-By June Allan Corrigan

Guests never go hungry at Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill. Not when there are over 20 food options ranging from snack stands to sit-down restaurants featured at various points around the grounds. General Manager Brad Robertson stated the concessions business has always been a segment of the hospitality industry that relies solely on the expected – your ubiquitous burgers, hot dogs, chicken tenders and sweet treats – but at Brookfield Zoo they are thoughtfully working to take that core and make it reflect what is going on in the broader restaurant industry.
“The future is plant based as more and more people try to reduce their animal protein intake,” said Robertson. Consumers have become quite familiar with plant-based meats like Impossible and Beyond although price point and availability present a challenge and of course, they do not appeal to strict vegetarians at all. Some of the ways Brookfield Zoo has chosen to address this growing trend is to offer fresh seasonal salad programs, grain bowls as well as putting a spin on vegetarian options like falafel, presenting it as their “falafel burger.”
The increasingly adventurous palates of guests accustomed or willing to try different flavors and global cuisines has given the culinary team at Brookfield Zoo license to experiment. “We’re now utilizing items that would have once intimidated the average guest. Spicy, umami, and funky fermented ingredients are becoming common place, and our menus currently feature ingredients like gochujang, kimchi, fish sauce, jerk spices and garam masala,” Robertson said.

Brad Robertson, general manager for SSA at the Brookfield Zoo in Brookfield, Ill., displaying menu options available to guests at the zoo’s restaurants. They include (from top clockwise) Angus burger, sweet n’ hot chicken sandwich, Buddha bowl, and umami dog. Guests are increasingly willing to try different flavors and global cuisines, according to the general manager. Photo credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo.

Similar things are happening at the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Ill. Guests are gravitating towards vegetarian offerings and at the same time they’re willing to experiment. “People are ready to get back out there and be re-engaged. They’ve been locked up and have gotten more adventuresome with their food choices and in their cooking so they want to see and try new things,” said Gerhard Bradford Bussen aka Chef Brad, who as Regional Executive Chef oversees Shedd Aquarium and a number of other venues in the Midwest.
In response, Shedd Aquarium has introduced more vegetarian options – items like a custom created black bean burger. “The onsite chef there makes his own in-house pizza as well and there are some different grain bowls that we run periodically,” said Chef Brad. Gluten-free offerings include composed salads. “We’re currently getting ready to switch over to a roasted summer salad that we’re confident will appeal to both vegetarians and the gluten-free crowd.”

The seasonal Tacos Caja food truck at Brookfield Zoo offers street tacos filled with onions, cilantro, fresh salsa, and a choice of chicken, pork carnitas, or vegetarian with crispy zucchini. Nachos and cinnamon sugar churros are also available to purchase. The attraction’s general manager said “the future is plant-based.” Photo credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo.

Of course, there is plenty of the traditional fare one typically associates with family attractions on hand at the Shedd. “The most popular still today, at cultural institutions, is chicken tenders, burgers and hot dogs, especially in Chicago,” said Chef Brad. The explanation is these items are easily recognizable but what sets things apart at this venue is that they sustainably source. “Our cod is sustainably sourced. All of our chicken is antibiotic and hormone free. And we really market that fact to make sure people understand we’re serving the best quality ingredients. Because there are times when people experience some sticker shock. But we want to offer only the best food and the best experience possible while people are at the Shedd.”
It so happens specific dietary constraints are even influencing Southern-style cooking. That is the kind of food served at Pannie-George’s Kitchen which has two Alabama locations. One is in Auburn and the other is the onsite food venue at The Legacy Museum in Montgomery. “We cater to people who come from all over to visit the Museum so we have vegetarian and vegan options, gluten-free and diary free as well, because we know these are things that some people want. So, there’s always something on the menu they can eat,” said General Manager Jerelene Askew who has put considerable effort into the process. “We want people to be able to enjoy our food but we never want to take away from the Southern style flavors we started out with.”
It’s difficult for Askew to pin down the most popular items served at Pannie-George’s Kitchen. “It depends on the day and the person.” Mostly she thinks it’s what they have their heart set on when they come through the door. For some, it could be black-eyed peas or collard greens. For others, it could be macaroni and cheese or fried chicken. “People will tell us anybody can sell fried chicken but not everybody can cook fried chicken like we do. We love what we do and we put that into our food. In fact, that’s one of our slogans – cooking with love – and people respond to it.”
Pannie-George’s Kitchen uses only farm-fresh ingredients – even their catfish is farm-raised. The menu changes up daily to incorporate different proteins and sides, sometimes introducing uncommon items like rutabagas which guests might not have tasted before. “When they do, they’ll often say oh, my god! This is the best thing I’ve ever eaten! For many visitors, our food is an opportunity to learn what Southern cooking is all about,” said Askew. And all the while, she and her staff continue to tinker with and adjust their recipes to meet the dietary requirements of health-conscious visitors, even if that means offerings two versions of the same dish.

BZ Red Hots is one of several restaurants that offers a variety of menu items at Brookfield Zoo. Selections include Chicago-style hot dogs, pizza, nachos, and hot pretzels The location’s menu is reflective of the broader restaurant industry, according to the general manager. Photo credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo.

There are other trends afoot post-pandemic according to Brookfield Zoo. Self-ordering kiosks and the ability to order food from a smart phone came about because of it and these examples of increased technological use are not likely to disappear. “They’re tools that not only allow us to reach more guests but help us mitigate staffing and procurement challenges we face,” said Robertson. Brookfield Zoo typically welcomes more than two million guests annually. That number was down the past two years due to state-mandated capacity restrictions. Those are now lifted and attendance numbers are beginning to rebound to pre-pandemic levels.
Another trend? Brookfield Zoo says social media factors into menu programming now. “An over-the-top loaded hot dog, glutinous desserts, or a Buddha bowl full of colorful fresh veggies are certainly delicious in their own right,” explained Robertson. However, the fact that they photograph well make them even stronger contenders for a slot when devising a park menu.

The Coop, a seasonal food truck at Brookfield Zoo, features hand-breaded chicken tenders served in a basket, or as a sandwich. Photo credit: Cathy Bazzoni/CZS-Brookfield Zoo.

Meanwhile, at Shedd Aquarium, they are very focused on healthy presentation of food to younger adults and getting them started on the right path nutrition-wise. Chef Brad acknowledges the Impossible Burger is a great option at the venue which continues to see strong and higher than projected attendance numbers in wake of the pandemic. (Pre-pandemic, Shedd welcomed nearly two million guests every year. In 2021, the aquarium had nearly 1.3 million guests.) “However, some people still ask, ‘where’s the beef?’” so eventually we will be rolling out a blended burger here that is part of the James Beard Foundation’s Blended Burger Project™. Ours will be between 45 and 60 percent roasted vegetables blended with Angus beef. So, it’s still a burger but it’s a much better tasting burger.” It will also be a more cost-conscious addition in light of today’s rising food prices.
The challenge would appear to be how to make attractive, healthy options that tastes better than the original while still making people feel like they are getting something special and unique on a day out at a zoo, aquarium, or museum. “I think what you are going to see happening more in the field are blends and things like that that are made on-site and really help sell a venue’s bigger view, if you will,” Chef Brad concluded.