Hospitality N Illinois

Forget the mini bar—this is how hotels can maximize F&B profit

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Hotel operators have long treated pantries—the “grab and go” food options carved out of lobbies—as oversized vending machines. Lacking the time and expertise to put extra effort into these spaces, they have languished as minor and oft-ignored guest amenities.

In the wake of the Great Recession, however, revenue per available room (RevPAR) plummeted and owners were on the lookout for something, anything to boost the bottom line. Coinciding with this, budget-conscious business travelers curtailed their room service and restaurant spending.

With these two factors combined, savvy hotel owners have discovered that the hotel pantry can be not only a reliable source of cash flow, but a way to improve guest satisfaction.

“Hotel owners today understand that every square foot of a lobby is retail space that needs to provide a return on investment, and that pantries offer high margins on a small investment,” said Sam Cicero, Jr., president of Cicero’s Development Corp., a general contractor specializing in hospitality renovations.

According to Cicero, hotel owners have a ready model to follow: grocery stores. Whole Foods and Trader Joe’s, for example, encourage impulse buying by creating authentic atmospheres. Because a hotel pantry occupies a small fraction of the space of a big box grocery store, high-end retail elements like reclaimed wood flooring, hand-crafted signage, local architectural details and comfortable lighting can be installed on a small budget.

So how can hotel owners capture the full value of a lobby pantry project? According to Cicero, it starts with location, i.e.: high-traffic areas. A pantry hidden away where guests won’t easily encounter it not only hurts sales, it emboldens shoplifters. Ideally, a pantry space should be built out as part of a full lobby renovation, but capitalizing on a high-visibility empty nook in the lobby may suffice.

One hospitality project that Cicero’s worked on was the Fairfield Inn and Suites by Marriott in Bedford Park, Illinois, a few blocks from Chicago's Midway Airport. Working with architectural/interior/ADA design firm Weglarz Company, the wide-ranging renovation impacted, among other areas, the hotel’s lobby. This included a pantry immediately adjacent to the reception area.

Guests with a disability can experience access problems that able-bodied persons might not necessarily think of when shopping. Guests in wheelchairs, for example, might not be able to maneuver easily if displays are placed in the middle of the aisle. Consulting an attorney or architect who specializes in ADA compliance before a pantry build-out project begins can reduce headaches later on.

Materials matter too. Drop-in shelving systems are cost effective, fit into most standard millwork and permit vertical merchandising; consider spring-loaded mechanisms to maximize shelf space and keep the pantry looking fully-stocked. Flooring can simultaneously create an inviting atmosphere and define key areas through a transition of colors and textures. A pantry with its own distinctive visual style will separate it from the rest of the lobby and draw guests inside.

As hotel pantries tend to be very small quarters, designing with the illusion of space in mind can stop them from crossing the line from cozy to cramped. The simple artist’s rule—cool colors recede and warm colors advance—can make smaller spaces seem more expansive. Using light colors on the walls and fixtures, white, grays and even light yellows and blues, can make the space feel more open and welcoming.