F&B Investment is a Safe Bet for the Casino Industry

Consumers are looking for more than payouts when heading to casinos; they’re also after unique, high-quality food and beverage options as they seek out memorable experiences.

Bar & Restaurant News recently caught up with Jeff Hamilton, President & General Manager of Mohegan Sun, to discuss F&B at the entertainment destination located in Uncasville, Conn. Established in 1996 by the Mohegan Tribe of Connecticut in partnership with Mohegan, it features two casinos, dining options, hotel accommodations, retail shopping, live entertainment, and sporting events.

Jeff Hamilton Mohegan Sun
Jeff Hamilton (Photo: Mohegan Sun)

Betting on F&B

Hamilton says there’s been a shift in the attitude around F&B in the casino industry over the last few years. “If you go back 10 or 15 years ago, in every casino, food and beverage was an amenity. Everything was here to support the gaming operation,” he says. “As the gaming environment has become more competitive, it's become an important aspect of our business to drive people to the property for just the food and beverage. I always like to say, 10 years ago, people used to go to Mohegan Sun and go to a restaurant because it was at Mohegan Sun. Now, we want people to come to Tao, and they're at Mohegan Sun because they wanted to go to Tao.”

Asian bistro and lounge Tao is just one of 38 dining options at Mohegan Sun, with more on the way. They also host F&B events throughout the year. In April, they held their eighth annual Sun Whiskey Union, a whiskey tasting that featured the opportunity to sample and chat with distillery representatives as well as food, live music, and cocktail demonstrations from celebrity mixologist Phil Wills.

Hamilton says Mohegan Sun’s F&B outlets and events have worked to attract a new customer base who may be unfamiliar with the brand. “Food and beverage and food and beverage events have really been a way to introduce people to our brand and then get people engaged in the brand,” he says. “It's been a new way for us to drive in people who have disposable income and are looking to spend that on food, beverage events, and entertainment.”

Tao, an experiential Asian bistro and lounge that opened three years ago in Mohegan Sun, has become a destination for guests.  (Photo: Mohegan Sun)

Despite inflation, Hamilton says people are still spending because they frequently come in to celebrate, “We’ve seen a lot of people willing to spend a little bit more for the premium wine or cocktail to celebrate their special occasions.”

Mohegan Sun aims to be a destination for such events by offering immersive and memorable dining experiences. “That's how you get people to come back. I think so much of what we remember, what we experience, is about emotion,” says Hamilton. “And if we can invoke that really positive, friendly, outgoing emotion, then people want to come back and experience that again for their next special occasion.”

Mohegan Sun’s focus on F&B was well timed, especially in the face of declining gaming revenue. “Going back 10 years ago, our non-gaming revenue was about 10% of our overall business. Now, it's about 30% of our overall business,” says Hamilton.

casino F&B
Food and beverage events, like the Spirits & Cigar event that accompanied Sun Whiskey Union, help to drive in a new client base to the casino. (Photo: Mohegan Sun)

Choosing F&B Concepts

When choosing what concepts to bring in-house, Hamilton says they look for good operators. “We operate about 50% of our F&B and 50% is tenant-operated. So we want good operations. And service delivery is very important to us; we want to make sure it meets our service delivery standard,” he says.

Aside from great operations, Mohegan Sun also looks for destination concepts with immersive experiences. He says quality food and good service are already an expectation with consumers, so it’s necessary to go beyond that. “We always look for ways that we can create a different experience that you can't get anywhere else,” he says. “We look for brands and operators that can bring something new and have a twist on whatever type of dining they're providing.”

Mohegan Sun typically brings in new concepts every two to three years, and it will be unveiling two new ones this year.

First up is the June opening of the Long Island-based In the Shed, which serves American comfort food and is especially known for its all-day brunch. The restaurant concept was created by restaurateur John J. Tunney III, who also created BALLO Italian Restaurant at Mohegan Sun. “There's a great bar concept, and they do a lot of fun things while you're waiting, like they have a putt-putt,” says Hamilton. “They do things to create an experience.”

The second new opening will be Beauty & Essex in October, a speakeasy concept from the Tao Group, which will also provide an experience like no other. Guests will enter into the speakeasy through a back door in the pawn shop that fronts it. It will have a DJ component as well as a menu unique to New England created by Chef Chris Santos. The menu will be driven by small, shareable plates with eye-catching cocktails as well.

Beauty & Essex
Beauty & Essex, which has other locations in New York and Las Vegas, will open in October.

How Bars & Restaurants Can Get In with Casinos

For those restaurants or bars interested in getting involved with casinos, Hamilton says to reach out. “We like to talk to as many people as possible and experience as many people as possible,” he says. “An important aspect of my job and our food and beverage leadership is to go out into the market and see what others are doing. That's how we meet a lot of partners. Overall, it’s about building relationships."

Hamilton says they want the concepts they bring in to be successful, so they try to create a deal structure that allows them the ability to grow within the organization.

One of the benefits of operating in a collaborative space like Mohegan Sun is the constant flow of traffic. Thanks to events and conferences, establishments will have volume on the usually slower days at the start of the week, while still being able to depend on the busy Friday and Saturday nights.

“That's going to really change the dynamic for your business; your operating model changes a little bit because so much of our volume is event driven," says Hamilton.

He also points out the benefits of Mohegan Sun's player’s club, Momentum, which includes Momentum dollars that can only be spent onsite. “You have the ability to access this currency that's not available to be spent anywhere else,” he says.  

Looking Ahead

Hamilton says Mohegan Sun will continue to evolve and bring in new, experiential concepts. He points to the renovation of their outdoor venue, Sun Patio, which will serve as a space for outdoor concerts, food truck festivals, tailgating, and other summer experiences.

Even with all the new, he says it’s important to remember the anchors of the venue as well. “It's a balancing act of keeping your staples and evolving them, and at the same time, bringing new concepts to the property for people to experience,” he says. “Then, over time, those new concepts become staples.”



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