One of the conference highlights at the Southern Gaming Summit this May was a session that brought together several celebrity chefs and casino executives to discuss what the new foodie era means for the gaming business. 

Jonathan Jones, the GM of Harrah’s Gulf Coast, who made new food and beverage options a cornerstone of last year’s revamp of what used to be Grand Casino Biloxi, started things off with a question about the evolution of food in the gaming industry. The answers follow:

Tom Ramsey, La Fenestra in Jackson, Miss.: “Before getting into the restaurant business, I did a lot of work with the gaming sector as an investment banker. I watched the foodservice in Biloxi from that point-of-view. Mississippi was built during the family-friendly period in Vegas. It was all buffets, mediocre quality, and huge portions. Now we have a group of regional chefs and you see Mississippi catch up to the rest of the country. What’s coming up in the market are people who care about food and don’t care about $2.99 buffets. Sustainable, local, farm-to-table; all of those buzzwords that used to be anathema to the gaming industry are now finding their way in.

Stephen Morgan, director of F&B for IP Biloxi: I started out in Vicksburg after being at the Ritz Carlton Corporation. It was expected 25 years ago that people would get maybe not the best quality food, but a lot of it. When I was at The Reserve with Ameristar in Vegas, you saw the $3.99 breakfast and all-you-can-eat prime rib, but then it changed. Customers have evolved. In years past, there was a lot of explanation at the table; now people know what’s happening. My son is a budding chef who looks at ingredients and cooking methods; he calls me a dinosaur.

Kelly English, celebrity chef who runs Magnolia House at Harrah’s Gulf Coast: “When I opened a restaurant in Horseshoe Tunica a little over 10 years ago, we found that people didn’t want country food. They wanted fancy food, or food they wouldn’t normally have. As much as we tried to play to who are customers were, they were coming to the restaurant to eat food they didn’t get to have every day. When we went to Harrah’s St. Louis, we found the complete opposite to be true. Down here, we’re still learning every day about our customers. It’s all about relationships and knowing what they want. Food is an important part about coming to a property to be entertained. More so every day, people know about food.”

John Folse, founder of Restaurant R’evolution and a supplier of manufactured foods for gaming properties since 1990: “I remember when gaming started on the Gulf and chefs were brought in from outside, immediately there was a pushback on the lack of regional food here. The taste and flavor wasn’t local; people wanted to eat an authentic gumbo or etouffee.  That hasn’t changed in any market. We find that even if a market is filled with people who are visiting from the outside, they want to eat regional foods and experience things that they don’t have in their own market. At the same time, today the divide is closing tremendously between rural and metropolitan areas. The need is for diversity in dining; seasonality; consistency; lighter food; special dietary requests.”

 

AN ESTEEMED COMPETITOR

It’s hard to believe that Peter Mead isn’t with us anymore. Peter, who published Casino Enterprise Management, passed away in late June, a development that was met with an outpouring of sadness from his many friends in the industry. I knew Peter as a competitor for the better part of 20 years. We always had a healthy respect for each other, and we had some interesting conversations over the years, mostly comparing notes during the tougher times on the challenges of the business environment in our corner of the gaming industry. I always enjoyed those chats as Peter was an easy guy to talk to; very well informed and a great listener (maybe I didn’t get the order of those traits right, but he did). From my point of view, as an entrepreneur at heart, Peter was a great fit for the gaming industry, which was built by individuals and continues to be at its best when there’s little distance between owners and customers. In Peter’s case, there was no distance, and it showed in his publication, which was always highly responsive to its market. He did much good work for this industry and he will be greatly missed.

 Sustainable, local, farm-to-table; all of those buzzwords that used to be anathema to the gaming industry are now finding their way in.