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Food for Thought - June 2017


Cooks Are Crucial to Upping an FEC’s Kitchen Offerings

by Mike Bederka

ON AVERAGE, guests visit Mt. Playmore in Austin, Texas, for a whopping three to five hours per trip. The family entertainment center’s (FEC) modest attraction mix of a playscape, arcade, and toddler area makes that length of stay even more impressive.

Customers are willing to spend chunks of their day at the venue thanks in large part to its full-service kitchen. This particular kitchen cranks out scratch food such as hand-cut and battered fried cheese sticks and mushrooms, freshly made chicken fajita pitas, and tortilla chips highlighted by homemade salsa with grilled onions and jalapeños.

Of course, an FEC’s food is only as good as the staff preparing it. That is why the facility wanted to bring in top talent right from the start, says owner Michael Fontaine. He hired restaurant industry veteran David Saha-gun to run the kitchen operation. Sahagun, who started as a busboy in the early ’90s and once owned two fast-casual restaurants, explains how FECs can up their food offerings and help drive revenue.

  • Prior Experience a Must: Ideally, a manager should look to hire kitchen staff with experience at other restaurants, with smaller operations preferred, Sahagun says. While flipping burgers at a fast-food joint gives employees some basic skills, working with frozen ingredients does not necessarily translate into creating an elevated food experience.
  • Knowing Their Way Around: What they have done in the kitchen matters as much as where they have worked, Sahagun says. Cooks with skills in grill, fry, expediting, and prep will have a knife up on everyone else.
  • Scope Out the Competition: Enjoy a meal at the place down the street? Do not be bashful about reaching out to quality cooks at other area restaurants, he advises. Many cooks like to work multiple jobs, and they may be interested in coming aboard even part time.
  • Have a Working Interview: As part of the interview process, make sure potential hires actually come into the kitchen during peak hours, he says. If they do not understand and, importantly, appreciate the flow of the business, they could easily become shell-shocked, unable to handle a busy kitchen.
  • Keep the Cooks Involved: Kitchen staff members should not just make the orders. They can also play an integral role in brainstorming and creating the menu—something that keeps them engaged and gives them ownership of the food and FEC, Sahagun says. Cook-inspired recipes at Mt. Playmore will of-ten be available for a limited time, and if the dishes sell well, will then be added to the regular menu.
  • Keep Managers Busy: Sahagun runs his facility like a restaurant, with his managers performing line checks on food temperature and “touching tables” to ask guests about the quality. They will also pitch in and help the cooks during rushes. In addition, if managers find out a family plans to leave to eat somewhere else, they will invite the guests to stay, and even comp their food. The freebie works. About 85 percent of the time, satisfied customers will dine at the FEC on subsequent visits. “It’s well worth the $10 in food costs,” Sahagun notes.