After a nearly three-year break from running his own restaurant, Mark Ladner is back in the saddle. The award-winning chef has opened Italian neo-trattoria Bar Enza, and he’s decided to do it in a hotel in Cambridge, Massachusetts — something someone of his caliber as a chef who has run MICHELIN-starred kitchens might not have considered in the past.
“Hotel restaurants are much more elevated and high-quality than they were ten years ago,” Ladner says. “They’re no longer an afterthought simply for hotel guests, but are culinary destinations on their own.”
Ladner’s not alone in this evolving notion. Other acclaimed chefs across the country are gravitating toward opening restaurants in hotels, which has traditionally not been the choice for sought-after chefs opening hot new ventures.
But in a post-COVID environment, the advantages are too many to pass up. As the stressors of the pandemic linger — like sourcing cleaning materials, enforcing safety protocols, and struggling to hire — hotel partnerships are more appetizing than ever before for Ladner and other restaurateurs. Here’s why chefs are increasingly linking their names to hotels.
Relieving some financial stress
Chef Justin Urso always imagined himself behind a stove, not behind a desk crunching numbers. The executive chef of The Dial — a cornerstone of new boutique hotel 907 Main in Cambridge, Massachusetts — says realizing his goals is a lot easier thanks to his arrangement.
“Sonder is such a great partner to have in the building. Our team works in conjunction with them on a lot of property-specific items and can share costs,” like those to maintain common areas, Urso says. “That definitely helps. COVID has obviously changed how restaurants look at revenue, because they’re already running on tight margins.”
Re-evaluating any arrangement that can take some of the financial burden off of plates of those like him so they can focus on what they love to do — cook — is becoming more and more attractive, Urso says. “Owning and operating like this absolutely makes sense from a business perspective.”
In the Big Easy, managing several freestanding locations during the pandemic was anything but easy for those reasons and more, says James Beard Award-winning chef and restaurateur Donald Link. But a new partnership with the Four Seasons to open Chemin à la Mer affords him multiple opportunities he may not have had otherwise.
“With my independent restaurants, there’s certainly more of a personal financial investment. With Chemin à la Mer, I’m excited to have some of that stress lifted to focus on the menu,” he says. Link was able to do some research during trips to Europe, where he says he was “inspired by the transformation he’s seeing in French food and cooking. I find it more exciting than ever, so that’s what we created here — a vibrant French-style steakhouse.”
For many chef-owners like himself, it’s typically difficult to take more than a few days off at a time for such development opportunities if they have to manage a freestanding property. The Four Seasons space also gives Link a chance to invest in a neighborhood of his native New Orleans without what otherwise would have been a massive financial commitment — the luxury hotel chain bought the property for a total revitalization after Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc on the building formerly in its space.
Sharing branding power and resources
The Four Seasons is a household name, which certainly helps attract diners deciding where to spend their dollars. At Wildflower restaurant in Denver, nestled inside 16-guest room hotel Life House Lower Highlands, general manager Oren Cohen believes “a rising tide lifts all boats.” The new boutique property’s recent placement in Condé Nast Traveler’s list of the top hotels in the world has brought additional attention to the intimate space serving up locally sourced, plant-forward plates.
Cohen — whose cocktail bar and restaurant closed in the earlier stages of the pandemic — says he was excited to partner on a new hospitality project not only for co-branding opportunities, but also for co-sourcing some very valuable resources these days. The restaurant industry’s competition for resources both human and material can be especially challenging, especially for smaller outlets, he says.
“COVID restrictions are taken very seriously here,” Cohen says. “We’ve been able to consolidate our supplies to make sure every area meets sanitation standards. The way we’d break down a hotel room, we break down each and every table the same way.”
For Link, the ability for a hotel restaurant to potentially provide better benefits for staff in order to attract talent was also an added advantage for the hiring process. And since Life House and Wildflower staff have the same training, staff can transition to working in different roles between the two spaces, Cohen adds.
The same is true for Los Angeles chef Suzanne Goin and her Lucques Group business partner Caroline Styne. At their A.O.C. restaurants in Brentwood and West Hollywood, they say they are lucky to have a food runner who is also a handyman. But not all restaurants are as fortunate, says Goin — which makes Lucques’s partnership with Los Angeles’s Proper Hotel even more of a win. “It’s amazing to have an engineering department when the refrigeration goes out, a housekeeping department that keeps things super clean, and also not be the person dealing with human resources issues,” she says of her brand-new Cara Cara and Caldo Verde restaurants.
Partnering to addressing supply woes
Another added bonus to operating hotel locations is enhanced purchasing power. “Having a dedicated purchaser is wonderful — as is a team that deals with all the deliveries and keeps the walk-ins so clean and organized,” Goin says.
At his brand-new Bar Enza in Boston, Ladner says a partnership with The Charles Hotel extends the reach of his relationships with local suppliers and purveyors — as does the hotel’s on-site farmers market. That’s important now that many ingredients are harder to source due to ongoing supply-chain woes.
Another pivotal factor for Ladner’s decision to partner was the Charles’s on-site covered garage. While the restaurant is in a sought-after neighborhood — right in the shadow of Harvard University — it is also a difficult one to find parking in.
Balancing location with creative license
Executive chef David Bazirgan has spent the majority of his career helming hotel restaurants, mostly recently one in a large hotel chain near public transit and a bustling shopping center. That foot traffic helped support a thriving bar business, while the hotel’s banquet business accounted for 50 percent of restaurant revenue, he says.
But while having a “captive audience” can help keep institutions in the black, those arrangements can come with their own pitfalls, Bazirgan says. It used to be that hotel restaurants had to stick to the same script of omelets, Continental breakfasts, chicken clubs, and burgers. But hoteliers are realizing that having a unique restaurant with a big-name chef is a draw in and of itself, so they’re handing over creative reins to partner chefs. It’s a win-win situation.
Bazirgan says he’s happier today at award-winner Uni in Boston’s tony Back Bay neighborhood, where he’s given the freedom to balance profitability with culinary creativity. “We’re not catering to the masses and pigeonholed into ‘typical’ hotel food like a chicken breast or a hamburger,” he says. “We can cook basically whatever we want.” That gives him the opportunity to put his own stamp on a globally inspired menu that includes personal touches like flavors from his family’s Armenian heritage.
With competition for diners venturing out post-pandemic — and high expectations — unique menus and high-quality service at hotel restaurants will be the norm and not the exception, believes Ladner. The sentiment is shared by Cohen, who says restaurants and hotels both share a common ethos.
“Dining out and staying in a hotel go hand-in-hand; they’re both guest-focused and experiential,” Cohen says. “The essence of each is ‘hospitality.’”
Carley Thornell-Wade is a Boston-based food, travel, and technology writer.