Hundreds of people who work at Brookfield Zoo got a new employer on Feb. 5, after the Chicago Zoological Society’s decision late last year to outsource its food service, retail and catering operations.
The change affected about 60 full-time employees and more than 300 seasonal workers who staff the zoo’s restaurants and snack shops as well as gift shops and event venues around the park.
After about three months of negotiation, Chicago Zoological in January awarded a 10-year contract to Denver-based Service Systems Associates (SSA), a 49-year-old company that handles similar operations for more than 60 zoos and museums nationwide, including Milwaukee County Zoo, Denver Zoo, Cincinnati Zoo and Botanic Garden, the Minnesota Zoo and others.
“The idea here is that the zoo is looking for a lot of different avenues to improve the guest experience and financial position of the zoo,” said Dave Burns, senior vice president of finance for the Chicago Zoological Society in a phone interview last week.
Officials from the zoo and SSA said that the terms of the contract were confidential, and zoo officials declined to quantify the exact savings Brookfield Zoo ought to experience as a result of the change.
The Chicago Zoological Society’s 2020 guest services budget for salaries and benefits, passed last year by Cook County Forest Preserve District commissioners, does not appear to account for so many employees being outsourced.
Jerry Johnston, vice president of guest services, said that almost all but a handful of the food service, retail and catering employees who previously worked for the Chicago Zoological Society have made the move to SSA.
Burns called the SSA contract “equitable” for employees making the shift.
“We don’t believe it to be detrimental in any large-scale way,” Burns said.
The Landmark has learned that some full-time employees making the shift to SSA have transitioned from salary to hourly and some have been reassigned. Some longtime employees reportedly have lost some vacation benefits and accrued sick time as a result of the change.
However, Shannon Fitzgerald, chief people officer for SSA, said employees will have greater opportunity under the company’s management, since Brookfield Zoo officials were focused more on funding the mission of the Chicago Zoological Society.
“We have resources to put into people and opportunities,” Fitzgerald said in a phone interview with the Landmark.
Another contributing factor in the decision to outsource food service and retail to SSA was the company’s track record in increasing sales, said Fitzgerald.
“We’re a business that’s gotten decent at showing an increase in revenue when we take over,” she said, adding that the zoo will also benefit from no longer carrying the costs for personnel, equipment and inventory.
“This allows [Brookfield Zoo] to get more funding toward their mission and opportunities for the people who visit,” Fitzgerald said.
Burns said the move to outsource food service and retail was not a purely financial decision, but rather to improve offerings the zoo provides for its guests.
“We wanted to make certain our partner aligns with our mission and is active with our community, especially the underserved community in the Chicago market,” Burns said.
SSA’s imprint on the guest experience will be implemented over the next couple of years, and will begin to be noticeable almost immediately. Restaurants and food stands will undergo menu and concept changes, as will the gift shops as the current inventory begins to be sold out.
The zoo’s largest restaurant, BZ Red Hots, will be transformed into Table 34, a reference to the year – 1934 – that Brookfield Zoo opened. The menu, according to information provided to the Landmark by SSA, will focus “on quality and sustainability” that will “emphasize products sourced from local and regional bakeries, farmers, ranchers and other partners to bring guests the best regional food.”
SSA will also update the look of the restaurant and the way customers are served at Table 34 “to immediately set the tone for a culinary experience as guests enter.” The restaurant will include a pager system, allowing items to be prepared to order and could include kiosks for self-service in the future.
The Castaway Grill and Smoothie Island, which are central food service hubs for the zoo’s summer concert series will also be updated to Graze, described as “a hip farm-fresh approach to a traditional concessions style grill menu” and Nectar, “a chic, open-air bar serving drinks and snacks in a comfortable and inviting space.” The addition of food trucks will augment offerings there.
SSA proposes changing the Bison Prairie Grill to feature the company’s burger brand, Wild Burger, offering custom burger orders and pager service.
The company’s focus on catering to millennial parents is reflected in a change suggested for North Gate Coffee and Snacks. There, SSA is planning to roll out its Bean Sprouts Café concept, which they describe as a “healthy, fun, hip café, rooted in serving kids of all ages healthy alternatives to traditional menu items.”
Gift shops will focus on fair-trade, good-cause items and will include SSA’s new line of eco-friendly plush toys, and the shops will also follow other sustainable practices such as eliminating plastic packaging.
“You’ll slowly start seeing those products get a bigger footprint,” said Jason Stover, vice president of communications for SSA.