Blue Hills Country Club is bringing new life to F&B by focusing on who and what make the club special.
It was 1998 when Todd Walline accepted the job as Executive Chef of Blue Hills Country Club (Kansas City, Mo.). Alain Ducasse had just earned six Michelin stars, and Morimoto had finally joined the original Japanese version of Iron Chef.
Walline had been cooking at a club down the street for four years. He was ready and eager to run his own kitchen. He threw his hat in the ring, and he landed the job.
At the time, Blue Hills was only doing about $550,000 in F&B. Walline figured he could have a pretty substantial impact, and that his experience there would bolster his resume for the next step in his career.
Little did he know what was in store for him.
Two decades later, Walline has seen Blue Hills CC through its best and worst years. He and his team have grown the F&B operation into a $2.1 million powerhouse. He’s stood by the club through renovations, recessions, and three different general managers. He has also become one of the city’s most well-respected chefs, as he serves on the culinary advisory boards of Flint Hills Technical College and Metropolitan Community College.
Walline’s style is far from pretentious. And his culinary skills, paired with his innate ability to mentor those around him, are masterful. He deeply appreciates the people he works with and the members he serves.
When asked to describe Blue Hills, Walline usually laughs and then tells stories about how fun his membership is, and how amazing his staff is. He’ll follow that with a comment on how the club is growing more and more casual, as its members continue to seek laid-back opportunities to engage with one another.
Over the past five years, Blue Hills has come into its own as Kansas City’s premier family-oriented club. Dining, and the people who run that arm, have played a huge part in that shift—in particular, Walline, Natalie Hirt, CMP (Director of Member Relations and Events) and Rich Fairman, CCM (General Manager/COO).
Together, this trio has led Blue Hills into becoming a place that members now use daily, and that is staffed by people who genuinely care about the club’s success, and about one another.
Blue Hills Country Club
Location: Kansas City, Mo.
When Fairman inherited Walline after becoming Blue Hills’ new GM in 2012, he didn’t know what he was going to get. Especially since Walline had been in the chef’s role for almost fifteen years. But Fairman began his relationship with his Executive Chef with an open mind.
“Chef Todd was well ahead of the curve,” Fairman recalls. “He wanted Blue Hills dining to be more than a place members came to celebrate things. He wanted to offer spaces that were less formal, so that we could attract families. He was eager to transform the menu, too, and to get rid of dinner jackets and white tablecloths.
“He and Natalie saw the potential for Blue Hills to be relaxed and approachable through dining,” Fairman adds. “And they had a lot of good ideas for how we could get there.”
Fairman bought into Walline and Hirt’s vision and found ways to support them as the club moved in this new, exciting direction.
“Rich was such a breath of fresh air,” says Walline. “He saw the vision, trusted the people here, and gave us the support we needed to achieve it.”
The process began subtly. Menus changed. Dress codes relaxed and white tablecloths disappeared. Beanbag chairs and TVs were introduced in the dining room. More families joined.
Cooks came out of the kitchen to interact with members at their tables. And members came into the kitchen to interact with chefs on the line. Students from local culinary schools took up internships at the club. Walline began entering culinary competitions again (including the Chef to Chef Conference “Mystery Basket” cookoff, which he won in Atlanta in 2017. Watch video here.).
Turnover dropped, and job satisfaction among employees grew. Things were changing—and all in good ways.
For the first decade and a half of Walline’s career, he was more dictator than coach. He’d bark orders and demand that things be done his way. As a result, turnover in the back of the house was high, around 30%.
After Fairman came to Blue Hills, he began teaching and mentoring Walline. He took note of all of the challenges that frustrated the chef, and then fixed them. He built into the budget investments into new kitchen equipment and continuing education. He also supported Walline in competing again.
“Fairman’s leadership approach taught me how much more effective it is to coach and mentor than to demand and pressure,” says Walline, who has since adopted a similar philosophy and is reinvesting in his team members, too.
“I was unhappy before, and I let that rule my world,” Walline adds. “I’m happy now. I meditate daily and take care of myself. And I am a better manager and chef because of it.”
Happy staff members lead to happier club members, and Walline is the perfect example. But it doesn’t end with him. Blue Hills recently started a quality-of-life initiative for its staff, says Walline.
“We try to keep salaried staff to 50 hours a week—unless there is a big member-guest event,” he explains. “We’ve also changed the culture in the kitchen so that it’s not frowned upon to take a vacation, like it had been.”
Now, at a time when so many in the restaurant industry are struggling to find qualified staff, Blue Hills’ turnover has dropped to 10%.
“Our ‘stay interviews’ have been a big part of that change,” says Walline. During those sessions, Walline and a team member will sit down over lunch, and Walline will ask that individual why he or she is still at Blue Hills.
“We want our staff members to have career ambitions, and we want to help them achieve their goals,” he says. “We talk about what’s holding them back and what they want to learn. We create a timeline and we help to get them to the next stage of their careers, whether that’s with us or with another club.”
Continuing education is also an important part of this approach. Blue Hills encourages education for staff at every level. Connor Stirland, Service and Beverage Manager, just earned his Level 1 Sommelier. Hirt is working toward her Certified Club Manager certification. Walline is active in the American Culinary Federation community and with industry publications such as Club + Resort Chef.
“In most clubs, continuing education is the first thing that gets cut,” says Hirt. “But it’s vital to our survival and it helps us improve the membership experience. Blue Hills has been excellent about making education a priority.”
Making way for wellness
Today, Blue Hills is working toward becoming what Walline dubs a “lifestyle club.”
Much as lifestyle brands attempt to embody the values, aspirations, interests, attitudes, and opinions of a group for marketing purposes, Blue Hills is hoping to embody those same attributes of its members, to better their experience at the club.
At the top of this initiative is a push toward wellness. The club is looking to partner with a nutritionist, and Walline is working toward becoming a certified dietary manager.
“We already run a ‘clean’ kitchen where we don’t use excess additives or preservatives,” he says. “All of our meats are antibiotic- and hormone-free, too. But we want to take this further, with nutrition consultations and more plant-based options on all our menus.”
Green initiatives, like composting, also tie into this plan, says Walline.
All this—and great bbq, too
“You have to take risks in F&B,” says Fairman. “And you need to measure your success. It helps to do that when you have a chef like Walline, who is incredibly talented.
“He’s curious about everything—especially food,” Fairman says. “And he’s passionate about the people he serves and the people working around him. He makes each of us better, and he makes this club better by being consistent and steady.
Fairman then adds what may be the boldest and most impressive testament for his Executive Chef: “He also makes the best bbq in Kansas City.”