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The Stomach and the Soul: Incorporating Food and Drink in the Spa

By Cathy Christensen
Posted: January 3, 2008, from the January 2008 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

“Food is our common ground; a universal experience.”
American food expert and culinary legend James Beard


Since the beginning of civilization, people have gathered around food to break the ice, strengthen bonds and commiserate about their problems. The social and nutritional benefits of a meal can nurture the soul as well as the stomach, and, although indulgence traditionally goes hand in hand with food and drink, a healthy approach is becoming more and more popular.
     According to the Food Marketing Institute and Prevention magazine, 57% of Americans are trying “a lot” to eat a more nutritious diet, and Linda Milo Ohr, nutraceuticals editor for Food Technology magazine, indicates consumers are seeking help from functional food and drink in areas such as weight management, heart health, anti-aging/cosmeceuticals, immunity and digestive health.
     Many of these consumers are also spa clients. “The nutritional component of a well-balanced body is important, and the spa industry needs to address that in some fashion,” says Julie Raistrick, spa director
of the beachfront Spa Montage at the Montage Resort & Spa in Laguna Beach, California. “Each spa does it differently with its own flair, but nutrition is an element that we don’t want to miss out on.”
     Whether this is realized through snacks in the lounge, spa cuisine meals or nutrition programs, the marriage of food and spa can result in an expanded client experience..

Energy and enhancement
     Most spas offer refreshment options in their relaxation rooms with choices that range from fruit-infused waters and teas to snack mixes and fresh fruit. And although this isn’t a new concept, it is one that can be used to meet the needs of your clients in a unique way that is specific to your spa. For example, Agave, the Arizona Spa at The Westin Kierland Resort & Spa in Scottsdale, Arizona, helps its snack choices stand out by offering refreshing limeade sweetened with syrup from the agave cactus, something specific to the spa’s region of the country.
     A range of selections can also be a benefit for food and drink options. “On a daily basis, we have fruits and nuts available,” explains Maureen Schumaker, spa director of the 5,000-square-foot LeSpa at the Sofitel Los Angeles. “Spas can be stimulating, and we want to make sure that our clients have nutritional food to put into their bodies to refuel.” The spa boasts an extensive menu of teas, allowing for a variety of flavors to coordinate with many treatments on the menu. “It ties in everything and is a wholly sensorial experience,” explains Schumaker.
      Teas and freshly dried fruits are also popular at the scenic Red Mountain Spa in St. George, Utah, and the eco-conscious Sundara Inn & Spa in Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.
     “Water is the best thing out there, whether you include citrus, mint or cucumber,” says Jim Root, general manager of spa operations at The Spa at Sea Island in Sea Island, Georgia, and International SPA Association (ISPA) chairman. “A healthy trail mix and fresh fruit are both very appropriate. You can dress it up in your presentation, but there’s nothing like water as the perfect end to any treatment.”
      Due to a variety of factors, including hydration and detoxification issues, food and alcohol typically don’t mix during spa treatments. However, the incorporation of food-based options or a flavorful treat after a service can help to enhance a client’s overall spa encounter. For instance, the Cocoa Latte Wrap at Red Mountain Spa features cocoa and dehydrated milk combined into a thick cocoa liquid. Myrna Beardshear, spa director, says of the service, “It’s a decadent, wonderful feeling. You come out of the treatment smelling more chocolate than anything else, and cocoa is a natural antioxidant that is rich in B vitamins. And the caffeine is detoxifying and stimulating.”
      According to Tassia Waldhart, lead esthetician at Sundara Inn & Spa, her facility features an organic series of menu items using a skin care line made of fresh fruits and plants that can be matched with a range of epicurean offerings. For example, last fall Sundara featured pumpkin products in several of its treatments and also offered a pumpkin soup in the spa lounge to tie it all together. And an additional effort to enhance clients’ sensory experience occurs during the spa’s chakra treatments.
     “We serve tea and chyawanprash jam on crackers after ayurvedic services. The jam is rich in vitamin C, full of antioxidants and stimulates metabolism,” explains Waldhart.
     Similary, the Footbath Treatment at Montage is enhanced with natural teas from Italy. “They are focused on equilibrium, cellulite reduction and detoxification, and clients sip this tea during the footbath, depending on the outcome they are seeking,” says Raistrick. “It really gets the circulation going so they enjoy the full benefits.”

