Seminole Golf Club in Juno Beach, Fla. (just north of Palm Beach) is one of the crown jewels in American golf history. When it was created in 1929 by E. F. Hutton (the man, not the company) and other Palm Beach sportsmen, it was conceived as essentially a golf-only club that would close promptly at 6:00 PM every day, so as not to interfere with Palm Beach’s social nightlife. And Seminole—currently ranked tenth on the Golf Digest list of America’s Greatest Courses—has never lessened its passionate focus on golf. The club’s locker room is the size of a basketball court, fits comfortably inside the Spanish-style, pink stucco clubhouse, and is widely known as one of the most pleasing spaces in the sport. The club has become known for its Pro-Am Invitationals, with Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer regularly participating over the years. Bing Crosby and the Duke of Windsor have been members, and Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, as well as Bob Hope and Henry Ford, have been frequent guests.
But along with its great golf tradition, Seminole has developed a reputation over the years for excellence in other aspects of club management, too—including food and beverage.While dinner service is still limited to just a few special occasions, and the club is only open from October through May, the demand for top quality and service—even for “simple” fare like sandwiches and salads—remains as high as the expectations for the golf experience.
Michelle Foti is currently in charge of F&B at the club, having been recently promoted to F&B Manager, the title she held while also filling the executive chef position, which had been vacant for some time. From the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City to the Marriott Frenchman’s Reef Resort in St. Thomas to the world-famous Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Michelle has extensive high-end restaurant and hospitality experience.C&RB recently spoke with Michelle about her current responsibilities at Seminole.
Q Michelle, the ratio of male to female managers is changing rapidly in our profession. What challenges have you faced as a female chef/manager in a maledominated profession? A Things have changed a lot over the years; I’m pleased to see many more women in the kitchens now. When I first started in this business, most of the women that you saw in the kitchen were pastry chefs, and they were usually the only females there. And when I first started working in kitchens myself, I always felt like I had to work twice as hard to prove myself.
I think that one thing that turned men off to women in the kitchens were the few women who went in and constantly asked for help with the physical stuff. Let’s face it, we aren’t as strong as men—but I’ve found that if you try to do as many of the physical things as you can, the men won’t mind helping you out once in a while. It’s the girls who ask every two minutes, “Can you get this, or do this for me?” that give all of us women a bad reputation. And please, ladies—leave the makeup at home.
All in all, though, I think the first women to work in our profession and industry have done a good job to dispel these issues. More recently, the hardest part for me was moving into the F&B Manager position. I had a hard time finding a chef who could work with a woman who knew not only the front of the house, but the culinary side as well. A lot of male chefs still don’t like answering to a woman. Fortunately, I have a great chef now, Nick Williams, and it’s nice to be able to say, “Let’s try it this way” and not worry if it’s going to set him off or hurt his ego.
Q What types of adjustments did you have to make coming from resorts like Frenchmen’s Reef and The Breakers to a small, private club like Seminole? A It was strange at first to be able to have an actual life. We’re only open from October through May, and only serve four dinners a season. So I have my nights and summers free to do the things you put off because you’re too busy—for example, I learned to sail last summer.
On the job, the large properties definitely taught me the skills needed to deal with the clientele here. I love working at Seminole, it’s like being part of history—you feel it as soon as you pull up to the famous gravel driveway.
Q Club management constantly struggles with our product being compared to public restaurants, and the reasons why this isn’t fair are too numerous to mention. Do you ever run into a situation where your service standards or menus are compared to chic Palm Beach establishments? A Not so much by the members as by other chefs. We hear a lot of, “How can you stand doing just lunch day after day?” Our members belong to other clubs and have many social engagements, so they want the best of everything; but at the same time, they want simple food and great, fast service. Seminole is a golf club, that’s why they’re here. If you look at our sales mix, our top sellers are the cobb salad and the tuna and chicken salad sandwiches. I think that what’s important is that if members want a tuna sandwich, make sure it’s a great tuna sandwich. I use my creative side now more for charity events.
Q What are some of the things you do to operate efficiently and make members and guests feel special? A There are several “little things” that we find can make a big difference; here are just a few:
• At a club like ours, the seatings pretty much follow how people play on the course. So our servers use the caddie master’s turn sheets to help identify, and greet by name, the guests and members who don’t come in as much.
• We keep a list in the front of our log book with member likes and dislikes, so members don't have to say “I don't want pickles” every time they come in. I'm also lucky to have great servers who remember what members drink, so their beverages are on the table as they sit down.
• Our servers don't use stations; instead, they work as a team, with one going for beverages while the other takes the food orders. This really speeds up the service.
• We added a menu item we call the “Par for the Course”—it’s a pick-up item that consists of a cup of soup and either half of a sandwich, or a small salad. The items run in a rotation set by what’s going on at the course that day. For instance, Monday is Ladies Day, so it's vegetable soup and half a chicken caesar salad. And Saturday is Skins Day, when there are mostly men, so the “Par” is tomato soup with half a grilled bacon, cheddar and tomato sandwich. If someone’s in a hurry, they know the “Par” will come out almost immediately. This has really helped to take some pressure off our cold food side; where before 75% of our lunches came from that side, now on some days the “Par” can be 50% of the total covers.
• Our kitchen isn’t right next to the dining room, and we have one of those pantry areas that a lot of older clubs have. So we added a food runner, and this was a great addition to the staff, because it allows the servers to stay in the dining room. We trained one of the dishwashers for this job, and he can also cross over to help with dishes when needed. In fact, we have all of our staff prepared to cross over and help where needed. For instance, during our dinners a bartender will run food or, if the servers are short-handed, a bartender might help with busing, too.
• We offer a cold sandwich menu at our halfway house, and on busier days we send an assortment of sandwiches down there, which saves the bartender a lot of time.
Q Finally, Michelle, everyone who’s been to Seminole talks about a “Honeysuckle.” Can you divulge what’s in this drink, and other items that are special to your club? A The “Honeysuckle” is made with pineapple and orange juice, honey, pineapple chunks, and light rum blended with ice, then served with a dark rum floater. We also greet every table with warm crackers and a plate of mini crudités, and provide chocolate chip cookies when the check is presented. Oh, and there’s the ham spread that’s served in the locker room bar at 4:00—it’s a secret recipe of our hot-line cook, Kyle Hansen. On our menu, crabcakes and the seafood cobb salad are favorites.
Jerry Schreck is a member of the Club & Resort Business Editorial Advisory Board and writes frequently for C&RB on club-specific culinary topics. Have a topic you’d like to see Jerry address in a future issue? A question about a specific F&B challenge you’re facing at your club? Or would you just like to invite Jerry to visit your club sometime to exchange ideas? Write to him at [email protected]