrons wary of contagion, the new protocol involves eco-friendly, compostable disposable products. “Once this all ends,” Yeatman added, “we’ll go back to eliminating single-use items.”
For now, patrons seemed happy to go along with the new dining experience — as evidenced by rising attendance at natural attractions. “It’s been a big adjustment for us to learn all the new protocols and train the whole staff and make sure we get everything right,” reflected Jasmine Cook of Roger Williams Park Zoo. “But in the end, I think we’ve succeeded.”