Project focus: Cherokee Casino & Hotel

It wasn’t business as usual when Arlene Spiegel FCSI got to work at a project in Oklahoma. She tells Howard Riell how the pandemic forced changes to foodservice design

The Food Hall at the Cherokee Casino & Hotel West Siloam Springs in Oklahoma needed to serve a very specific purpose.

The goal was to create a dining model to replace the pre-pandemic shutdown, all-you-can-eat buffet while giving management more control over its hours of operation, the variety of foods offered, and multiple choices of ordering and delivering food to the guests. A great deal of emphasis was placed on the design and branding of the 10,000-sq-ft front-of-house space to ensure there would be no mistaking the venue for a buffet.

Further complicating the project was the need to accommodate the new realities brought about by the pandemic, as well as the need to have systems in place to handle any potential business interruption.

When Tulsa, Oklahoma-based Cherokee Nation Entertainment reached out to Arlene Spiegel FCSI, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates in New York City, to figure out what to do with its buffet restaurant following its shutdown, the veteran consultant created a food hall model for them.

The team with which Spiegel worked on the project included Glen Coben, president of Glen&Co in New York, as architect/designer; FCSI associate Linda Callahan of Annapolis, Maryland-based Next Step Design as foodservice kitchen designer; Rich Sullivan, president of Mobile, Alabama-based Red Square Agency overseeing graphics and visual design; and Eric Shoemaker, Cherokee Nation Entertainment’s food and beverage director.

Reimagining the concept

The job was to reimagine the food hall. “We utilized the old back of house from the buffet and created seven new, flexible concepts in the front of the house,” says Spiegel. “It really is brilliant and it is already being lauded as a big hit.”

While the operators were “nimble and creative” in their efforts to provide food for the guests at the buffet, Spiegel recalls, it became obvious that the space needed to be redesigned with flexibility in mind. “The food hall model was the perfect solution as each of the concepts offered more elevated, authentic, restaurant quality foods providing seven different cuisines to choose from.”

The food outlets, each of which operates as an independent business with its own menu and hours of operation, include:

  • Rise Coffee & Bakery, featuring Starbucks coffee, Teavana teas, fresh-baked goodies and grab-and-go snacks.
  • The Bar, offering classic cocktails, wines, beers and mixologist-blended concoctions.
  • BRGR & CHKN, serving hamburgers and chicken tenders along with hand-cut house fries.
  • El Taco, with authentic tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and bowls, as well as a variety of fixings and sauces.
  • Field to Fork Flatbreads and Greens, offering freshly tossed salads, savory artisan flatbreads and seasonal soups.
  • Jetstream Sammies, with a menu that includes sandwiches from around the globe
  • Pit Boss Smokehouse, serving low-and-slow-cooked meats with traditional barbecue side dishes.

Depending on the day of the week and live entertainment events, daily customer counts can range from 300 to 1,000, says Shoemaker. Projections at full operation for the first fiscal year call for it to exceed $7m, excluding private events. The average per-person full meal spend is $13.

The kitchen workhorses are the smokers, convection ovens, grills, tilting skillets and kettles, while out front they are undercounter refrigeration, hot/cold displays, and hot/cold holding units.

The team also upgraded the technology to allow guests to order from free-standing kiosks at the entrance or from an app on their mobile phones, and designed separate pick-up areas at each venue for added convenience.

Coben says he wanted to create an inviting space that could become “an oasis within the casino, a respite from the chaos of the activities in the building, but also a platform to bring some of the Cherokee stories of community to the forefront.”

The large gathering space includes intimate areas of seating but also functions as a quasi-town square. Muted colors and traditional Cherokee patterns and textures provide the space with warmth and neutrality, “all allowing the focus to be on the individual food kiosks,” Coben explains. “They are the true shining stars, and are meant to be unique and look self-sufficient, although we know the cleverness is that the kiosks are connected behind the scenes to allow staff to support each of them.”

Catering to a Covid world

The buffet model proved to be “troublesome in a Covid world,” Spiegel explains, as it provided very little control over maintaining safe distances for guests in the queue. Also, the self-serve buffet did little to quell their concerns about safety and sanitation. The buffet also provided “very limited” options for the operators in terms of hours of operation and the variety and quantity of foods offered by the complex.

“A buffet model is used to provide an overabundance of food made in large quantities throughout the day and night,” says Spiegel. “A food hall model has focused, limited menus and allows food to be made in smaller quantities based on demand.”

Fortunately, the property had two independent food venues separate from the buffet that satisfied the food needs of the guests. There was a counter-service coffee-bakery concept off the lobby called Sweet Treats, and a full-service steakhouse called Flint Creek. Both outlets modified their menus and hours of operation to accommodate the guests who no longer had the buffet as a dining option.

The steakhouse opened for breakfast, and the bakery/coffee store added grab-and-go sandwiches and salads to fill in the blanks. The existing cooking and baking equipment in the back-of-house commissary kitchen allowed for the seamless supply of prepared foods.

Designing flexibility

One of a consultant’s most important roles is to help mitigate risks and optimize space in the face of business interruption.

“Business interruptions can and will take place, and operators now realize that they need to design their foodservice programs to be flexible. In fact, designing flexibility is a key criterion for success, regardless of the type of operation,” says Spiegel. “Once we realized that we could take care of guests from these two venues, ownership committed to shutting down the buffet.”

In a host environment such as a hotel, gaming or entertainment complex, a food operation needs to be prepared to deliver meals to guests that are on the property. This includes being able to receive orders from a website, app, mobile kiosks, and mobile phones in case the venue cannot accommodate traditional seating.

“QR-coded menus that can be scanned are particularly helpful as they are easily accessible,” says Spiegel. Chefs have also developed limited menus that can travel well and have tested the products in both ceramic and disposable take-out packaging. “Being prepared to operate with the least amount of disruption is now part of the training in smart operations.”

Guests have said they enjoy the added options and convenience. “One of the best signs of success for us was the frequent visits by local business folks and residents,” Shoemaker concludes. “The Food Hall put Cherokee Hotel & Casino on the map as a destination for a great meal.”

Howard Riell

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