Spa cuisine
     During a spa day or an extended visit at a hotel or resort, clients often can enjoy healthier meal options. Whether these consist of indulging in a healthy lunch poolside or choosing a wholesome selection on a resort restaurant’s menu, the spa mentality can be infused throughout a client’s experience.
     “We’re a luxury resort with a great spa,” explains renowned executive chef James Boyce of Montage. “You’re coming to the hotel to experience a lot of things; if you want to go that way, you can; if not, you don’t have to. We make sure that our guests are completely satisfied. If it’s their decision, they can indulge, but we offer a full menu that is conditioned toward the spa.” One of the most popular items offered in the resort’s spa and fitness center are the chef’s smoothies that feature seasonal ingredients.
     Raistrick also cites the resort’s specific spa menu offered within the spa lounges and on the spa’s pool deck, Mosaic. “With our spa’s environment, we are lucky enough to be able to provide a full-day experience for our guests, and our spa menu features healthy, unique items that are refreshing for the spa experience, such as wraps and lobster salad,” she says. Spa cuisine options are also offered in a similar manner at Sundara Inn & Spa, where, during the summer, the rotunda bar offers up tempting spa cuisine creations for its guests.
     Another popular option chosen by many resort spas is simply to incorporate spa cuisine into the menus of its restaurants. “Although we don’t serve food in the spa, wellness chef Laurie Erickson has incorporated wellness items on the menus of the different venues at Sea Island.” says Root. “You can go to all the venues and have the same dining experience that is better for your health. It’s a similar menu and is a full-on dining experience.”

A way of life
      An emerging trend in spas today involves providing wellness services that can result in improved lifestyle habits. Along with fitness, one of the most important focuses is often nutrition and changing the way clients deal with food on a daily basis. This is either established through a set program or customized to meet clients’ specific needs, and the spa’s chef is heavily involved in the culinary challenge of creating food items that are as enticing as they are healthy.
     “It’s a whole experience,” explains Christine Denney, wellness chef at The Oaks at Ojai in Ojai, California, a destination health spa that focuses on weight loss and relaxation. “When you pay for a room, it includes meals and classes. Everything is integrated in that way,”she says. At The Oaks at Ojai, guests adhere to a very specific calorie count in order to help them meet their weight-loss goals. “The Oaks is one of the few spas that has a specific caloric intake set up for people,” says Denney. “The entire day is planned around the fact that no one’s glycemic level gets too low.”
     And although most guests who follow the program see great results, The Oaks works to help them succeed in the outside world, as well. “We try to provide some backup—nutrition talks and food demonstrations two nights a week—so that they can take this information home with them and be successful overall,” explains Denney. “Part of it is trying to build new habits, and we provide individual counseling to give them a chance of making it on their own.”
     The focus at Red Mountain Spa is more on fitness than weight loss, but nutrition still plays a leading role. “Our philosophy is pretty simple,” says executive chef Chad Luethje. “We want to provide food that is as healthful and enjoyable as it can be.” And although he concedes that not all ingredients—including bacon and foie gras—can be used in meals, he maintains there is a lot more food that can be enjoyed in a healthy way than most people might think. “Our challenge is to get the most vibrant flavors, textures and colors while staying within our guidelines and putting a healthful twist on our foods,” he says.
     At Montage, guests who participate in the Surrender program do just that. “We ask guests to allow us to make their choices for them so that we can help bring them back into balance, whether through body treatments, skin therapies, fitness and nutrition,” explains Raistrick. “Through this, we are able to customize a personal experience to our guests.” And the length of the program is also taken into account, ranging from two hours to several days or weeks. “This summer, we had two guests surrendering to us for more than two months,” she says.
     One nutritional facet of this program is based on guests’ body type—endomorph, ectomorph or mesomorph. Endomorph indicates a softer, more round body shape; ectomorph indicates a thinner, more angular body shape; and mesomorph indicates a more athletic, muscular body shape. After their type is determined, guests enjoy a customized body-type smoothie that encourages them to maintain their nutritional balance. According to Raistrick, clients love it. “When you have a specific body type, you gravitate to certain smells and tastes. Mesomorphs might love their smoothie and not get excited about the ingredients in the other body-type smoothie options. We give them information about different food types to bring them back into balance,” she says.
      The Spa at Sea Island combines all of these different aspects of spa cuisine into its new Lifestyle Kitchen. “The easy part of a destination spa experience is to actually be there and experience it; the trick is to take it home with you,” says Root. “The Lifestyle Kitchen allows people to take the learning and education home with them.” The kitchen, which is located in the middle of the spa, is an actual working kitchen where the facility’s chef and nutritionist teach classes on a variety of topics ranging from healthy cooking to food preparation to knife skills.
     Wellness chef Erickson and the Lifestyle Kitchen also often play an important role in the spa’s Intentions into Actions program, a service that does just what it says—takes guests’ desires and turns them into reality. In regard to nutrition, this has since turned into things such as help for teaching a bride and groom about how to use the appliances they received as wedding gifts or instructing new parents on how to make their baby’s own food. “Laurie works with families. She will go into people’s homes and takes them shopping to teach them how to read labels. She gets parents and kids involved in an interactive way,” says Root.

