When Commerce Secretary Jim Host strode into the Capitol Annex café late last year to size up that Department of Parks food operation, he had a strong sense of déjà vu. He looked around the dining room. This all looked familiar. More than 30 years before, when he was Parks Commissioner, he sat in the same chairs at the same tables
He and Parks Commissioner George Ward soon reached the same conclusion: we can make this place a lot more appealing, improve the food, and make money doing it.
“There are some areas of our park system that will never make money and we don’t expect them to, such as our historic homes,” Commissioner Ward said. “But there other areas that should create more revenue, including food services.”
Less than a year later, a lot has changed in the Department of Parks food services in Frankfort and more change is on the way.
When all the improvements have been made, customers can expect bright, appealing dining areas that serve cuisine that reflects Kentucky’s unique culture, and taxpayers can expect food operations that aren’t loss leaders. New menus will offer a variety of healthy eating choices, such as fresh fruits and vegetables and grilled meats.
Diners at the annex café will soon see the benefits of a facelift designed to brighten the basement space that it occupies. New tables and chairs will replace the rickety old ones. The floor will be polished and walls repainted.
New dining choices already are being offered, including a salad bar, new wraps and sandwiches, and creative entrees, such as stuffed Cornish hens. The café also has taken advantage of the innovative program to buy produce from local farmers; the chef has served up stuffed peppers picked from local farms. A Starbucks coffee kiosk also has been installed.
The financial picture already has brightened at the Capitol Annex cafe. For the fiscal year that ended June 30, 2003, the dining room saw a net loss of $240,000 on sales of $304,000. For the fiscal year that ended on June 30, 2004, the loss was $173,000 on sales of $394,000.
“I’m confident that once our redecorating is complete and we continue to fine-tune our menu, we will turn around this operation financially,” Ward said.
Early this year, the Department of Parks also took over the Cabinet for Health and Family Services dining room. That dining area also has gotten a makeover, with new carpeting and a brighter décor. The restaurant now has an open food court layout, with one area for a new salad bar, and a separate area for cold sandwiches and wraps. A gas charbroiler will soon offer healthy grilled items. Another improvement has been a security pass system that allows employees to finally take advantage of a patio area that previously was sealed off. The CHFS café also got a Starbucks kiosk.
Financial information is not available for Fiscal Year 2003, when a private vendor operated the facility. For the five months that Parks operated the CHFS café in FY 2004, the CHFS café saw a net profit of $7,800, with net sales exceeding $200,000.
“We look for exciting results from our changes there,” Ward said. “There is no doubt that we’ll grow our net income.”
Meanwhile, not far away, the Department of Parks has opened the new Mero Street Café’ on the ground floor of the Transportation Cabinet building. Lunch diners can choose from among hot entrees, pizza, grilled sandwiches and wraps, fresh pastas, sub sandwiches, and a salad bar. Breakfast choices include eggs, bacon, sausage, and biscuits and gravy.
The Mero Street Café is open from 7 a.m. until 2 p.m. weekdays.
Menu pricing is designed to be competitive with other downtown restaurants, Ward said.
The Frankfort food operation has more chefs than it has ever had, said Parks Commissioner Ward. Five experienced chefs oversee the three dining rooms.
“With the talent we have on staff, we can cater any state agency food function,” he noted. “We’re committed to providing the same great food service for a state government event as we do every year at the Governor’s Derby Breakfast.”
The Department of Parks also is extending its reach to the restaurant at the Kentucky Artisan Center at Berea, a sister agency in the Commerce Cabinet. The facility’s contract with a private food vendor is expiring, and Parks will take over the operation in November.
The artisan center will provide a unique opportunity, Ward said. The center sells a variety of Kentucky Proud food products, such as jellies and sauces, in its gift shop. The new food operation plans to serve some of these products on its menu, providing visitors with the opportunity to enjoy unique Kentucky food, and buy samples to take home with them.