Prairie Meadows: A million square feet of Hospitality

By Jim Duncan

In a recent conversation amongst long-time restaurant people, someone mentioned the stress involved preparing a 1960s wedding feast for 100 guests. At the time, that number of guests was extravagant. Last month, Prairie Meadows Racetrack, Casino, Entertainment Center and Hotel’s Hospitality Director Clay Willey laughed about that.aj_steakdeburgo_2015_151006-_032

“During the Christmas party season, we host as many as 15 to 17 parties simultaneously,” he explained. “We could do more, too. We have hosted single wedding receptions for more than 1,000 guests, too.”

Prairie Meadows is used to doing things large. The facility in Altoona covers 1,018,500 square feet — not a huge number for a skyscraper, but the building’s complex was restricted to four stories. Built on the west side of a one-mile oval track, Prairie Meadows compensates with a strange footprint. The 168-room hotel, which includes 39 suites, has longer corridors than some of Las Vegas’ largest-in-the-world hotels. On the main floor of the facility, one barely notices walls covered with bright horse racing art by Chris Vance. On close inspection, his series of 19 paintings recreates a single horse race. Another series by TJ Moberg shows off the silks of various horse owners.

Much has changed in the last two years. Most noticeably, smoking is now restricted to just two casino rooms on the second floor. A new air filtration system circulates fresh air from the floor upward rather than from the ceiling downward, making the smoking rooms less smoky. Racing themes are everywhere — even hotel suites have horse racing touches, like barn doors separating the different rooms. The Events Center includes two ballrooms that can seat a total of 1,500. The larger ballroom has a 2,700-square-foot stage, two green rooms and a garage door backstage so limousines can sneak in and out.aj_diningarea_2016_001

The main restaurants — AJ’s Steakhouse and the Triple Crown Buffet — have completed marvelous remodels. AJ’s expanded considerably to 250 seats. The buffet was downsized, but only by a dozen or so seats to a 450 capacity. AJ’s added flashy art and a handsome bar, backlit in blue. It is now open seven days a week instead of four or five in the past. A new Café at the Meadows has been built, offering three meals a day in a quiet setting with silent big screen TVs tuned to sports events. Champions remains as a mostly seasonal restaurant serving the horse racing crowd on the fourth floor, as well as special events. It offers a sensational bargain for people who come for an entire day of racing — one can return for two or three meals at a single price. Champions has also been remodeled and moved to a new location.

While the kitchen is constantly being upgraded, it remains the least changed part of the facility. After it was moved downstairs to the main floor many years ago, it has featured things never seen before in central Iowa: a separate, 55-degree garde manger room for salad preparation; a blast chiller to quickly cool hot foods like soup and sauces without putting them in refrigerators where they would change the temperature of everything else; multiple “Henny Penny” broasters for fried chicken; and a stand-alone bakery that allows the track to make 90 percent of all breads and desserts from scratch. Smokers have been added recently to allow for barbecue brisket, shoulder and ribs.

Patti Weidner is in her eighth year managing the kitchen’s 63 full-time employees. She says they speak at least nine different native languages.relish-pm-prime-rib-6

“But everyone learns ‘kitchen English’ pretty fast; it’s a universal language,” she explained.

Staffing many restaurants, serving private parties and hosting big events means the kitchen has no slow time.

Weidner says she prefers it that way.

“Even on a holiday, I’d rather be here than cooking at home,” she said.

She thinks that the most popular item on the buffet is the carrot cake and that AJ’s best seller is either the cowboy ribeye or the steak de Burgo. There are never any slow days for her.

“It’s always busy because, even on a slow day at the casino, we are prepping for big events that are coming up,” Weidner said.

Outside the kitchen, there are definitely up and down times.

“Mother’s Day and Thanksgiving are the busiest days for our restaurants. We will serve 3,500 meals just in the buffet. Easter and Christmas are big, too. Ironically, Fathers’ Day is really slow,” explained Willey. “Also, March is the busiest month of the year here. I think it has something to do with income tax refunds. And nothing brings more people to the track than our camel and ostrich races.”

Tags: ,

Categories: Industry Profile

%d bloggers like this: