The Kitchen, a modular cooking experience that takes the chef to the consumer, is poised to change the banquet experience at convention centers and the concessions experience at arenas.

It might seem like a glorified portable or action station at first glance, and it is a result of “in-the-box” thinking, but the result is making the eating experience more fan-friendly and flexible. Because The Kitchen and its sister concept The Bar have shown such early promise, it won the 2013 Venues Today Silver Spoon Award for Best New Concept.

“When you walk up to a freestanding portable cart, it’s a limited, sometimes extremely limited, menu and you’re lucky to get a beverage there as well. Invariably you go somewhere else before you’re done,” noted Steve Gregosky, SVP, Ovations Food Services. The Kitchen and The Bar are appealing, approachable, and inviting and appear permanent. “You don’t see wheels; you don’t feel like it’s a cart.”

The Kitchen was introduced at the Sioux Falls (S.D.) Convention Center, helping Ovations successfully renew its concessions contract this year, though SMG won the management side of the deal.

Jay Polkinghorn, GM at the Sioux Falls venue, said the units are 16-feet wide, 8.5-feet deep, and 10-feet tall with truss & lighting. A mirror over the cooking station allows guests to watch food being cooked. Most importantly they can interact with the chef doing the cooking.

The Bar is made up of eight modular units, which can be split apart and scattered around the room when necessary, Gregosky added. But the best use is as a bar setting, circular or semicircular, where guests can sit and talk to the bartender and watch the drinks being made, again via a mirror overhead.

Depending on the finishes, The Bar units range between $35,000 and $50,000, and The Kitchen units range between $45,000 and $75,000 to build.

Typically, The Kitchen is used on the premium levels of arenas or at banquets. “It’s a culinary experience, not a snack area,” Gregosky said. “It’s a lot more visible than an action station and the menu more diverse and tailored to the crowd.”

The Kitchen has a grill, induction cooking and countertop operation with no set menu. Ovations did develop a series of menus appropriate to the method of service, but even that is flexible. You can’t do anything you could in a kitchen, of course, but you can do a lot more than you can at a portable or action station.

The Kitchen was used during a Chamber Mixer June 11 in Sioux Falls during which they served Bourbon Chicken Satays, Grilled Beef Satay with Bloody Mary Sauce, and Brisket Sliders, all made and butlered out of The Kitchen to serve 500.

During a Good Sam custom breakfast buffet priced $19 per person for 245 attendees ($4,655), The Kitchen was used for the waffle and omelet service.

But Polkinghorn has seen the greatest use as an upsell, usually garnering an additional $6.50-$15 per person per event using The Kitchen to sell appetizers, for example. Event planners can choose three appetizers from a menu that includes everything from Midwestern Bison meatballs to pulled pork sliders to Prosciutto wrapped chicken and pan-seared Walleye Cakes with citrus aioli. 

“It is as flexible and fluid as possible,” Gregosky said. “It gives our GMs the ability to come up with a cool concept for a particular show or event planner, design for that and plug in the spaces they need and make it work.”

New convention centers are sometimes being built without permanent concessions stands, preferring all space to be flexible, which makes The Kitchen the proactive answer to the trend, Gregosky said. 

The Bar is similar in meeting a need. All convention and meeting room bars are the same, six feet long, dark wood with a six-inch wide counter and an eight-foot table behind with all the bartender’s stuff. “It looks as temporary as you can get,” Gregosky said. 

But one of the hottest trends now on the street is people gathering and even eating at the restaurant bar, networking and socializing more than ever before. It’s not about chugging more beers; it’s about the bar being the lubricant to networking. That’s counterintuitive to the cocktail reception experience that requires each customer to line up single file and move out of the way quickly.

Ovations’ The Bar has a bar rail at your feet, a circular setup, seats when possible and a permanent feel. “If you’re at a reception, there is a place to go,” Gregosky said. “The Bar concept is based entirely on creating the visual of this-is-not-your-typical portable, here are your drink tickets.”

Gregosky remembers how hard it was to sell the idea of a permanent chef’s table in a convention center kitchen to market to event planners. Clients worried it was a waste of space. Now it’s expected there will be a chef’s table in the kitchen.

He envisions a day when it will be expected there will a kitchen in the ballroom.

Ovations used the concept to win the concessions contract at Direct Energy Centre in Toronto and Gregosky said there were event planners trying to book The Kitchen before Ovations even had the contract. 

In Sioux Falls, Polkinghorn sells it as bringing the fresh approach even closer to the guest. “It’s one more tool we can use. It’s been great for marketing and getting new clients in.” Wedding planners and holiday partiers love it.

“It changes the way banquets are going,” Polkinghorn said. “With two pieces, The Bar and The Kitchen, we can change people’s minds on what a banquet or reception is at a convention center. Instead of a buffet line or a plate of chicken set in front of you, it’s an experience. You can see it, smell it, and interact with the chef making the dish.”

It’s simple, but it’s revolutionary.

Interviewed for this story: Steve Gregosky, (813) 948-6900; Jay Polkinghorn, (605) 367-4163