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Why is room service so pricey and underwhelming?

by Staff

On a recent winter’s morning, Bob Phillips rang up room service at a Harrah’s property on the East Coast and ordered a $17 ham-and-cheese omelet. The Detroit-based comedian received a perplexing pile of scrambled eggs, a slab of ham and no cheese. The next morning, the server delivered the same deconstructed egg dish, but with a slice of cheddar. On his third attempt, he discovered the cheese tucked inside the eggs like a secret note. The ham was nowhere in sight.

Phillips addressed the issue with room service and discovered the reason for the confusion: The omelet guy had not come into work that week.

Once upon a time, hotel room service was considered a gleeful indulgence on par with popping bonbons while soaking in a claw-footed tub or sipping minibar cocktails in a plush hotel robe. These days, in-room dining can be hard to stomach, because of the culinary injustice and the exorbitant price.

“Very underwhelming,” Henry Harteveldt, a travel analyst and president of the Atmosphere Research Group, wrote in an email about a $25 club sandwich he recently ordered at a Singapore hotel. “Fries were cold. Sandwich was nothing special.”

Last week, a hedge fund manager drew more than 10,000 comments on X after blaming inflation for his costly breakfast room service order. And questions about the integrity of room service food were recently raised by a hotel guest who uncovered a surprise about a $20 plate of cacio e pepe. Though the hotel’s website said a private chef prepares its meals, Elle McLemore unmasked the apparent cook on TikTok: Trader Joe’s.

Hotels have been seeing demand for old-school room service dwindle for years, a trend exacerbated by the rise of food-delivery apps like UberEats. The pandemic — and the labor shortages that resulted from it — forced hoteliers to reimagine in-room dining or eliminate it altogether.

The food is not categorically bad. Higher-end properties still deliver dishes that will entice you out of bed. But the quality is slipping elsewhere, leading to in-room diner’s remorse.

“The room service experience heavily depends on the level of hotel,” said Simon Fricker, founder of Concorde Hospitality, a consulting firm. “At this point, mainly five-star luxury and ultra-luxury hotels can afford to keep the full in-room dining experience for guests. while lower-end brands struggle to keep up with the high cost of room service.”

Guests who have been burned as often as room service toast wonder: Can hotels restore the amenity’s former glory or should properties just include a DoorDash credit with every reservation?

From silver platters to brown bags

Room service has survived some dark times since 1931, the year the Waldorf Astoria in New York City introduced the 24-hour perk to its coddled guests. Its star turn in popular culture — “Eloise,” “Home Alone 2,” “The Suite Life with Zack & Cody” — inspired future generations of guests to reach for the in-room phone. Eating-on-the-fly, not wartime rationing or the Great Recession , almost doomed it.

In 2013, headlines warned of the demise of room service when the New York Hilton Midtown announced it was replacing in-room dining with grab-and-go bags in the lobby. The hotel soon started delivering food in paper bags from its restaurant to guest rooms, but only during peak meal hours.

Famed hotelier Ian Schrager made brown bagging chic when he opened Public Chicago in 2011. The hotel, which he later sold, hung gourmet meals on guest room doorknobs. Fricker described the casual makeover of room service as “an internal Uber Eats operation.” The practice has grown more commonplace since the pandemic.

“Twenty-four hours is gone from a lot of places,” Robert Curtis, culinary director for the UnOrdinary Hospitality Group. “The cost benefit analysis is just not there. Nobody wants to work the overnight shift.”

During the global health crisis, hotels suspended room service and directed guests to outside food delivery companies. Some properties never resurrected in-room dining. During a trip to D.C., Fricker said a front desk attendant at the Westin informed him that the hotel did not have room service, but he could buy food and bring it to his room.

“That is catastrophic to me,” he said. “Luxury hotels used to frown upon guests bringing things from the outside into their room.”

The amenity made some gains as travel rebounded, however. Marriott International said in-room dining at U.S. and Canada hotels managed by the company generated more than $150 million in revenue last year, 5 percent higher than the previous year. Room service at those hotels represents almost 7 percent of total revenue for restaurants and bars across Marriott’s brands.

This month, Yours Truly, an IHG hotel in D.C., and Mercy Me, its on-site restaurant, will launch room service. The small menu will feature salads, sandwiches and fries during dinner time, Curtis said. If it does well, the property will expand the program.

But overall, room service brings in just a fraction of total food-and-beverage revenue at U.S. hotels — less than a dollar per occupied room for food and 18 cents for drinks, according to travel research firm STR. Revenue from food room service dropped 32.5 percent last year compared with 2019. Beverage room service was down 18 percent from pre-pandemic levels.

