marketplace morongo casino

Foodie Feast

Morongo Casino has upgraded the buffet concept with Chef Fabio Vivani's Marketplace, which offers several food experiences under one roof.

JIM POWERS Current Digital, Restaurants

marketplace morongo casino

An insider's view of Marketplace at Morongo Casino Resort and Spa where diners can enjoy food from seven restaurants under one roof.

Morongo Casino Resort & Spa is quickly becoming a foodie destination.

After joining the Wahlburgers chain in July 2021 led by brothers Mark, Paul, and Donnie Wahlberg, less than a year later the casino has added Marketplace, which opened in May offering a brand new take on the buffet concept.

“We’re really pioneering the revamping of the buffet space,” says Chef Fabio Viviani, a former Top Chef contestant whose hospitality company engineered the concept in partnership with Morongo COO Richard St. Jean. Viviani is familiar to desert audiences who have seen him at Palm Desert Food and Wine.

“There are places in Las Vegas that did adjust the way that the buffet looks, but it’s still a buffet and we’re far away from that,” he adds. “And we did it because of the people we work with and the people who gave us the opportunity. They were very open to this big undertaking of being the first to market with something like this. It’s a big risk and I believe it is going to pay them off big time.”

Chef Fabio Vivani considers Marketplace a pioneering model for a new take on the buffet concept.
Located inside the casino where the former Potrero Canyon Buffet was located, Marketplace houses seven eating experiences including Al Comal (Mexican cuisine), Sukiru (Pan Asian cuisine), Pescato (fresh seafood), Mercato Central (Italian cuisine), Pork & Waffles, Prime Cuts (steakhouse), and Sweet Things (desserts).

Diners pay one price and reserve a spot from a kiosk, walk to whatever station you desire, watch your selection being prepared in front of you, and the plate handed to you to take back to your table.

Viviani chats further with Palm Springs Life about Marketplace, and what it means for the casino industry.

Given the space you had to work with, how many options did you consider and how did you end up settling on the ones that you did?

So it was a big space, right? So the bigger the space, the more stuff I can do. So I didn't have to make a lot of choices. I got a bunch of great ideas in our head and because of the space, we could accommodate almost all of it. But again, too big, it gets too big. So I think the seven, eight station that we have, are perfect. And for the marketplace, they cover a fairly broad variety and offering to make the Morongo crowds happy. And able to have multiple option and multiple ways of combining them. So I think I wouldn't have wanted one or two more or one or two less. I think it was just perfect.

A sampling of food offerings at Pork & Waffles.

That space housed a buffet before. Did you want to maintain that vibe?

No, we wanted to get rid of that vibe. Because the buffet vibe is like 1980. That was actually the main goal. How do get rid of the buffet vibe? Right. The upside of a buffet is that you got one entry price and once you pay the price, you have the freedom to roam around. And eat as much as you like, which you still have.

But we created a scenario where it's more a restaurant feeling, restaurant seating, restaurant spaces, restaurant quality, restaurant plating, restaurant production. So there is not going to be anybody that piles lobster tail high on a plate and walk away with 30 of them, but you're free to go back and get them 10 times over. So it's a more elevated experience that pleases people like me that I would likely never go to an all-you-can-eat buffet. And also the aficionado of buffet. They still get the ability to get a nice session in and try a bunch of different things in a much nicer way.

Before you enter Marketplace is Pescado. Why was that restaurant positioned there even though there is still a chance to order fresh seafood inside Marketplace?

Couple of things. One was an opportunistic approach to have a gap, a bridge between the one set price and the a la carte menu. And the other component was, it's an incentive, it's almost like a showcase window of what's expected inside. And we wanted the ability to have a venue open 24/7, if we can get to it. So for us having something that has longer hours than the actual Marketplace inside was a good option to explore. And I think we succeeded at it. And this way, we also give people the ability to eat something as little as some tuna poke or as much as a five-course meal by sitting at a beautiful, engaging seafood counter.

Enjoy Prosciutto Arugula Pizza by the slice at Mercato.

Each station at Marketplace has its own chef. I understand you and your team worked closely with them.

Me personally, yes. I worked with most of them, my company worked with all of them for months and the one thing, they're all great people, they're all great workers. And everybody's got to learn new ways, and different things, and how to do it.

But once you have good people, it's easy to teach. They're willing to learn. It's easier to teach. The one thing that we want them to understand is that, quality and consistency is the most important thing. And that's what we are focusing on. And we are trying to have a scenario where everybody understand the importance of layering flavors, and creating good things from scratch, and serving quality food. We need to make sure that whatever we do, we have the ability to replicate it and make sure that the consistency and the continuity of flavor is there when I'm not there.

Your company has started several restaurants that you could have just walked in, built what they wanted, and walked away. Why is it important for you to be hands-on?

The most important thing for me is to be able to transfer the wealth of knowledge from my head to somebody else's hands. Because now my company owns and operates over four dozen venues across the United States. So physically it's impossible for me to be everywhere. But we have a team on the ground, we have great competent people, and we check on them often. And we have biweekly calls with all the staff. So we are able to keep the consistency and the continuity even without being 24/7 in the venue.

I understand the menus will change based on season, what ingredients are available. Can you still create customer favorites where people will want to come back for certain dishes?

Yes. At the end of the day, we got to please customers. So the reality is that they don't like it, they don't eat it. We see from the report that something is not selling and we get rid of it. And anytime we get rid of an item, we ask ourself why it wasn't liked and how can we make it better. And that's kind of what we do. We're trying to build good rapport with people, listening to whatever preferences they have and then adjust. We're in the service industry. And for us, it's important to serve. Being in Southern California, seasonality is optional. So we are going to have great food items at a different time during the year.

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