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Smiles of a Summer Night

Smiles of a Summer Night

For the weekly Jazz in the Garden series at the National Gallery Sculpture Garden, concessions operator Guest Services balances low-key and spectacular.

Friday evenings in the summer are when Washington's hordes of young and not-so-young professionals look for a place to unwind. Naturally, the city's many nightspots make every effort to meet this demand, but in the last few years, another contender — an onsite venue — has elbowed its way onto Washington's launch-the-weekend scene.

It's a fairly unlikely one. Rather than a trendy nightspot with flashing lights, it sits under the open sky. And rather than crowding patrons into a small footprint festooned with artificial decor, it is expansive and natural, except for some large art objects scattered about.

What we're talking about is the Jazz in the Garden Series, a weekly evening of food and music held in the Sculpture Garden of the National Gallery of Art near the National Mall. The event, which takes place Friday evenings between late May and early October, has become an increasingly popular after-work stop for the capital's downtown workers.

Key to the success of Jazz in the Garden is Guest Services, the Fairfax, VA, based contract management company that operates the Pavilion Café in the Sculpture Garden for the National Gallery. Guest Services staff are responsible for planning and managing Jazz in the Garden, a major endeavor that requires most of the previous week to prepare for.

The special event illustrates how a management company working in partnership with the client can use the assets each brings to the table to create something that delivers value for all concerned — including customers.

Jazz in the Garden is a lucrative endeavor, consistently generating $35,000 to $40,000 in food and beverage sales each Friday (there is no entry fee). Compare that to Guest Services' permanent outlet in the Sculpture Garden, Pavilion Cafe, which might generate about $8,000 on a typical summer Saturday, and it's easy to see that Jazz in the Garden has become a crucial factor in the National Gallery foodservice operation's financial picture.

“We do well above break even on Friday night Jazz in the Garden events,” says Melanie Jones, Guest Services district manager in charge of the National Gallery account. “Pavilion Cafe would be viable without the events but the concerts certainly add a lot to the business.”

Expenses include food, labor and the music Guest Services books and pays. Different acts perform each week, representing a mix of different jazz styles (classic, modern, various international) as well as swing, jazz rock, R&B and soloists of various stripes.

The band has some effect on numbers, but overall attendance has been trending upwards. “We have a couple hundred regulars who sit in the same spots each week,” says Char Broadus, executive chef at Pavilion Cafe who also is responsible for the menu for the Jazz events. “Also, the bands have their own followers, and some of them become regulars as well.”

The crowds have been growing even though the event is not widely advertised. However, word of mouth (and loudspeakers installed by the Gallery that allow the music to be heard outside the Sculpture Garden) have spread the word, leading to steadily increasing crowds.

Jazz in the Garden originated seven years ago, when Guest Services was asked to develop an outdoor concert series for the Sculpture Garden, an al fresco counterpoint to the classical concerts the National Gallery holds indoors Sunday evenings.

It was an unusual request given that the Gallery is sensitive about commercializing the Sculpture Garden space, where artworks by recognized masters and specialty horticulture displays dot a bucolic park anchored by a central reflecting pool and fountain.

Guest Services manages the Pavilion Cafe next to the pool, but the Gallery declines to rent out the premises to outside groups. Indeed, the only other “special event” the Sculpture Garden hosts is ice skating on the frozen reflecting pool during the winter.

“We had just remodeled and opened the Pavilion Cafe at the time the request for developing Jazz in the Garden was made,” says Claude Broome, executive chef of Guest Services' operations division, who was instrumental in launching both Pavilion Cafe and the Jazz in the Garden.

“At first we served the cafe's standard menu, but soon developed a special menu for the concerts.”

The food was also available only inside the cafe at first, adds Guest Services Vice President Beverly Fraser. “When we were doing $8-$10,000 a night we really thought that was the limit, but it kept growing. Eventually, we introduced bars outside, and later grills to serve food as well.”

Today, Guest Services serves grab-and-go packaged meals and beverages from the Pavilion Cafe, which converts to the special menu after closing at 4 pm. In addition, a set of special grilled and hot items are made and served from a pair of outdoor stations next to the Cafe.

Separate stations serve beverages, including beer, wine and Jazz in the Garden's signature sangria. These are also served from mobile carts that travel around the fountain area. Another cart sells frozen gelato.

The growing popularity of Jazz in the Garden has put increased pressure on Broadus, who begins preparation for each event a week in advance. Shrimp is deveined, flank steak marinated, roulades stuffed and everything that can be precooked is prepared by the Pavilion Cafe's six-person staff, who must also prepare food and serve the cafe's regular customers.

Guest Services draws up to 40 staffers to work each event from its sites around the area and from temp workers. Anticipating turnout is an inexact science but Broadus has learned to be careful. “We try to watch the weather reports, but even a rainy forecast doesn't mean we won't get slammed, so we always prepare for a big crowd,” he says. Excess production is used up over the following week on the Pavilion Cafe menu.

Broadus is responsible for both the Jazz in the Garden and the Pavilion Cafe menus, and he says he tries to keep it fresh each year by changing a few of the selections.

A growing part of the mix is gourmet picnic baskets that include sparkling water or a bottle of wine, cheese, pate, fruits and fresh bread. They can be preordered or purchased onsite in the cafe.

Just perfect for a summer evening of music and food!

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