Candice Eley, 41, a public relations executive in Richmond, describes herself as a frequent user of room service. She even makes it part of her trip planning, including for an upcoming trip to Paris with her husband. Eley said she’s not a morning person, so breakfast is her most important room service meal of the day.

“Especially when I’m on vacation, if I can wake up, stay in my pajamas in bed, have somebody bring me breakfast, that is like the ultimate indulgence for me,” she said.

Though a fan of the amenity, she recognizes its limitations. The quality, she said, “can be hit or miss” — especially since the pandemic. She recalled that a New York City hotel suggested she order DoorDash when she asked about room service. On a recent stay in D.C., she said her breakfast came in a to-go bag with plastic utensils.

“It was not the best,” she said.

Frozen food isn’t uncommon

Curtis said he has heard about kitchens using prepared foods, but has never seen a chef use a packaged product like store-bought hummus or Trader Joe’s frozen meals.

However, he said the hospitality industry does rely on shortcuts familiar to busy home cooks, such as parbake breads, outsourced desserts and frozen foods.

“The misconception is that frozen foods were never in use,” he said. “If you’ve ever ordered chicken fingers, anything breaded or, quite frankly, french fries, you’ve had frozen food.”

Piyavan Sukalakamala, a hospitality professor at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, said the food-and-beverage industry uses culinary hacks in the name of convenience, consistency and cost effectiveness. When bookings plummeted during the coronavirus pandemic, these principles kept many lodgings afloat.

“Those are the three C’s that all the customers should understand,” she said. “The bottom line is, the hotels are looking for a profit.”

Though occupancy rates are climbing back to 2019 levels, the hospitality industry is wrestling with high labor and food costs and unfilled positions. According to a recent survey by the American Hotel and Lodging Association, more than two-thirds of hotels continue to suffer from staffing shortages; 12 percent of respondents said they are “severely understaffed.”

“We are short of staff. This leads to another problem, which is inexperienced staff or unskilled employees,” Sukalakamala said. “You can have your back-of-the-house fabricate a whole chicken, but it might take him or her a half-hour or an hour. So why don’t I just order frozen chicken? It might cost more, but it will save on labor.”

The $85 room service breakfast

Room service is never going to be a value meal. “Everyone knows room service is expensive,” Eley said. “Nobody goes into it thinking this is going to be an affordable way for me to dine.”

Hotel restaurant food often starts at an inflated price point, because of its convenience to guests. Room service pushes the bill into an even higher stratosphere. Last week, an outraged hedge fund manager shared a copy of his $85 room service receipt from a New York City hotel. “After signing this bill, I have decided NEVER AGAIN,” Kyle Bass posted on X.

Commenters hooted at the breakdown — $26 waffles, $12 bacon, $14 orange juice and $8 Diet Coke — and suggested he dine at a bodega. Rodger Cambria, who averages 90 hotel stays a year due to his job in the music touring business, recommended Bass leave the hotel and “get a bagel and coffee like a normal person.”

“Room service, unless there are no other viable options, is for suckers,” Cambria said in an interview.

Gary Leff, author of the travel blog View from the Wing, has defended room service. However, he wishes hotels were more transparent about the service and delivery charges, and how those fees are distributed.

“This isn’t grocery store cost,” he said. “That’s not the relevant comparison.”

Fricker said the menu prices for a hotel’s room service and on-site restaurant are usually similar. The additional fees for delivery and gratuity are what causes guests to gasp. The Four Seasons in Washington charges a $6 delivery fee and a mandatory 20 percent service charge that, the hotel says, will be “distributed to staff members.” Fontainebleau, a new hotel in Las Vegas, tacks on a 19 percent gratuity and $9 “dining fee” — the same price as its bagel.

Want better room service? Don’t order pasta or fries.

Your room service meal doesn’t have to feel like a trip down Costco’s freezer aisle or a pit stop at a gas station convenience store.

If you plan to dine a la room service, Fricker recommends scoping out the hotel restaurant’s menus and asking which of the property’s kitchens the staff uses to prepare its in-room meals, along with the freshness of items. This will help you get a sense of the food quality and culinary skill level.

Curtis suggests ordering room service when the hotel’s restaurant is open. Some high-end hotels, such as the Four Seasons in D.C., where he previously worked, employ an overnight kitchen staff. However, many mid-tier-and-below properties close their kitchens after the dinner rush and serve night-owl diners items prepared earlier in the day. The microwave takes over chef duties.

“They will make it that morning and wrap it up, so the person just needs to reheat it,” he said.

And remember some dishes don’t travel well, even a few flights up. Curtis said pasta turns into a brick. (One exception: baked versions.) Fries lose their fry-ness. However, the prospect of soggy fries does not stop hotels from offering them and guests from ordering them.

“People love french fries,” Curtis said. “The quality is diminished, but guests want what they want.”

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