Theme Parks are all about experience. The thrill of the rides, the theming of each of the park’s areas and the creation of a wonderland which relies on the attention to detail.
More than ever before, the F&B offer in a theme park has become central to creating a holistic experience for guests at the park.
In recent times, Merlin Entertainments has introduced innovation such as the Alton Towers Rollercoaster Restaurants where your dinner plate is brought to you on a track, while at Legoland Windsor, the introduction of the Castle Hotel, complete with Tournament Tavern Restaurant, showed the importance of hospitality in this attraction arena.
New for this summer, Thorpe Park Resort in Surrey has begun to create its own culinary change with the opening of the Sticky Sisters restaurant.
Sticky Sisters, which is part of the Karali Group, has been brought in to replace the Bush BBQ, with its fast-casual funky chicken and sauces concept in the heart of the park, near new attraction The Walking Dead: The Ride, the popular Derren Brown’s Ghost Train: Rise of the Demon and the famous Colossus.
Having built up a strong reputation with its previous sites in Farnborough, Leeds and Harlow, Sticky Sisters now also occupies a 200-cover, canopy-covered outdoor site, already giving it a point of difference from many of the other food outlets at the park.
The Karali Group – which owns sister brands El Taco Loco, Dirty Dog Shack, Roosters, Telepizza and Caffe Italiano – is a major franchisee of Burger King and has operated the two restaurants currently on-site.
“We have operated the Burger Kings here for quite a few years, so we have got to know Merlin Entertainments and the park fairly well,” says Darren Moore, head of operations for Sticky Sisters. “And they know us from an operations perspective and that we can run successful restaurants.”
So, it was no surprise when Merlin called upon the group when looking to upgrade its restaurant offer.
“Merlin came to have a look at our Sticky Sisters restaurant in Farnborough and had a good tasting session and really enjoyed it,” says Moore. “They were looking at some different brands that would fit with the Thorpe Park clientele and they liked the Sticky Sisters food and concept.”
Offering customers a range of options across the park, with different styles and flavours, is always going to help a theme park operator capture more revenue, and Sticky Sisters was chosen to add to the mix.
“They wanted a good operator with some background, and that is certainly something we’ve got from running our restaurants and the other brands that we have,” says Moore.
“Sticky Sisters was the best fit and offered something a little bit different that would complement the other food operations they have in the park.”
While Sticky Sisters operates the venue at Thorpe Park, training its own staff at its other restaurants, recreating a successful high street brand in a theme park is not as easy as picking up a brand and dropping it in. Firstly, footfall changes everything.
“One of the key things is that this restaurant is outdoor,” explains Moore. “We still have the kitchen with the grills at the front, but it is open air underneath a large canopy with a garden area. And we have two, fully-licensed bars in there, too.”
Having opened in late May, the site – which created 30 jobs – has already experienced the fantastic weather over Easter and the Bank Holidays, which is great for business, but has also enforced
a steep learning curve.
“It has started really well and we have served a few thousand people already,” says Moore. “The other sites are opposite an arena, a cinema, or in a shopping centre, so they are used to having busy periods. But here, it is now in full summer season, and it is open every day 10am-6pm, plus some evenings.
“We have found that we are very busy between midday and 2.30pm and it has to be quick service, but still offering quality products.”
The assisted service restaurant sees guests order and pay at the bar before taking a seat and waiting for their dish to be brought out to them. But the sheer volume of numbers and footfall has meant that the Sticky Sisters restaurant has had to tailor its menu, to begin with anyway.
“We had to adapt our menu slightly to reduce the number of products,” says Moore. “One example is that we have 25 different sauces at our other restaurant sites, to go with the different meat options. But we have reduced that down to eight in Thorpe Park at the moment.
“We have still got our top selling items on the menu but had to adapt a few things slightly to make it easier due to the volume of customers and the size of the kitchen operation.”
From a specialist children’s menu, salads, wraps and burgers through to alcoholic beverages, coffees, shakes and slushies, Sticky Sisters attracts a wide audience, all looking to take away something different from their dining experience.
But, as Moore continues, whatever food items on offer, the quality of the food and service has to be spot on, even if you are in a tourist attraction with a captive audience.
“I think it’s key,” he says. “Just look at the high street; the competition is fierce. You have got to have a really good offering with quality products and offer great service at the right price point.
“The park is a little bit different in that it is similar food pricing throughout but it is all about having a quality product and a USP.
“We tend to push all of our different sauces. So they are key for us.”
The menu allows ‘Flavour Adventurists’ to pick flavours from a Sauce Wheel, with options of Cool, Mild, Medium Mild, Hot and Ferocious.
The menu makes sauce suggestions with each dish, for example, the Grizzly Grickle gherkin wedges are recommended to be paired with sauce No.8 Piri Piri Perfection, while the Butterfly Chicken in a Bun should be served with the No.17 Sirancha Sunrise sauce.
However, customers can opt to swap their sauces with stand-out flavour such as the No.25 Tearjerker – an audacious mix of Habanero and Carolina Reaper chillies; or the No16. Pepper Jam Slam – sticky red pepper jam.
“One of our signature dishes is the chicken wings covered in a sticky chipotle BBQ glaze. They have been a big hit here,” says Moore. “The fresh halloumi bites, grilled and fried, have gone down well as has the pulled beef brisket wrap.”
But arguably the biggest question that anyone wants to know is whether the staff get to go on the Thorpe Park Rides for free?
“To be honest,” says Moore. “I think that after a busy day at the park, the Sticky Sisters staff want to go home more than anything else!”