13- Aug2020
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“Excellent Zoo, Terrible Food Court”

Museums, Botanical Gardens and Performing Arts Centers have spent more than a decade changing the perception of what it means to dine on-site at a cultural institution; Flora Bar at the Met Breuer, Mitsitam at the Smithsonian and Verde at the Perez Art Museum Miami are all examples of how an on-site food service program can elevate and support a mission driven organization. As consultants we are always watching trends and trying to understand how they impact our clients and the markets we serve. It is interesting that there has not been as stronger demand for more unique experiences for on-site dining at Zoos and Aquariums.

The perception of ‘zoo food’ is that the menu must include chicken fingers, French fries, and pizza to be considered family friendly. I agree that these items are fan favorites and should be part of the menu, but the quality, level of variety and presentation do not need to be compromised because it is considered kid friendly. Additionally, the overall guest experience should be as engaging and welcoming as possible.

I was recently looking at Trip Advisor to survey posted reviews about dining at zoos and aquariums across the country; what I found was very disturbing:

  • “Food service very slow, terrible – Food service experience alone will ruin your day here. They’re slow and lazy and they don’t care.”
  • “Food is terrible – Eat before you go or bring a picnic lunch because the food is substandard even at normal prices.”
  • “Excellent zoo! Terrible food court – My only gripe with the zoo was the horrible food pavilion. Every person behind the counter looked completely lost and after about 10 minutes of waiting in line for their deli and grill that wasn’t moving at all, I decided not to waste my time and went for a slice of pizza. Very disappointing.”

Food may not be the main reason why patrons choose to visit your zoo or aquarium; but it can certainly become one of the main reasons they decide not to come back. As a food service consultant who has focused most of my career working with mission driven organizations, it pains me to see such a disparity in alignment between a mission driven organization and the management of the food service program. On-site food services should be an amenity; a desirable and useful addition to the experience – not the opposite.

Today, food is considered a hot topic; whether it is discussing sourcing and sustainability, allergies, plant-based options or flavor profile – consumers are educated! There is a great opportunity for Operators to develop more thoughtful and diverse menus that can appeal to both kids and adults and speak to the mission of the organization. It is time to change the perception of what it means to dine at the zoo or aquarium.

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