poim, angel, 1bOne of San Francisco’s trendiest new dining destinations is The City’s historic Ferry Building, with its stalls of quality, product-specific food and beverage providers.  There, Cowgirl Creamery’s Artisan Cheese, Far West Fungi, Frog Hollow produce, Scharffen Berger chocolate, McEvoy Olive Oil, and Ciao Bella gelato are among the high-end food products sold.  Though increasingly, those same items are appearing on menus in the most unexpected places, like at Stan’s Place at Lake Chabot, the Angel Island Café at Angel Island State Park, and Drakesbad Guest Ranch in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

poim, angel, 2bThese all are park concessions, but they’re unlike your father’s concession stand, in that fresh, local and made-from-scratch fare has headed outdoors.
Dee Wagner, director of food and beverage for The California Parks Company is leading this culinary revolution.  At Stan’s Place, she rewrote what people expect from a low-cost concession menu, creating one that delivers expected comfort food to the lake’s mostly fisherman-focused clientele with culinary elan.

poim, angel, 3bWagner said, “We deliver the kinds of dishes a fisherman would expect to find at a marina… biscuits and gravy, burgers and nachos, but the similarity ends in name only.  Wherever possible, we make as much as we can from scratch.  The gravy on those biscuits is made from scratch, as is the cheese sauce, salsa and guacamole on the nachos.  We prepare a special sauce that includes smoked paprika from Spain for the burgers that makes them stand out.  That makes our customers look forward to returning to the lake and Stan’s Place, just for the food.  And, it’s helping us attract non-fishing clientele who come to hike and enjoy a meal with us in a beautiful location.

“We could buy great pickles, but we make our own,” said Wagner, “Our all-natural pork comes from Snake River Farms, though we season, roast and prepare the pulled pork, ourselves.   Our focus is on fresh, local and organic wherever possible, even at a snack stand.  It’s all about taking it up a notch, making sure all the components of a menu items are the best they can be that sets us apart.”  On Angel Island, The California Park’s Company’s clientele expects a higher standard.  Two years ago, Wagner created a second dining location near the café, the Cantina, featuring Lagunitas beer on tap, street tacos and live music every Saturday and Sunday. Response has been so strong that the deck fills quickly on weekends and Angel Island has become a trendy destination for millennials out for a fun adventure.

Higher standards come with a cost, reminded Wagner, “We took a hit at Drakesbad Guest Ranch this summer when we introduced a new menu, but that cost is about rebuilding our reputation there and getting our guests to return each year.  We can only do that by making their entire experience unforgettable and food is one aspect of their vacation experience that we absolutely control,” said Wagner.

At Drakesbad, all meals are included.  So guests have no choice about what to eat.  Wagner said, “With only 19 rooms, we’re compelled to serve set menus.  So, we chose to focus primarily on dinner, serving distinctive pre-set vegetarian and non-vegetarian entrees with salad and dessert.   We wanted these dinners to be special and memorable.  For example, on Fridays, we serve king salmon with lobster claw meat and fresh prawn risotto, English peas, roasted baby carrots, asparagus and vin blanc.  We’re looking for a ‘Wow!’ factor, while managing costs.  There’s only an ounce of lobster in that dish, but after you’ve spent a day hiking national park trails, it sounds expensive, indulgent and the guest reaction is over the top.”

Wagner explained, “What we deliver in a slightly higher cost for dinner, we try to make up by economizing with cross-over breakfast and lunch buffet menus.  On Tuesdays, we make up for the expensive rack of lamb served on Sundays, by plating a delicious lasagna.  The pasta is low-cost, but even there we don’t cut corners.  It’s all hand-rolled and prepared from scratch.”

Special attention was given to the children’s menu which one guest – a restaurateur – called the best children’s dinner he’s seen.  Kids’ meals are presented in a lacquered Bento box, its compartments filled with tantalizing fresh fruit, fun veggies, salad and the child’s choice of entrée from favorites such as fried chicken or mac ‘n’ cheese.

You’d think you could charge more for such creative innovations, but park concessioners operate in regulated environments where prices are set by government officials.  An improvement to the menu does not mean you can charge more for it.  However, The California Parks Company is convinced that improvements in the park dining experiences will translate into business for the future.

More about The California Parks Company and its concessions is found at: www.norcalfishing.com, www.angelisland.com, www.drakesbad.com and www.calparksco.com.

by John Poimiroo