What's on the Menu?

What’s the most exciting thing about visiting a zoo? For many people, it’s feeding time. Crowds have thrilled to critters pacing as keepers get ready to serve up lunch, or laughed while seals caught fish thrown their way at lunchtime.

It’s safe to say that feeding time for the humans at most zoos isn’t nearly as exciting. Many of them are still offering the “stadium or carnival food” they’ve been serving for generations, at a time when most sports stadiums are offering a tasty (and pricey) menu of gourmet goodies.  These days the most innovative zoos and aquariums have started to break out of the mold.

What’s happening in the wider food world and how can you make that work for you?

Innovative dining space ar Zoo Zurich.

Innovative dining space ar Zoo Zurich.

People are getting used to (and in many cases, demanding) healthier, fresher food options. Fast food is losing ground to fast casual (Panera, Au Bon Pain, Chipotle to name a few). Not only is the food more in line with current consumer demand, the ambiance in these new spots is more pleasant and upscale than in the typical fast food restaurant. Families used to spending a significant portion of their food budget at places like these would likely be pleased to find their familiar favorites located near the African Savanna exhibit or the penguin house.

Another trend: food trucks. The humble hot-dog cart is being squeezed aside by large mobile kitchens that offer every kind of food on the planet, from ethnic to haute cuisine. Many of these upstart food vendors have a distinctly local flavor, offering the favorite food that can define a hometown: the cheesesteak, the grinder, the po-boy.

Does fast casual dining belong at your zoo? Could you partner with a national chain or local restaurateur? Would parking a food truck on the grounds add to the atmosphere? Would creating a warmer and inviting atmosphere at your café up your per caps?

And then there’s money: would changing your menu offerings boost your bottom line?

And finally, is all of this a teachable moment? Could there be messages about sustainability and conservation built around the food vendors you invite onto your grounds?