Small fortunes: food and beverage operations4 July 2014
Much talk surrounds signature restaurants and all-you-can-eat buffets, but smaller food and beverage operations can help enhance the character of a ship and create valuable revenue opportunities. From New York-inspired hot-dog stands to 50s-style ice cream parlours, Will Hawkes chows down with Norwegian Cruise Line’s Michael Flesch.
A hot-dog stand. It is not, to put it mildly, what you expect to find on a cruise ship. Fine dining? Yes. A wide variety of cuisines? Certainly. Celebrity-chef-inspired food? Very likely. But a hot-dog stand, that icon of down-to-earth New York culture? Not really.
It makes more sense, though, when you see the hull of the ship in question, the Norwegian Breakaway. There, you'll find a pop-art image depicting New York's skyline, for this is a vessel inspired by and devoted to the Big Apple - the city in which it is based, and from where it sails to the Caribbean weekly. The New York theme runs through the on-board offering, which also includes Brooklyn Lager, dance classes by New York icons The Rockettes and outlets run by Cake Boss star Buddy Valastro, owner of the Hoboken-based Carlo's Bakery.
In that context, the hot-dog stands (provided by Sabrett, 'New York's number one') make perfect sense. For Michael Flesch, Norwegian Cruise Line's senior vice-president, hotel operations, the carts are a crucial element in evoking New York on board.
"The hot-dog carts help to add to the specific New York experience on board the ship," he says. "I think, on all of our itineraries, we try to create features that are representative of some of the areas that we're cruising. That might mean local specialities in our main dining room, something that gives a sense of where we're visiting; we change our menus to represent the area we're cruising.
"There's a lot of benefit from doing the carts, because they're synonymous with New York City. So many people are flying in and only get to spend a few hours in the city, and then will get off the ship and go straight to the airport on the way back, so any way that we can recreate that experience for them, and have a little fun with it... I think it makes sense. We've been fairly successful at doing that."
The same theory applies to the Carlo's Bake Shop concession, too. "That is another good example," he says. "We were talking to Buddy Valastro because we were looking for outlets that were unique to New York. Buddy in is Hoboken [in New Jersey], so he has a huge presence in the New York market. That was a great tie-in, in terms of trying to bring the best of New York to the ship. That's been successful as well."
Keeping in character
The success of these ventures demonstrates how smaller food outlets can help to set the tone of a ship, creating valuable revenue opportunities and adding crucial variety to a guest's experience on board. Flesch says guests appreciate the flexibility it offers.
"It allows us to offer a lot of different things to the guests," he says. "If you only have food service in the main dining rooms or the buffets, you're limited in what variety you can offer. By having these hot-dog carts or other smaller venues, we're able to offer the maximum amount of variety - and things that guests didn't expect to find on the cruise.
"That's why we're going to continue to look for ways that we can offer these unique experiences - to give guests a good taste of the place we're in, of course, but also to create different experiences they wouldn't expect on a ship. It's difficult to create variety in a 1,000-seat dining room."
Such has been the success of the Carlo's Bake Shop concept, it will be installed in Norwegian's other ships this year, Flesch says.
"We're rolling that out into our other vessels," he says. "It's a great partnership with our coffee bar. Not only do we have a unique coffee bar, but now we have something else that guests wouldn't be able to experience otherwise, in a relatively small area. There's a lot of benefit, the guests love it."
The inevitable question that follows is this: if all successful concessions are rolled out across the fleet, what happens to a boat's individual character? If you have hot-dog stalls on every vessel, isn't the magic lost? Flesch says Norwegian will avoid diluting each boat's special flavour by being flexible in its approach.
"Our theory is that we'll have unique offerings on our ships," he says. "On Norwegian Getaway [the company's newest ship, which features a Miami-inspired hull adorned by a mermaid designed by local artist Lebo], we have the Flamingo Bar and Grill and, outside of another ship that may home-port in Miami, you probably won't see us do that again - its unique to the ship, it's the personality of the ship, and it fits extremely well with the itinerary.
"Then we have things that you can push across the whole fleet - our noodle bars, for example; we'll find ways to roll it out, because our guests are excited about it. Then, of course, we have our core brands; we want them to be on all of our ships. The guests that come to know Norwegian, will be able to know they can experience those core brands."
One of the key factors in the rise of small-scale food operations is the growth of open-air spaces, as evidenced by The Waterfront, a promenade designed to connect guests with the ocean, on board both members of the Breakaway class. "We looked at the success of outdoor seating areas, and it was something we felt we could do better with," explains Flesch.
Not all at sea
The company, it appears, is constantly looking at its competitors - on and off the water - to see what it could be doing better. It's one of the factors that has driven the popularity of small-scale food offerings, says Flesch.
"If you look at the trend in the hotel industry and the restaurant industry, it's that people want things fast but they want high quality and they want variety," he says. "One of the ways to offer that is to give them grab-and-go or small a la carte portions. Our sushi bar is a very good example of that - you can walk up, sit down, pick a couple of different things at a very reasonable a la carte price, and then move on.
"I think that it's important for us to focus on things like that. These aren't high-ticket options for us, but what they do is offer the guest variety, a different experience at a very reasonable buy-in price. Each guest can customise what they would like to eat. There are times when the guest really doesn't know what they want, so giving them a little more leeway and variety, at a reasonable price and with smaller portions, is appealing to them."
Norwegian's commitment to ensuring it's on top of all food trends means it has recently appointed a vice-president of product development, Frank Weber - formerly vice-president of food and beverage operations at Royal Caribbean - to ensure nothing interesting is missed.
"He has the tough job of going to land-based operations and assessing them," says Flesch. "We really feel our competition is anybody that opens their door and is trying to woo our guests into a vacation experience - whether that's the all-inclusive resorts that are growing in numbers, the big casino operations in Vegas or wherever.
"We want to make sure we can match that experience. We're very interested. We probably spend as much time focused on land-based trends as we do worrying about our competition at sea."
The final advantage of small-scale food and beverage operations is the ability to remove them when the time comes.
"We're always challenging ourselves," says Flesch. "Do we have the right outlets? Can we update them and make them more relevant? Do we need to change them altogether?
"This happens with our bigger outlets, too. A couple of years ago, we had a Tex-Mex restaurant on all of our ships - we decided to remove that and replace it with Moderno Churrascaria, a Brazilian steakhouse concept. That was based on looking at what was hot and what was not on land.
"That was one of the reasons we ended up with seafood restaurants on the Breakaway and the Getaway - because it was the number-one item that guests said they were looking for in a restaurant experience."
That guest feedback is crucial, and it's the smaller food and beverage operations' popularity with guests that suggests they're here to stay.
"It really helps us in giving the guest a lot of value," says Flesch. "They don't feel that they have to go to a specialist restaurant and spend a large amount of money. We're getting very good feedback."