The coronavirus pandemic has accelerated change in numerous areas of hotel F&B programs that were already ripe for transformation. One in particular is room service. Even before coronavirus, there was a shift throughout the industry away from traditional in-room dining service as a cost-cutting measure, since the labor and supplies needed to execute room service often outweighs any revenues that department generates.
In addition, many travelers today don’t want someone entering their rooms and going through the motions of verifying the order, making small talk with a server and signing a physical check. In recent years, many hotels have modified their in-room dining programs to accommodate this customer preference (and cut labor costs in the process) by turning to a bag-drop scenario similar to a fast-food delivery where the order is packaged in to-go containers and left in front of a guestroom door.
Many travelers in luxury-tier full-service properties still prefer and expect an upscale presentation of food when they order room service. However, pandemic precautions have taken the person-to-person delivery necessary for a chef-crafted presentation out of the equation. For hotels aiming to maintain some level of luxury for in-room dining during and after the pandemic, butler pantries might be the solution.
A butler pantry, left, is a two-way compartment accessible from the hallway and from inside a guest room. They’re approximately the size of a small refrigerator (2’ x 3’ x 2’) and can have two or more shelves, where a thoughtfully presented meal is placed inside from the hallway, and the guest can retrieve it intact as the chef intended at their convenience. When the customer is finished, they place the dishes back into the butler pantry, and an attendant will pick it up. No person-to-person interaction, and no hallways littered with used room service trays.
Obie Hospitality—a boutique hotel company with properties in Eugene, Ore., and Boise, Idaho, was serendipitously set up for the pandemic and subsequent demand for touchless, contactless room service because they already had butler pantries in every room of their hotels.
"Our guests are ecstatic about the butler pantries,” says Adam Altwies, GM of Obie’s 110-room Inn at 500 Capitol in Boise, which opened in 2017. “They enjoyed them before the pandemic, but now, there’s a heightened appreciation for being able to receive deliveries without human interaction, and the result is a more elevated in-room dining experience that’s well-crafted but also extremely hands-off. Our guests have also relied on the pantries for non-room service deliveries, such as fresh towels and linens.”
Obie’s President and CEO Brian Obie was inspired to install butler pantries after traveling in Europe and seeing older hotels bring food up through dumbwaiters. Both Inn at 500 Capitol and Inn at the 5th in Eugene (69 rooms) are new-build properties, so the pantries were included in the construction plans at approximately $750 each. A third Obie property called the Gordon Hotel (82 rooms) in Eugene is scheduled to open in January and will also have butler pantries in each room.
Inn at 500 Capitol is where James Beard nominee (2014) Chef Richard Langston has his namesake Richard’s restaurant, which provides room service for the hotel as well as onsite dining. Even though Inn at 500 Capitol was well-positioned to continue its room service program during the pandemic using its butler pantries, the property has had to make a few changes to accommodate coronavirus concerns.
“Since the pandemic, we’ve limited our hours for when we offer room service. It’s only available from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m., when we make Richard’s dinner menu available,” says Altwies. “Guests can be disappointed, especially when they want to order breakfast, which is certainly popular for room service. It does take some communication and understanding from customers because it’s such a difficult time for restaurants and the hospitality industry in general.”
Despite the drop in breakfast and lunch options for room service at Inn at 500 Capitol, Altwies says approximately 30% of their guests are ordering in-room dining dinner during their stay. He attributes that steady number to the peace of mind the butler pantries bring to customers during the pandemic, and even before COVID-19, the butler pantries addressed growing guest preferences for convenience, privacy, security and cleanliness.
“We plan to return to our normal hours as soon as we can,” Altwies says, “but in terms of operations, this pandemic has taught us that our system using these butler pantries were an amazing investment. We won’t be changing anything because they work really well.”