How Executive Chef Michael Weisshaupt and the team at Fiddler’s Elbow have reinvented dining and doubled revenues to over $8 million.
Michael Weisshaupt is a visionary leader. As Executive Chef of Fiddler’s Elbow in Bedminster Township, N.J., he has successfully guided the club through one of the most profound transformations to its dining program since its inception in 1965.
Today, Fiddler’s Elbow is abuzz with life. It has abandoned its reputation as a corporate club catering exclusively to members with sky’s-the-limit expense accounts. It is now a family-focused property with world-class amenities and an enticing array of dining venues and menus.
But getting from there to here required an immense amount of savvy from a dynamic team of competent and ambitious leaders (see photo, cover), along with a significant investment in strategic planning from the club’s ownership.
Bringing Chef Aboard
Before Weisshaupt, the culinary program at Fiddler’s Elbow was serviceable. There was a good salmon dish, a reliable roasted chicken and a veal chop. Weddings and banquets were popular. But the membership base was dwindling. And the club, which had been doing $6 million in F&B at one time, was down to only doing about $3.9. It wasn’t enough.
In 2011, the club’s ownership tapped Thomas Hurley as General Manager, because of his experience with construction and with revitalizing clubs. The owners also invested an extensive amount of capital into the facilities, constructing a pool, renovating the golf courses, and building a golf practice facility and a state-of-the-art sports and aquatics center. The idea was to become more family-focused.
The dining facilities were then renovated and a search commenced for a new executive chef who was capable of not just reviving F&B, but placing it squarely at the center of the member experience.
“We were extremely fortunate to get Chef [Weisshaupt],” says Hurley, who played an integral role in the search process. “We needed someone atypical and cutting-edge, who not only knew what it would take to redefine Fiddler’s Elbow’s dining program, but was also ambitious enough to pull it off.”
Nearly seven years later, Weisshaupt has more than lived up to those expectations. He and his team have totally transformed the culinary program into an $8 million-plus operation that “meets members where they are,” he says.
It all started by giving each outlet at the club its own identity.
Fiddler’s Elbow has three championship golf courses, so its 55th Hole serves as the grill room, catering primarily to golfers with casual tavern-style cuisine. It has its own kitchen, albeit a small one, but enough to allow creative specials to run alongside classic fare.
The Elbow Room is the club’s upscale dining space, though it’s far from stuffy. “We want members to have fun here,” says Weisshaupt, who features locally driven dishes, especially fresh seafood.
To keep up with the demand for variety, the club features two themed nights each week in the Elbow Room. On Wednesdays, there is a sea-to-table menu. On Thursdays, the space transforms into a steakhouse with classic French-style table service.
“Our menus are all unique and change often,” says Weisshaupt. “We have all separate kitchens, too, so it’s doable.”
In its wine cellar, Fiddlers’ Elbow will host a speakeasy for 25 to 30 members each month with music, interesting drinks and a super-secret vibe (see photo, opposite page).
Well Beyond Basic
Finally, The Cove is where the magic really happens.
“This isn’t a little pool snack bar,” says Weisshaupt. The Cove might be located at the pool, but it’s a full-service operation with a sous chef, three line cooks and a full dish crew.
In one month, The Cove will pull in $62,000 in sales. “It’s a solid operation from a revenue perspective,” says Weisshaupt, who was instrumental in building the pool kitchen.
“We could see how the membership was growing and evolving,” he says. “We needed The Cove to be a stand-alone outlet, so it could serve members with the quality we expect in a reasonable amount of time.”
The most popular dish coming out of The Cove is the salad. And while it might seem pedestrian, it is actually anything but basic.
“There was so much demand for new salads that we couldn’t create new combinations fast enough,” says Weisshaupt. So instead, he had the genius plan to put the menu ingenuity back on the members.
“We created a design-your-own salad concept that allows members to pick and choose different lettuces, proteins, add-ons and dressings,” he explains. “We offer six different greens and 25 different toppings, ranging from the more obvious vegetables and proteins like salmon, chicken, or crab cakes to dried fruits, chia seeds, quinoa and more.”
Members are given a checklist when ordering salads that is then given to the kitchen, where two to three people are dedicated to assembling each salad to order. The base price of each salad is $11.50, but with add-ons, an order typically rings up at around $18.
“In the summer, we average 80 salads in one hour,” says Weisshaupt. “The biggest challenge is the constant need for prep.”
Going forward, Weisshaupt hopes to expand dinner service at The Cove by hosting live music and expanding the menu to feature more dinner-focused dishes. “It’s a very casual space for families to relax and enjoy their club,” he says.
Paying It Forward
“Anyone who wants to start a culinary career needs to work with Chef [Weisshaupt],” says Hurley. “I’ve worked with a ton of chefs over the course of my career, and he is easily the most creative chef and capable manager I’ve come across. No one can motivate, educate and inspire a team like he does. He gives of himself constantly.”
Even so, finding talent to help Fiddler’s Elbow continue its F&B resurgence has been challenging.
“We are always brainstorming ideas to maintain employees, keep them interested and continue to attract new talent,” says Weisshaupt. “We offer internal training sessions to help them evolve and grow. We also give them a fair and good place to work. We treat them like professionals. Our owners and managers believe that if we take care of our employees, they will take care of our members.”
Weisshaupt believes in treating each and every employee with respect, no matter what position they hold.
“They each have an opportunity to impact our business in a positive way,” he says. “Maybe they make a special or create an event. Maybe they’re washing dishes or clearing tables. It’s important to recognize each person as an important part of the team.”
Earlier this year, Fiddler’s Elbow unveiled its newly renovated banquet kitchen.
“With the amount of banquet business we do, we needed a more efficient workspace,” says Weisshaupt. “The previous kitchen had a poor layout and we were on top of each other. It was very inefficient, and it would cause a lot of problems when we were hosting big events.”
The renovation project expanded the banquet kitchen from 2,500 to 5,400 sq. ft. Freezer and refrigeration space was added. Ditto for storage. Work stations were added, and more space for prep was also included.
“We’re now able to serve, prep and plate all at the same time,” says Weisshaupt. “It has really made a difference not only in the quality of food we’re able to produce, but in how the staff feels in the space. We’re much less stressed and frenzied.”
The only regret Weisshaupt has had regarding the banquet kitchen renovation was not creating enough storage for plates, silver, equipment and props. “If you have the chance to renovate, really look at your storage,” he advises.
The Mind of A Mixologist
The craft-cocktail experience at Fiddler’s Elbow is as innovative as the club’s culinary program. It goes well beyond what’s in a member’s glass, to really hone in on what it means to be a Fiddler’s Elbow member.
For the past three seasons, Clubhouse Manager Michael Nyerges has been working to elevate the beverage experience with a cocktail menu that changes annually.
“I use the cocktail menu as an engagement tool,” says Nyerges. “The first year, every drink was somehow related to the fiddle. The first two pages offered a history of the instrument; then we offered ‘classic violin’ cocktails that were traditional, alongside ‘electric violin’ cocktails that were more modern and creative.”
The next year, the cocktail menu was themed around the golf courses. This year, the focus is on the club’s history and the property itself.
“We owe it to our members to be the very best,” says Nyerges. “We owe them as many ‘wow’ moments as we can create. If that means using a cocktail menu as a history book, or using sous-vide to infuse our vodka with cucumbers, mint and fresh pineapple, then we’ll do that.”