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REVIEW | Jacksonville Zoo monkeys with menu to some fans’ displeasure

Published on March 24, 2024 at 7:16 pm

Jeff Aldrich, a U.S. Navy veteran and sound engineer, is so serious about food that when he was recently wowed by a Peruvian-style steak topped with salsa criolla and a fried egg, he posted a picture of his plate online. “One of the most amazing dishes I’ve ever had,” he told his Facebook followers.

But Aldrich says he has no need for a $10.99 scoop of ice cream in a red velvet-flavored cone when he goes to the Jacksonville Zoo. A longtime zoo member, Aldrich resents the menu revamp enacted by the zoo’s new foodservice provider.

Although the zoo didn’t announce its vendor shift until Jacksonville Today inquired about it, the Denver-based SSA Group took over food, beverage, and retail operations on Feb. 1.

“My overall experience with the zoo is that it’s fantastic for my family,” said Aldrich, who’s been a zoo regular since his 17-year-old daughter, the eldest of three, was little. “And one of the things we loved about going to the zoo is that the food wasn’t that expensive. It wasn’t the greatest, but it was good, and there were a lot of kid choices. Now it’s all adult food, and it costs more.”

On his last zoo visit, Aldrich spent approximately $85 on lunch for three people, including $16.99 on an entrée billed as “three hand-breaded chicken tenders” and $15.99 on a “griddle-smashed burger with cheese fondue.”

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“I mean, we didn’t order the triple-cheese mac-and-cheese, but I don’t need triple-cheese mac-and-cheese at the zoo,” he said. “It’s like my wife said: It’s just for rich, millennial people who don’t care what the price is.”

The Jacksonville Zoo and Gardens declined multiple requests for a phone or in-person interview, but a representative who agreed to answer questions via email said the zoo in 2023 “made the decision to take food and retail in a different direction that would allow us to maximize our mission through increased revenue generation.” According to zoo marketing manager Emily Long, admissions, food, and retail account for 90% of the zoo’s operating budget.

Among the changes implemented by SSA, which oversees the food programs at close to 50 zoos nationwide, are the adoption of ordering kiosks, the outsourcing of frozen treats to local chain Mayday Ice Cream, and the creation of a “waterfront craft beer bar [to] offer a refreshing pause for guests.” 

“Soon, a waterfront craft beer bar will offer a refreshing pause for guests, complete with live sports broadcasts,” the zoo touts. | Hanna Raskin

While Long refused to disclose what percentage of visitors purchase food or drink at the zoo, it’s certain zero percent of underage zoogoers pause between Range of the Jaguar and Land of the Tiger to toss back a cold one. But a visit to the overhauled food facilities confirms beer, wine, and cocktails are heavily promoted in all of them, including the ice cream shop, suggesting the zoo might see more money-making potential in boozy get-togethers than family outings.

As a trio of Detroit Zoo executives wrote in their 2018 paper, “What is the Future for Zoos and Aquariums?”, the ethics and economics of keeping wild animals in captivity means “the future is likely to be one in which we find far fewer animals.”

Consequently, institutions keen to advance animal welfare will have to adopt new strategies to stay solvent and fund their conservation efforts. In other words, nonprofits such as the Jacksonville Zoo could end up framing virtual reality and insect displays as novelties for well-heeled adults seeking an idyllic respite from urban life—which is essentially how exotic animals ended up in parks in the first place. 

Zoo food through time

Founded in 1914, Jacksonville’s Municipal Zoo originally consisted of one red deer fawn exhibited on the corner of Broad and Third streets. By the 1970s, when Jacksonville Zoological Society, Inc. took over operations, it had relocated, acquired hundreds more species and started serving food.

From October 2021 to January 2024, Clean Slate Hospitality managed the zoo’s food programs, including concession stands, box lunches for visiting school groups, and dinners for private functions. Karla Foley, who got married at the zoo on April 22, 2023, said Clean Slate’s services were a bright spot in a wedding that she says otherwise went sideways after the zoo’s event coordinator resigned on the eve of her ceremony.

“Our sweetheart table was pathetic,” Foley says of the allegedly bungled setup. “I had this faux tattoo station with our faces, and the whole thing was shoved in a corner. I started sobbing, and chef [Ben Knieff] comes out, and he’s like, ‘Is everything OK?’”

Foley and her wife credit the Clean Slate crew with bringing a needed level of professionalism to their party and preparing food they describe as “amazing” and “phenomenal.” Their only complaint was they didn’t get to-go boxes at the end of the evening.

The interior of the Palm Plaza Cafe | Hanna Raskin

Clean Slate Hospitality was formed as an LLC in 2018 by Teresa Kennedy, according to Florida Department of State records. In January 2019, Kennedy was hired as the zoo’s first chief operating officer, following a two-decade career with Walt Disney World. At the time, she told the Jacksonville Business Journal that improving food at the zoo was among her top priorities.

“I definitely think there’s an opportunity to partner with the community and bring local [food] to the zoo,” she said. “Not only does it bring fresh flavor, but it also supports our conservation message.”

Kennedy transferred ownership of Clean Slate to her family member, Michael Thompson, in 2021. Tax returns from that year show the company was the zoo’s highest paid independent contractor, receiving $312,368. Kennedy’s pay that year was $173,989 in salary, plus $14,952 in other compensation, which means their household collected just over half a million dollars in zoo money.

Since leaving the zoo in June 2023, Kennedy has professionally identified as founder and vice president of Clean Slate; nobody affiliated with the company returned a message seeking comment. Her previous role at the zoo remains vacant.

“We do not have a chief operating officer, or any plans to hire one,” Long wrote, adding that the zoo’s director of business operations “works closely” with SSA Group’s general manager.

While the zoo annually receives more than $10 million in public funds and operates on public property, another zoo representative said the search process resulting in the agreement with SSA Group was “private and confidential.” But a March 20 zoo press release cites SSA’s “dedication to diversity and sustainability” as factors in its selection.

Asked to elaborate on the role that food and drink will play in the guest experience under SSA, Long wrote, “Sitting down for a meal and/or drink provides that space to connect, laugh, and talk with one another. It helps build relationships and lasting memories.”

Today’s zoo noshes

If you’d asked me to characterize the best of zoo food, I wouldn’t have given much shrift to how long people were inclined to linger over it. Based on my years of eating at zoos, which date to the era when visitors were allowed to feed their leftovers to the animals, it seems like human food at the zoo ought to be affordable, accessible—meaning relatively appealing to people from a wide range of cultural backgrounds—and nourishing enough to power a few more tantrum-free hours.

Lately, there has also been a movement to rid zoo menus of animal products. While I respect that position, since it’s hard to square a commitment to environmentalism and animal care with beef consumption, I still think of a hot dog as the ideal lunch at the zoo.

Trout River Grill, one of two restaurants at the Jacksonville Zoo, serves a hot dog for children. It’s one of three $9.99 options, along with a box containing a cellophane-wrapped Smuckers Uncrustables (a frozen peanut butter-and-jelly sandwich), a bag of Pepperidge Farms Goldfish and a mini juice cup. 

Mostly, though, the menu is aimed at grown-ups. Choices at Trout River Grill include a burger topped with pimento cheese and a fried green tomato, and a fermented black garlic Caesar, which can be garnished with falafel or fried shrimp (for an additional fee, obviously.) That Caesar is also available at Palm Plaza Café, except its accouterments there include fried cauliflower.

Self-service ordering kiosks are among the changes implemented by the new food service contractor | Hanna Raskin

As I ate my way through the zoo, I found the best way to assess whether to order a dish was to consider how well it would perform in my home microwave. By far, the standout item in my impromptu menu review was Palm Plaza’s shrimp-and-bacon pizza, a proud ambassador of the puff-and-fluff school of personal pies. Promised flavors of jalapenos and tomatoes, as well as the top-billed shrimp and bacon, were blotted out by garlic puree and garlic mayonnaise, but it was filling and fully cooked. Next time, I’d save five bucks and get the $11.99 cheese version.

Other items suffered mightily from unforced errors. Cheese fries with chimichurri aioli were only partially defrosted, so the cheese was rigid, and the fries were cold. Comically oversized chicken tenders were slathered with too much disturbingly pink Buffalo ranch, and my smashburger tasted as though it had endured a saltshaker malfunction.

Cheese fries | Hanna Raskin
Chicken tenders | Hanna Raskin
Smashed burger | Hanna Raskin

Personally, I don’t have kids or any quarrel with trendy ingredients, so I’m not fundamentally opposed to the notion of a chili-lime black bean grain bowl at Trout River Grill. But for $14.99, a mess of beans should be so good that you don’t have to order a $14.99 margarita to enjoy it.

When Aldrich, the longtime Jacksonville Zoo member, was a vegetarian, he loved the veggie burger at the zoo. Even after he went back to eating meat, he kept ordering the vegetarian version. 

He misses the veggie burger. But he misses the philosophy behind it more.

“I know they tried to do something good,” he says of the changes. “But it doesn’t need to be so complicated. It just needs to be burgers and fries and hot dogs.”

This review is published under a partnership with The Food Section.

author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.
author image Contributor Hanna Raskin is editor and publisher of The Food Section, a James Beard award-winning newsletter covering food and drink across the American South. Raskin previously served as food editor and chief critic for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina.

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