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Zilker Cafe likely to change hands

Thursday, October 1, 2015 by Stephen Carlson

The Parks and Recreation Board recommended a new contract for the Zilker Cafe on Tuesday after months of reviewing bids by several contractors. Rodriguez Concessions has held the existing contract since 1950. It was denied a five-year extension of that contract, which expired yesterday.

The board voted 10-1 to recommend approval of the new contract to City Council, with Board Member Rick Cofer casting the lone vote in opposition.

The Parks and Recreation Department has been searching for a new vendor after a survey that launched last January revealed widespread dissatisfaction with the current operations of the cafe. In the more than 500 responses, complaints ranged from low-quality food and a lack of healthy options to surly employees and trash strewn across the area, attracting vermin and bees.

PARD contract administrator Kirk Scanlon said that when asked why people who regularly go to Barton Springs did not eat at the cafe, the most cited reason was unhealthy food. “Our primary takeaway from the public input is that providing healthy options would tap into a market that is not being tapped into right now. … Other concerns were a lack of parking – a lot people did not even know it was there.”

Scanlon added, “The general atmosphere of the place was variously described as run-down to funky.”

The contract is stipulated as a “turn-key” contract, meaning that the concession is completely self-funded, including utilities. PARD projects that Zilker Cafe will generate $1.39 million in revenue for the city over the 10-year duration of the contract.

The recommended vendor, Players Inc., already holds contracts to serve food and beverages at three of the city’s municipal golf courses. But during the meeting, there was some dispute over whether the contract should go to Players Inc. or whether Austin should better showcase its burgeoning food scene in its preeminent park. Options discussed included food trucks or recruitment of traditional restaurant owners rather than existing city vendors.

Board Member Rick Cofer was concerned that Players Inc. was not what Zilker Park needed, and called for the board to reject the staff recommendation.

“Based on what I’ve heard about Players Inc., they are okay,” said Cofer. “My belief is that Zilker is the front door of Austin – it’s one of our crown jewels. We can do a lot better than merely okay. We need to utilize the capacity and brilliance and our local love of food.”

When questioned why only concession companies – as opposed to regular restaurateurs – bid on the contract, Scanlon said, “All I can do is speculate. So what I would say is, I think a lot of restaurateurs probably have a very specific niche that they like to work in, cook in. By saying we have to have concession food, that would have made a lot of people turn away from it.”

Photo by midwestnerd made available through a Creative Commons 2.0 license.

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