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Institutional Dining: Casinos Deal With Big Food Orders

Aside from the well-known adage that “the house always wins,” if there’s one thing everybody knows about casinos it’s that the food is abundant, cheap and abundant. With varying degrees of quality. 

But cheap, and abundant. 

At least, that’s the pervasive expectation among the typical casino gamer. The real dough should be spent on the slots and tables, not the filets and crab legs. That said, filets and crab legs (and stir-fries, carved meats, pancakes, peel-and-eat shrimp, omelets, eggs benedict, pumpkin risotto, Hungarian beef goulash and a million, trillion other items) are an obvious amenity to lure, capture and contain the hungry gambler. 

This we already know. But what do we not know about the ubiquitous, all-you-can-eat casino buffet? 

Believe it or not, a lot of work goes into the making of that food, with essentially endless amounts of man and woman hours keeping that buffet running abundantly, hot, and cold, practically ‘round the clock. 

John Van House, executive corporate chef of Grand Casinos Hinckley and Mille Lacs, says it’s a complete misconception that everything is “fake and rehydrated” on a casino buffet, and instead, an enormous amount of time and effort goes into sourcing and creating the best possible product. By way of example, he says that Grand Casino does an annual “steak-cutting” event, where any meat purveyor who wishes to participate can, and all executive chefs blind test the meat for tenderness, marbling, thickness, etcetera. The finest steak wins, and that purveyor is locked in for the next year of business. Which is a lot of steaks. 

But as good as the food may be, the most imperative part of casino chow is the perception of value. Van House even begs me not to quote him on the deals that Grand regularly offers, because he takes too many losses as it is. A good example includes all-you-can-eat crab for $30. He can think of no better deal, anywhere. 

All of this all-you-can-eat means all-you-can-store product. Lots and lots of it. “I buy food by the million dollar amounts,” says Van House. Bacon, snow crab, brisket, wings and ribs are purchased by the truckload, not the flat. 

Nick Fischer, who has cooked at Mystic Lake and Little Six Casinos for five years after a career spent in more traditional restaurant settings, says the first thing to get accustomed to is the “sheer volume of it all.” 

“You’re not making a couple of gallons of soup. You’re making 50 gallons ... You’ve got 8,000 pounds of meat in one cooler, you’ve gotta stay on top of what you’re moving and what you’re ordering.” 

And when staffing is down, and it is in casinos just as it is everywhere, people really feel it. If the casino is offering free bacon-wrapped filets every Friday for a month, the kitchen can pretty much ensure that those bacon-wrapped filets are gonna fly. Fischer says that yes, they do cut and wrap each one by hand, not pop them out of a frozen Cryovac. “It’s a pain in the butt ... We’re so short staffed. Everybody’s kind of overworked.” 

At Grand Casino, they’re dealing with the hiring crisis with a holistic plan. Currently, they’re phasing in a culinary university training program, which they plan to use as a recruiting tool. New hires will have an opportunity to get culinary education as an online program, with hands-on labs and practical training. And because the training will be cutting-edge and up-to-date, all current food and beverage staff will participate as well. With culinary schools shutting down all over the metro as well as nationwide, Van House says the plan is imperative. 

“We have a serious lack of culinary talent ... We are the largest employer north of the Twin Cities, with over 4,000 employees, and food and beverage is the largest department,” he says. 

Indeed. Grand Casino’s massive buffets at Hinckley and Mille Lacs (serving roughly 90 different items during any given meal period, and about 3,000 guests weekly) are just part of their F&B operations. Also consider over a dozen other ways to eat and drink, from full-service restaurants to grab-and-go, gift shop items, dedicated burger bars, a diner, coffee shops, and others, the moving pieces are Sisyphean. The all-you-can-eat crab can bring in a thousand additional diners alone. 

“I wish I had a hundred more chefs,” says Van House. A buffet can have 20 to 25 chefs dedicated to it on a full-time basis alone. 

Fischer is attracted to casino kitchens for the comparatively excellent salary, benefits, and hours, though he says there are tradeoffs, namely with creativity. His observation is that most guests simply want meat and potatoes, and it hurts his heart when he watches as a person plates up egg rolls, fried rice and other assiduously prepared items, and pours gravy over the whole thing. 

“I’m like hey! Some of that stuff is really good! And you just ruined it! How can you even taste it?” he says.

But he and the staff still try to cater to the clientele the best way they possibly can. And, unlike a traditional restaurant setting, the job goes far beyond kitchen technique. The HACCP controls, maintenance and sanitation standards, data and tracking and beyond, are all crucial components of the day-to-day work. 

“We want you to have a safe experience, and experience things that you won’t experience elsewhere,” Van House concludes. “The little things, the touches—we cry and worry about them. You’re in my home, and I want you to have a good time. We want you to have as congruent and up-to-date experience as possible.” 

And in order to meet these seemingly incongruent sets of demands, desires, and expectations, casino kitchens do have one very big benefit up their sleeves. 

“The money coming in is endless,” says Fischer. 

The house always wins. 

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