Executive Chef Thayer Johnson has reshaped Castlewood CC’s dining operation by unifying the team and focusing on food.
A true leader builds a strong, capable team that achieves great things through collaboration.
A true leader leads when he or she has to, but not all the time.
A true leader evaluates what’s happening, identifies what’s not working, and then strategically and thoughtfully finds ways to fix what’s broken while simultaneously building a more sustainable, holistic operation.
Not every chef is a true leader. But Thayer Johnson, Executive Chef of Castlewood Country Club (CCC) in Pleasanton, Calif., fits the description, in all of its forms.
Johnson’s passion for food, his dedication to his team and his absolute obsession with emphasizing what’s good for the whole club over what might benefit any one person has transformed CCC’s dining operation.
In the year and a half since he came onboard, Johnson has regained the trust of a fragile staff; reignited a passion for food in his cooks; fixed the many dysfunctional parts of the F&B operation; and introduced new ideas, new dishes, and new techniques.
Castlewood Country Club
Location: Pleasanton, Calif.
As a result, F&B at CCC is up 40% over last year.
War and Peace
Chief among Johnson’s challenges has been working with, and understanding the dynamics of, a union staff. The learning curve was steep, and the backstory was riddled with drama.
Before he arrived, a highly publicized labor dispute between Castlewood’s unionized foodservice workers and its management led to a protracted lockout of more than 60 employees that began in 2010. After much negotiating, the lockout ended in October 2012 and the two sides reached agreeable terms in February of 2013.
But after coming to the club in the spring of 2014 with extensive experience in restaurants, hotels and other club properties, including Tucson (Ariz.) Country Club, Johnson says he prefers CCC’s setup to non-union operations.
“My impression of what it would be like to be the chef of a union club turned out to be much different than the reality of it,” says Johnson, who has been especially diligent about following the rules of the union’s contract while being flexible and open with his communication to the team. “My staff is dedicated. They know the property. They know the members. There is very little turnover. They have an incredible work ethic. And they’re inspired to learn more and become better.”
By rolling up his sleeves and working the line alongside the cooks, Johnson earned their trust. He’s also been able to teach them new skills.
“I’ve found that working with a union is all about respecting the process,” says Johnson.
For example, when he needed to adjust the schedule to cover Sundays at the club, Johnson met with union representatives and was able to come up with a solution that worked for both sides.
“In a union environment, you can’t rely on relationships,” says JJ West, who was Interim General Manager until September when he left to become Interim General Manager/Clubhouse Manager at St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco. “You must rely on the process needed to manage the business effectively.”
Johnson has shown a full grasp of this requirement while rewriting the club’s standard operating procedures, West says.
“He’s bonded with his team in a different context,” he says. “They respond to his management style. They know he keeps inventory tight and spaces clean. They respect him, and he respects them.”
A Gentle Evolution
“When I first started, I didn’t want to upend everything the club had been doing,” says Johnson. “We were very busy, but the menus lacked creativity and inspiration. But the cooks were good and regimented.
“So I went slowly,” he continues. “I talked with members to see what they wanted in their club’s dining operation. I met with each cook individually, to see where they thought we were failing and where we had opportunities to grow.”
Johnson learned that both the membership and the staff wanted more consistency and higher quality. They wanted a chef who was present, accountable and trustworthy—someone they could learn from and grow with.
“Half of this job is about personality,” says West. “[Castlewood] will succeed with managers who connect with members, build a relationship between the kitchen and the dining room, and manage the people on our team in a productive and professional way.”
To that end, Castlewood recently hired Giacomo Stoltz as Food & Beverage Director. Much like Johnson, Stoltz is experienced in all types of operations, and he’s excited for the road ahead.
Focusing on Food
CCC’s menus change seasonally, and weekly specials are driving increased usage.
“We’re inspired by ingredients,” says Johnson, who notes that a typical Friday at the club means 600 to 700 covers. “We look at market and farm reports and follow the seasons closely. I talk with my suppliers and purveyors daily to see what’s fresh and ripe.”
CCC’s menus balance classic club cuisine alongside modern, progressive dishes categorized as “e-features.”
“We send an e-blast to our membership each week to let them know about the weekly specials,” says Johnson, who relies on his two sous chefs, Jaime Alvarez and Miguel Angel Alvarez (who are brothers), for input on all new dishes. “The e-features keep the menus fresh and force us to be creative and think outside the box.”
The increased variety and higher quality seem to be paying off. According to Johnson, 40% of the club’s weekly sales are now e-features.
To keep inventory in check, menus are written symmetrically across the entire operation. Cross-utilization is a big part of the strategy and helps to control costs.
“When I got here, there weren’t inventory standards or effective ordering procedures,” says Johnson. “We had to create processes and show the team what we expect.“
The Road Ahead
Now that Castlewood has a streamlined and inspired operation, a team that is focused and engaged, and a chef and food-and-beverage director with big plans and the support to execute them, the future looks bright.
“We want to get away from 300-person events and instead do four, 80-person events,” says West. “It allows us to create an intimate atmosphere and be more creative and hands-on.”
Improved kids’ menus are also at the top of the to-do list.
“We have some healthy options,” says Johnson, who attended C&RB’s 2015 Chef to Chef Conference in Savannah, Ga., and was inspired by the culinary demonstration on kids’ menus and programs by Tom Siders, Executive Chef of Hopkinton (Mass.) Country Club. “As our club continues to become more family-focused, it’s imperative that we provide fun ways for kids to order better, healthier foods.”