Resorts' to-go menu latest perk at checkout



Poached sea bass with sun-dried tomato vinaigrette, seared ahi tuna with ponzu sauce served over napa cabbage, filet mignon with chimichurri sauce: They sound like items on a menu at a four-star resort, not something to chow down on while wedged into seat 34B. But as airlines have pared their meal services down to a bag of pretzels or chips on domestic flights -- if even that -- more resorts have stepped in with the latest must-have amenity: the to-go menu.

Full meals in coach class have all but disappeared. Last year, American Airlines got rid of all snacks on flights less than 90 minutes long and now serves only pretzels on flights of 90 minutes to three hours, while Northwest Airlines charges for snacks and offers its $5 sandwiches only on certain flights. Travelers on JetBlue are simply offered unlimited amounts of cashews, pistachio biscotti and four other snacks. Snack boxes with cheese and crackers are also offered on those long cross-country hauls.

With such limited food options, it's not hard to understand why more hotels are filling this niche with packed meals for their departing guests. Hotels like Las Ventanas al Paraiso in Los Cabos and the Canyon Ranch resorts have long offered such meals to travelers, but now more luxury properties are rolling out to-go menus stocked with items with greater culinary appeal than the standard turkey club, and are upgrading packaging to ensure the food will withstand the rigors of air travel.

Hotels stepping in to ensure guests are well fed even after they leave is good marketing and good news for the bottom line. "It is very important for loyalty," said Bjorn Hanson, PricewaterhouseCoopers' hotel industry analyst, who notes that the profit margins on these meals tend to be higher because they are not served by a waiter. "It's a more profitable form of food and beverage service."

To-go triumph

At the Peninsula in Chicago, a "Trans-Atlantic" box with California rolls, a sandwich, grapes, goat cheese, chocolate cake and a half bottle of champagne sells for $58. The to-go menu at Esperanza in Cabo San Lucas includes a grilled seafood salad with baby pear tomatoes, marinated olives, cheese, a sliced baguette and a strawberry tart for $28, not including taxes and a 15 percent service charge. The Four Seasons Resort Palm Beach raises the price ceiling to new heights with a meal of blinis, Oestra caviar and chocolate-dipped strawberries for $185, or potentially more depending on the going price of caviar.

Despite prices that are exponentially more than what you would spend on a pre-packaged sandwich at the airport or offered by some airlines, hotel operators only see increasing sales of such meals. "We expect to see more people ordering these. There is definitely momentum growing here," said Bob Boulogne, the chief operating officer of Rosewood Hotels & Resorts, adding that the appeal of to-go meals lies in their durability, portability and creativity, rather than the use of flashy ingredients like caviar. "Simplicity and execution is paramount over complicated food." Rosewood hotels offer to-go meals like a Southwestern chicken sandwich at the Inn of the Anasazi in Sante Fe, N.M., for $20 to $30.

To-go menus also appeal to travelers with private jets. The Four Seasons Nevis saw a 30 percent jump in the number of to-go meals sold last year from 2004. Chef Cyrille Pannier replaced leakage-prone cardboard boxes with new insulated green nylon zippered bags. The bag enables him to serve both cold and hot items, including the hotel's breakfast roti, the West Indian version of a breakfast burrito stuffed with scrambled eggs, lobster and Swiss cheese.

More hotels are launching such menus this year. Rosewood's new Acqualina, in Sunny Isles Beach, Fla., has a to-go breakfast menu that includes a bagel with smoked salmon and cream cheese, fruit and banana nut cake for $22, as well as a $28 lunch menu featuring sandwiches like a tiger prawn wrap with daikon sprouts.

Table 8 South Beach, the restaurant opening this summer in the Regent South Beach, will have a to-go menu with items like a kobe-style beef sandwich with portobello mushrooms and caramelized onions on sourdough bread. And the Kor Hotel Group, operator of the Viceroy in Santa Monica and other hotels, is introducing a travel menu.

"It will be in line with the restaurant menus," said Jennifer Dowd Giuliano, a spokeswoman for the boutique hotel chain. "Guests have a great stay and they enjoy the food. This is an opportunity to make their vacation last a little longer."

On the road

Scott Johnson, the executive chef at Canoe Bay, a Relais & Chateaux property in Chetek, Wis., recently expanded the menu for travelers. He uses special techniques to ensure the meals are still tasty even after sitting for three or four hours. He doesn't dress the salad, he grills bread to ensure it won't end up mushy and opts for vegetable-based spreads made from chickpeas or lima beans over dairy-based spreads.

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