Jim King and his traveling companion, both of Daytona Beach, Fla., were hot, tired and grubby from a long day of sightseeing in and around St. Louis, Mo. When they returned to their 40-foot motorhome at Sundermeier RV Park in St. Charles, Mo., they didn’t feel like fixing dinner, nor did they feel like cleaning up to go out to eat.
So dinner came to them.
We just had hamburgers and fries, but the restaurant delivered as quickly as if we were sitting right there, and they came right to our site,” said King, 66.
King and his friend could just as easily have had prime rib, a New York strip steak or award-winning clam chowder delivered right to their site from Beef Eaters, the campground restaurant, according to the Dallas Morning News.
Forget the weenies on a stick, toasted marshmallows and s’mores that are staples of outdoor getaways. Campgrounds are going gourmet.
“Parks are finding operating a restaurant on-site is indeed a convenience for guests as much or more than a grocery store,” said Linda Profaizer, president of the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds.
The organization represents 3,800 privately owned campgrounds in the United States, and roughly 130 have a full-service restaurant on-site. Profaizer believes this is a trend that has gained momentum in the last two or three years.
Beef Eaters was added to the offerings at Sundermeier RV Park in 1999, one of the earliest campgrounds in the association’s membership to operate a restaurant. The decision to open Beef Eaters was primarily as a resource for the RVers, according to manager Joe Zieger. The restaurant soon earned a reputation for great steaks throughout St. Charles and the St. Louis area. Today, only about 20% of Beef Eaters’ business comes from within the RV park.
Such statistics are no surprise to Jack and Susan Evans, owners of the Palms RV Park in Dickinson, Texas, on Interstate 45 about halfway between Houston and Galveston. Guests at the 64-site park, many of whom are long-term campers working at area plants, often ask about dining options in the area, especially for breakfast.
“There just isn’t much around here,” said Jack Evans, who is friends with Harold Backe, father of Houston Astros pitcher Brandon Backe. The idea of opening a sports-themed restaurant at the park formed while the friends were in Chicago watching Brandon pitch at Wrigley Field.
Construction is under way on Backe’s Bullpen, which should be open in time for the World Series in late October. Boasting a sports theme and a number of autographed baseball items, the restaurant will seat about 80 people inside and about that many more on outdoor patios.
“I had an acre of land that needed something on it, so it just makes sense,” said Evans, who is also adding 10 more cabins to the park.
“We know we can’t rely entirely on the customer base of the campground, but it’s a great location for all of us,” said the elder Backe, who expects his son to be beside him in the off-season, flipping burgers and waiting tables.
It isn’t just privately owned RV parks that recognize the customer-service value of having on-site dining at a campground. Of 52 parks operated by the state of Arkansas, five have on-site, full-service restaurants.
“In general, breakfast is the most popular meal for people staying in the parks,” said Arkansas parks spokesman Joe Jacobs. “It’s just a convenience for campers, but it’s also a convenience for day-use guests for lunch and dinner.”
Just across the state line in southwest Missouri, Roaring River State Park near Cassville built a lodge and dining area in 1998, in part to serve campers but also to encourage locals to get out and explore the park. Roaring River is known as a great trout-fishing river, so that’s the specialty on the menu. As a special service to those who catch and clean their own trout, the kitchen staff will cook it to their specifications for dinner.
But for those who still prefer to prepare their own meals, Mary Arlington at High Plains Camping in Oakley, Kan., provides fresh ingredients for free. While looking for new ways to make guests feel at home, Arlington added a pick-it-yourself organic garden this season. Campers are told about the garden upon check-in.
“The most common response we get from our guests is, ‘Is this for real?’ ” said Arlington, who has operated this campground at the intersection of Interstate 70 and U.S. Highway 83 in western Kansas for eight years.
The 2,100-square-foot garden offers tomatoes, lettuce, cucumbers, beans, beets, radishes, cantaloupe, squash and more. Although there’s no charge to guests, a donation box is often stuffed with $5 and $10 bills along with thank-you notes. One guest gave Arlington a gift in appreciation for the fresh produce. Another guest made vegetable soup and shared with others.
“We’re already planning on a bigger garden next year,” she said. “Our only problem has been the rabbits, but it’s also fun for guests to watch them frolicking in the garden.”
Arlington enjoys watching parents and grandparents with children in the garden, teaching them how to pick, what is ripe and telling stories from their gardening experiences.
In addition to free produce, High Plains Camping offers free coffee and tea in the office each morning, featuring local roasts.