Member Dining in Clubs Today
It hardly comes as news that the private club food and beverage operations of today face a myriad of challenges that would have hardly been definable as little as 20 years ago. Although rising costs and labor challenges are as ever-present as they have always been, today we focus a great deal of energy on pursuits as diverse as new technological advances in IT to the overall ‘greening’ of our facilities, among others. The ball just keeps moving faster and faster.
Because of the continued encroachment on sales by freestanding restaurants, clubs have had to long contend with the notion that the food sales are no longer guaranteed simply because the membership plan dictates minimum spending. In days past, the club needed only to compete with itself, and change was slow, and sure to be met with resistance to some degree. Not anymore. Aside from the changing demographics of the membership, there are a host of issues that force us into directions regardless of our own predilections, or those of the ghosts of board members past. Chefs today, thanks in no small part to The Food Network, are expected to be as competent at entertaining as they are hoisting a French knife. Dietary considerations, which many years ago consisted of cottage cheese and canned peaches, have given way to a host of allergies and medical requirements that we are expected to be fluent enough in to provide tasteful offerings competently prepared. Ingredients selections must reflect the latest hot items, even as much of the menu needs to be somewhat anchored in the familiar. Micro-brews, flavored vodkas and flamboyant martinis are de rigueur, as is our ability to switch gears from fine-dining, to casual, to banquet facility and back again.
Well, there is all that, but it would seem that the topic that has caught the most interest is the purchasing habits of the kitchen. Members want to know in increasing numbers if you are buying local (they never seem to ask about where the coffee and bananas come from, for some reason) regardless of the fact that they may have no idea why this might be an issue, even while they are enjoying grilled halibut in Minnesota, or effusing over the fabulous truffle dinner they consumed on a trip to Vegas. The inquiry is made, as if the answer will either validate or condemn the integrity of the food service operation by the quality of the response. But it is not an easy question to answer for most of us, so care must be taken in the answer we ring forth. Determining the definition of what constitutes local is of the utmost priority: Does it mean within 50 miles of the club, or is it our region in general? Do you eschew offering wonderful wild mushrooms simply because they are not harvested in the neighborhood? What do you tell the bride that wants gulf shrimp at her wedding being held 500 miles from the coast? Is the hemisphere you are laboring in a consideration? I admit these points are over the top, but they serve to illustrate how action dictates perception; they remember what we say, and watch what we do.
In the real world, no matter how romantic the notion may be, our clubs function for the most part with food and beverage delivered to our door by modern means to fuel the needs of our members and guests. When you make the claim of buying local, you better be prepared to explain how any number of things are available on the menu that are most certainly not a part of the nearby landscape. But we can educate. And we can market. We can find local growers and producers to provide us with indigenous products that will never be the majority of the inventory, but can be featured as show points in the dining room. Special ‘local only’ dinners can be constructed and used to celebrate the farmers outside of the gates. We can do the things that sing of integrity without putting our necks in a noose, and take the time to talk about those items we buy that are not local because the quality we demand must be found elsewhere. After all, just because it is grown a mile from the club does not necessarily mean it is good; location is no guarantor of excellence.
Food and beverage departments can—and must—provide the means to slow the attrition rate that has been trending throughout the industry these troubling years. Think of the creative ways that your club can influence the members dining decisions, and show them the passion and effort that is deserving of attention. It’s what the restaurant up the street is probably doing, and probably where you will find your members on those nights things are slow at the club.
John McAllister is the Corporate Executive Chef for McConnell Golf. He manages the kitchens of 8 private clubs in the Carolinas and has been working in kitchens since the age of 14. To learn more about John McCallister go to: http://www.oldnorthstateclub.com/viewCustomPage.aspx?id=88