The aroma of scrambled eggs and waffles filled the dining room at the Shoreview Country Inn & Suites.
The hotel recently revamped its self-serve breakfast menu to include more selections and be more customizable for guests. And the new offerings also include two things Country Inns has never used before: silverware and porcelain ceramic dishes.
The Country Inns, owned by Minnetonka-based global hospitality company Carlson, said its shift to real dining ware from plastic is part of broader strategic shift aimed at differentiating itself from competitors. The goals are to become more environmentally friendly, save money in the long run and increase guest satisfaction.
"In the past, using Styrofoam and plastic ware was expected for select-service hotels, because people didn't really care about breakfast," said Scott Meyer, vice president for mid-scale brands at Country Inns & Suites. "But now, breakfast is a significant value driver for us. And in the past few years, sustainability has become more and more important to consumers."
Some competitors in Country Inns' segment provide real dishes, and many more are going green, including Hampton Inn & Suites, one of Country Inns' main competitors. Hampton uses biodegradable food utensils called TaterWare during breakfast.
Country Inns' point of difference is that it is the first hotel brand in its segment to systematically install real dining ware. Since June, more than 85 percent of the chain's hotels have implemented the switch.
Country Inns expects to save about $30,000 per hotel, a figure the company hopes to realize within 10 years. But Meyer said increasing guest satisfaction and being green, not cutting costs, were the company's primary goals.
By using silverware and real dishes, Country Inns has reduced the waste generated from breakfast by about 70 percent.
But using real dishes and silverware means more work for kitchen staff, who must wash, dry and store the dishes rather than throw them away.
"It takes a little more time to do dishes now, especially when we're busy or during peak times in the summer," said Nancy Sevellius, a breakfast hostess at the Shoreview hotel. "Sometimes we'll even ask the cleaning staff to pitch in if we need the extra help."
Some Country Inn hotels had to invest in new equipment, such as dishwashers, which cost as much as $5,000. Costs for the serving ware ran $4,000 per hotel.
Still, the effort seems to be paying off. Many of Country Inn's guests responded positively to the switch.
Brainerd resident Renee Holmes, 35, who was staying at the hotel with her husband, Robert, said she preferred the real dishes to plastic.
"It just feels better to eat off a real plate," Holmes said. "It's also less wasteful."
Barbara Loken, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota's Carlson School of Management and an expert in branding and consumer psychology, said switching to real dishes is a good example of Country Inn practicing corporate social responsibility.
"People respond positively to brands that are associated with CSR," Loken said. "[Switching to real dishes] may also be viewed as making the brand a bit more upscale, but not so upscale that it harms their image with their customers."
Carlos Torelli, a global branding expert and assistant marketing professor at the Carlson School, agrees.
"A 'homey' feeling and the more upscale image has the potential to build brand equity," Torelli said. "But, some skeptics might argue that washing dishes erases the environmental benefit of not disposing garbage, because dishwashers consume so much energy."
Like most mid-market hotels, Country Inn is working to rebound from the recession, which hammered hotel occupancy rates. Meyer said the breakfast improvements could help with that.
"Making this change to silverware wasn't easy,'' Meyer said. "But we know that it's the right thing to do for our hotel, for our guests and for our brand. It's helping our business to grow."
Sunny Thao is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.