Often it takes a pair of fresh eyes on the job to objectively size up an operation and—given that those eyes belong to an experienced foodservice professional—improvements can be expected almost immediately.
Bob Perry, an industry veteran of 25 years, is just such a person and it’s been a very eventful year since he signed on as director of foodservice for the Kentucky Department of Parks with headquarters in Frankfort. His job encompasses managing resort restaurants at 17 of 52 state parks, three employee cafes in Frankfort as well as the café at the two-year old Kentucky Artisans Center in Berea. His staff of 400 serves approximately 1.8 million meals annually and overall foodservice revenues top the $12 million mark.
A dozen of the 17 resort restaurants currently use all-electric cooking equipment. But by mid-summer, Perry expects to have completed the conversion of all 12 to propane gas, a switch he contends is long overdue based on projected cost savings and revamped menus offering more a la carte choices rather than traditional all-you-can-eat buffets.
The long run: “Most of the electric equipment is now 30 years old and the cost of maintenance is very high—on average each park spends about $2,000 per year on repairs of electric kitchen appliances,” Perry notes. “And, since they take so long to heat up, chefs turn the ranges on when they come in at 5:30 in the morning and typically don’t turn them off until after dinner at 9 p.m. Electric is pretty good for high-volume buffet cooking, but for a la carte you just can’t sauté.”
As the first of the Baby Boomers turn 60 next year, Perry believes this huge potential market—with more disposable income and a willingness to pay for more upscale fare—is looking for more healthful meals. And, grilled items are especially popular but grilling is much more difficult to do well on electric equipment, he says.
To make this conversion cost-effectively, Perry is working directly with propane dealers (who must bid on the jobs) and with the Kentucky division of the Propane Education and Research Council. PERC has awarded the Kentucky Department of Parks a $60,000 grant—that’s $5,000 for each of the 12 all-electric venues—to help with the cost of installation including a fire suppression system and the purchase of new equipment. Most of the money will be applied to the purchase of freestanding propane tanks and to cover the cost of running gas lines into the kitchens.
Since most of these parks are in very remote locations, there are no existing gas lines to connect to.
The propane plus: Perry admits that the escalating cost of gas does (and will) affect the cost of propane but he believes the switch still makes sound financial sense. “There’s the savings of not having equipment on all the time, plus our highest usage of propane will be in the summer [peak tourism season] when propane costs are down since it’s typically used as a heating fuel,” he explains. “In addition, the cost of gas equipment is generally less than electric and there are virtually no maintenance costs on gas [equipment] since there are no electronics involved.”
To test his theory, Perry compared two parks of approximately the same size in regard to the number of rooms, cabins and restaurant revenue: General Butler in Carrollton which is all-gas, to Barren River in Glasgow, an all-electric kitchen. The total annual utility cost differential was $100,000. Overall, he estimates the conversion could conceivably account for an annual savings of $500,000 to $800,000.
Working with an equipment budget of $250,000, Perry expects to place a 10-burner/two-oven gas range in parks with lower volume, or two six-burner heavy-duty ranges where needed, in addition to a gas char grill and salamander in each of the 12 restaurants.
Creating an All-Kentucky Experience
Bob Perry values the use of farm-fresh produce. It’s something he developed over the years as a chef in hotels, on private yachts and a wheelboat, and in restaurants.
Furthermore, as a native Kentuckian, he’s dedicated to supporting local farmers especially in their recent challenge to transition from tobacco to other crops, and to supporting other local food producers.
In his capacity as director of foodservice for the Kentucky Department of Parks, he spent the past winter working with the University of Kentucky Agricultural Extension Services advisors to develop a program with his chefs to utilize product that will be delivered fresh to their back door.
Monetary sense: “We held about a dozen meetings to introduce growers to this program and to give them contact information for the parks,” he says. “We spend about half a million dollars annually on produce and that money will turn over two or three times, so we’ll be giving a boost to local farmers and to the state. We came up with a pricing schedule and found this program doesn’t cost us any more [than previous methods]. Plus, we’ll pay the farmers by direct deposit within two days so they don’t have to worry about getting paid.”
The new program, The True Taste of Kentucky, is expected to open another steady market for the growers. Perry expects to add meat, milk and other locally produced goods such as jams, jellies and salsas so that park visitors will enjoy an all-Kentucky experience.
In addition, for each of the 17 state parks with restaurants, Perry and his staff have studied the local dining market to identify a “hole,” then proceeded to develop a restaurant concept to fill that niche. In this way, he hopes to attract local residents during the slow “shoulder seasons” (i.e., spring and fall) as well as in the winter months in order to generate additional revenue.
“We offer meals at price points they can afford,” he says. “General Butler, for example, will feature Two Rivers Kentucky Cuisine, a mid-price bistro concept featuring a lot of grilled items. At Dale Hollow in Burkesville, it’s going to be a steak and chop house, while at Kenlake, in the western part of the state, a Mediterranean seafood restaurant will be created. We looked at local dining, figured out what was missing, created a concept and aim to menu local products.”