Words of advice
     All of these innovative programs and ideals may seem a little daunting to integrate into smaller spas, but there are ways that most can incorporate aspects of nutrition into client services. Starting small may be the best way to go, says Raistrick. “Consider offering organic loose leaf tea for a variety of benefits.” And Waldhart agrees, suggesting tying seasonal treats and beverages in with seasonal promotions.
     If you are considering offering more than beverages and snacks, collaboration can be key. “Partner with a local chef who can provide prepackaged health drinks and smoothies,” suggests Luethje, although he stresses the use of caution and research when investing in food items that claim to be healthy. This sentiment is echoed by Chef Boyce, who also recommends, “Bring in a small caterer who could drop off some healthy choices, cold food and items that are easily reheated,” he suggests.
     “Find a local restaurant or café that shares a similar philosophy to partner with,” says Schmaker. “In other locations I’ve worked with, we’ve decided on a menu and run a delivery and pickup. That’s been very successful for me at smaller locations. It’s a benefit to both locations due to cross-marketing and cross-promotion, as well as the ability to enhance clients’ experiences.”
     Raistrick suggests making connections with a registered dietician who can be brought on board for consultations. “With this, you could start by just offering nutritional guidance and see if there is a need, identify what clients are looking for and figure out how to continue to grow,” she says.
     Or, instead of offering nutrition programs within your spa, Root says partnering with a local restaurant’s chef to teach a class once a month in its kitchen or collaborating with a health food store or restaurant to provide home delivery of food to your clients after their spa treatments may be a good idea. “This way, you can incorporate something destination spas offer but that is more appropriate to smaller locations,” Root says.
     Above all, stresses Chef Denney, always use caution when attaching your spa’s name in any way to food consumption. “You need to have someone on staff who knows what it means to be glucose-intolerant or have allergies,” she says.

An individual decision
     Nutrition is a major aspect of wellness, and figuring out if and how to address the nutritional needs of a clientele is a decision that needs to be made by each individual business owner. “Be careful of combining too many things,” warns Root. “You should always be in control.”
      Get feedback from your clients and consider the benefits of partnering with local chefs to help you expand without a huge commitment. Above all, do what is best for your clientele and your spa as a whole. Beardshear perhaps expresses this best when she references Red Mountain Spa’s philosophy, “Do the body no harm.” The combination of great intentions and thorough research can result in a delicious business opportunity for you and a nutritious, irresistible benefit to your clients.