MUSEUM QUALITY FOOD. Visitors move among the stations in the Mitsitam Native Foods Cafe at the new Museum of the American Indian in Washington. (l.) Executive Chef Richard Hetzler prepares cedar planked juniper salmon on the kitchen's "fire pit."
The exhibits of course are wonderful and informative. The brand new National Museum of the American Indian is Washington, DC's newest tourist attraction and has been packing in the visitors since its opening earlier this fall.
But beyond the artifacts, art objects and interactive exhibits, the museum also offers one of the most interesting dining destinations in the city, thanks to a meticulously designed and operated onsite restaurant, Mitsitam ("let's eat!") Native Foods Cafe, which is managed by Restaurant Associates, a division of Compass Group North America. Mitistam's design was assisted by the Cini•Little foodservice consulting firm.
"The menu is designed to be consistent with the mission of the museum, which is to educate visitors about Native-American life and culture," says General Manager Larry Ponzi. "The selections are as authentic as possible down to their authentic ingredients."
The only concession to 21st century American tastes on the menu is a chicken fingers/French fries combo meant for kids. There is also a burger choice, but the meat is buffalo, not beef.
Otherwise, the rotating menu not only is authentic but at all times has selections drawn from each of the five geographic regions—North Woods, Great Plains, Northwest Coast, Meso America (primarily Mexico) and South America—covered by the museum's exhibits.
Augmenting the cafe's educational mission are little "food facts" (e.g., Did You Know...Chocolate Originated With the Mayas?) left on each of the tables each day.
The 360-seat cafe is open from 10 am to 5 pm daily and was wildly successful from its opening. "We are doubling our initial expectations," Ponzi claims. The tables turn up to 10 times a day with a $12.25 check average.
Of course, the costs are also high, from the 70 highly trained FTEs required to run the cafe to the specialized ingredients needed to make the authentic dishes (everything is made from scratch on premise, of course). While broadline supplier Performance Food Group is able to meet most of the requests, the cafe has had to line up some additional specialty suppliers, such as Quinalt Pride, a seafood house that ships fresh wild salmon from the Pacific Northwest.
Organic, natural ingredients are used as much as possible, Ponzi says. The buffalo for the burgers is free-range and even the coffee choices are organic.
One growing revenue driver is special event catering, which accounts for about a fifth of revenues already. "As you can imagine, this has become a very popular place for all sorts of events," Ponzi says. "Everything about it is special."