How many of us can say that in the last five years, they have worked at 20 or more of America’s top 100 clubs? Paul O’Toole, CEC, AAC, can. After serving as Corporate Executive Chef for the 1492 Hospitality Group’s properties in and around Wilmington, Del., including Hartefeld National Golf Course in Avondale, Pa., Chef O’Toole has spent recent years as a roving “Mr. Fix-It” of sorts, working at places such as Sea Island Resort in Georgia and Mid-Pines Resort in North Carolina.
In these engagements, Paul has immersed himself in food and beverage operations, to help both public and private clubs identify and fix problem areas, and then map out plans for giving F&B that extra push that’s needed to go to an elite level.While this may sound a bit like consulting, Paul prefers to describe it as a “specialty niche” that gives him the flexibility to work independently in a variety of club settings. He has always said that many of the concepts developed in his restaurants are pieces he has gathered through his many experiences.
Paul remains active in the American Culinary Federation’s Philadelphia Chapter, where he serves as Chairman of the Board, and also the American Academy of Chefs, where he is National Education Chair. He continues to develop new recipes himself (see examples, below) and he freely provides the benefit of his vast experiences, because he is still very much a working chef himself. Like any colleague, Paul is always happy to answer his cell phone and—without any concern that the meter may be running—you can tell him your problems or questions and have a great conversation about what he might do in the same situation.
For this issue’s “state of the industry” theme, I thought it would be a great time to pick Chef O’Toole’s brain about what he sees happening—and not happening—as he works in club kitchens and with club management around the country. And he was more than happy to provide these interesting insights: Q Paul, after spending millions on renovations, many clubs are still left wondering why they can’t capture more member dining revenue. Where do they most often miss the mark, in your opinion? And even for clubs that don’t spend a lot on new clubhouses, why do some make it from an F&B standpoint, and others don’t? A The main answer in both cases is: No fun! We all like to be where the fun is, and members are no exception. Clubs spend fortunes to build something that they think the membership will use, but forget to add the most important ingredients: Great food that’s served efficiently and in a friendly manner in a warm and hospitable atmosphere—and priced competitively. When I go to some clubs and see what the member is being charged for a meal, I wouldn’t eat there either. They should bring the check in while wearing a mask and holding a gun, because they are robbing the membership.
The other key that’s often overlooked is the need to be as good as your competition—usually because too many clubs still don’t even think they have competition. But never before have so many clubs depended on food and beverage to add revenue to the bottom line. This is not a trend; it’s the reality of the times. F&B is not just an amenity anymore; it needs to pull its weight. If the membership isn’t eating at a club, it’s eating somewhere else that does a better job of providing what it wants. Clubs need to recognize it’s not just a case of business being attracted to “the local hot spot”—they need to be that “local hot spot” if they’re going to capture those fleeting dollars.
Q I have dined in some of your club restaurants many times over the years. Can you explain for us why you like your menus to be compact, and your food to be simple and not constructed?
A I like to design menus for what I like to eat, and that means keeping it simple. The largest complaints that I hear from club Boards is that the menu is too fancy and that sauce is on top of everything. If I don't know what something is on my menu and I can't even pronounce it, the chances aren't very good that I'm going to want to eat it.
The problem is that many chefs use club members as "lab experiments,'' and think that the more outrageous or exotic the combinations of food items, the more "creative" they are being. When in reality, it is the taste of the food that counts. Taste is everything, be it with the creamy mashed potato, the crunch of ice-cold lettuce, or the sweetness in the fresh corn. That's all that's necessary to distinguish great from ordinary. A chef's job is to enhance the natural flavors, not to alter them.
Q Chef, what is the single most important thing that you deliver to clubs in your role as a roving troubleshooter and "fix-it man"?
A Peace of mind. Boards are made up of nice people who are well-intended, but scared to death of the food and beverage department. And why shouldn't they be, with the restaurant business being as volatile as it is?
When I come to a new club, I often sense that there's a personal agenda to oust an existing manager. I ask for three days to work in the operation and evaluate it, and then I return to tell them what I think their issues are. Quite often I'm able to show, through financials and member comments, that things are in pretty good order, despite what they may think, and they can be made even better just by doing a few simple things that will help provide better satisfaction for not only the customers at the club, but the people who work in the operation. It doesn't matter whether it is the top club in the country or the daily-fee course at the end of the block—the challenges are basically the same, and it's usually a matter of just doing a better job to please both the people who work there, and the people that they serve.
Crab Fritters Chopped Vegetable Salad
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]