With the U.S. commercial casino industry posting another record-setting year with consumer spending in 2018, according to the most recent report from Washington, D.C.-based American Gaming Association (AGA), this segment of the foodservice industry remains ripe with opportunity.

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The AGA reports the U.S. gaming industry is worth $261 billion and supports 1.8 million jobs in 40 states, with annual gambling revenues at more than $150 billion. The recent legalization of sports betting should only drive revenues higher.

Arkansas became the most recent state to legalize commercial casino and new commercial casino gaming properties opened in Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey and New York in 2019, according to the AGA. It foresees the Baltimore-Washington, D.C. market bypassing the Chicago area as the third largest gambling area in the country, behind Las Vegas and Atlantic City, N.J.

This presents opportunities for the foodservice industry, as more gaming venues seek incentives to attract customers and keep them on site.

“Casinos are rethinking the space, type and food offerings, as they fight to attract a younger and more affluent audience,” says Arlene Spiegel, president of Arlene Spiegel & Associates, a consulting firm based in New York City. “They are faced with a changing demographic, as their audience is seeking entertainment along with, or instead of, gaming.”

As casinos strive to grow their demographic, properties and offerings continue to expand accordingly. “Existing casinos are expanding,” says Rick Sevieri, president of RJS & Associates, a consulting firm based in Old Lyme, Conn. “They now include more restaurants, entertainment venues and pools, among other amenities.”

In addition, foodservice formats continue to change. “We used to see lots of buffets, but now there are more specialized, high-end steak houses, wine bars as well as fast-casual eateries,” says Darren Tristano, CEO of FoodserviceResults.

Casino restaurants and foodservice offerings vary, depending on the region. “For example, in the Midwest there is a casino competing with another down the road that is adding more banquet space and conference rooms to their high-end restaurant,” Sevieri says. “The casino down the road has a younger clientele and is adding a bar and smokehouse restaurant.”

Along with differing demographics, casino foodservice faces several other challenges. “With gambling halls opening up and sports betting now legal, this may hurt casino traffic,” says Tristano. “Casinos need to focus on the experience.”

Casinos must also address the ebb and flow of customers. “Occupancy in the building can swing very far — from light [traffic] days to heavy nights and weekends,” says Spiegel. “This makes it difficult to forecast labor and food prep.”

She describes a typical casino kitchen as a commissary that receives, prepares and distributes food, in various states of readiness, to the many outlets throughout the building. “It functions like a ‘ghost kitchen’ and supplier to the food venues as well as room service [if there’s a hotel on site], VIP lounges and service bars,” says Spiegel.

Today, the quality of foodservice has gone up in all outlets, as guests are more discerning. “Even typical fast food items need a ‘halo’ i.e. local, organic, natural, fresh, etc.,” Spiegel says. “Another change is the variety of ethnic foods seen in both the quick-serve and fine dining restaurants.”

Like most foodservice operations, casinos are looking to shrink their kitchens, which are ‘cost centers’, and increase the retail and profit centers of the facility. “To meet this goal, operators are seeking combi ovens, blast chillers and mobile cook and hold items,” says Spiegel. “Equipment must be flexible to create efficiencies.”

With open kitchens more the standard than the exception, visual appeal is top of mind in casinos’ back of house. “We’re seeing more of a European display kitchen, rather than an entire kitchen of stainless steel,” says Sevieri. “There are more marble countertops in the pickup area and stonework.”