Michael Wheeler, Chief Operating Officer and General Manager at Cherokee Town and Country Club, believes that hiring for fit of culture—especially in food and beverage—is critical.
Technical skill, business savvy, and a laundry list of other important qualities are also high on Wheeler’s wish list—but if a chef doesn’t fit a club’s culture, he or she will never last, he says.
To determine if a candidate is a good fit, Wheeler asks potential new hires character-driven questions to “get inside their heads.” His goals are to understand what that person is made of; what drives them; and what pillars their character is built on.
This hiring strategy proved especially useful earlier this year as Wheeler, who has been with Cherokee for nearly eight years, led the search to replace the club’s previous Executive Chef, J. Kevin Walker, CMC, AAC (see “Feeding the Cherokee ‘Nation’,” C&RB, October 2008; Walker is now the Executive Chef at The Vintage Club in Indian Wells, Calif.).
The new hire would have his or her hands full with Cherokee’s two locations: the Town Club, which occupies the famed Grant Estate in Atlanta’s Buckhead section, and the Country Club, a bit farther out near the Chattahoochee River in Sandy Springs. In total, the club has six kitchens and eight F&B outlets between its two venues.
But, with a lot of vetting and some intensive conversations, Sean Woods—a 22-year veteran with the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company, split evenly between The Ritz Carlton Orlando and The Ritz-Carlton Orlando, Grande Lakes—joined the team as Executive Chef in February of 2014. And, according to Wheeler, he’s been an incredible addition.
C2C: How has your degree in psychology helped you as a club manager?
MW: I think one of the things I do well is read people. It has especially helped me to refine my hiring process.
C2C: You recently hire d a new chef. What were some of the characteristics you were looking for in that person?
MW: First and foremost, any new hire, especially the chef, must be a cultural fit. If a person isn’t, they’ll be swimming upstream. You can have all the talent in the world, but as they say, talent will win you games, not championships. When everyone around you acts, thinks and behaves in the same way, it’s a win for the club as a whole. It makes your foundation stronger. And when you have talent on top of that? Well, that’s the ultimate formula for success.
C2C: Where did you be gin the search for Cherokee’s new Executive Chef?
MW: Sean Woods was actually our first phone call. He had been with the Ritz-Carlton company for 22 years, and he was ready to try something new and different. He had all the skills and qualifications we were looking for in a chef.
C2C: Such as?
MW: He’s a strong businessman. He’s a skilled culinarian. He’s got process and procedure and volume experience. He’s the perfect balance of corporate hospitality, high quality, and high-touch. He knows when to say something and when not to say something.
We’re not the Ritz, but we’re not that far off. And he understood that.
C2C: Was he ready to take on all that Cherokee has become?
MW: It took a bit of wooing. It was a big decision for him. But we spent a lot of time talking with him, explaining our goals and wants, and having our senior managers meet with him.
C2C: Do the senior managers meet with candidates one-on-one?
MW: They do what I call “Cherokee Speed Dating.”
C2C: Sounds intimidating. What’s that?
MW: When we narrow it down to two candidates, I have each sit in a room with some of our senior staff to do a group interview. The staff gets the
candidate’s resume and I make the introductions. Then I shut the door and leave. I don’t tell them my opinion or share any information other than what’s on the resume. After an hour, I return, escort the candidate out and download with the staff.
C2C: What did they say after they met with Woods?
MW: Usually, they’re split 50/50 or 60/40 between the two candidates. For Sean, it was 9 to 1. We’ve never had a landslide like that before.
C2C: Were the member s as eager to hire him?
MW: There were some naysayers who didn’t think a hotel chef could learn and understand Cherokee. Those are the same members who think that the chef prepares every single meal in every single outlet every single day. But when asked to share my thoughts, I said simply, “If we don’t hire Sean, we’re going back to the boneyard. He’s the best person for the job. He has all the right tools. He’s the right fit at the right time. And if we’re not going to hire him, then we need to start all over again.”
C2C: What did they say to that ?
MW: They know that I won’t stick my neck out unless I truly believe it’s for the best. So they learned more about him and agreed he is the best person for the job.
C2C: Has it been a smooth transition?
MW: We did an intensive 45-day process orientation for Woods. And we told him not to take any meetings with any staff members in those first 45 days. This allowed him to learn the operation without any drama or office politics.
C2C: Did he find this to be helpful?
MW: Absolutely. He agreed that the most important thing he needed to do at the start was understand how Cherokee works piece by piece. We run a large operation with a lot of moving parts. There’s the Town Club and the Country Club.
We’re one of the largest club F&B operations in the country [$9.25 million]. If you’re going to steer this ship, it’s imperative to have a fundamental understanding of how it runs. And with that knowledge, he has been able to find ways to improve.
C2C: What are some of his ideas for change?
MW: One of Woods’ best attributes is his ability to look at the bigger picture with a fresh set of eyes and to offer suggestions that will enhance the overall operation. He’s evaluated staffing models. He’s implemented procedures and processes to streamline operations. He’s working with culinary schools to draw more talent. He’s looking at ways to extend the reach of F&B within the club walls.
C2C: You knew before you hired him that he’d be a good fit . But now that you’ve worked with him for a few months, what other characteristics do you appreciate?
MW: He’s quiet, but smart. He’s direct and to the point. He doesn’t pull punches. He’s intuitive and respectful of others’ time. And he’s an outstanding culinarian.
C2C: How do those attributes fit into the biggerpicture?
MW: F&B is the biggest department at Cherokee. It’s the highest grossing department. It touches all members in some way, shape or form.
C2C: Has it always been that way?
MW: Cherokee is much more sophisticated than we once were. We’re a lot more organized and procedural now. We’re also far more high-tech. Food and beverage has also come a long way. It’s always been important, but not like it is today.
C2C: You’re under construction now, too, right?
MW: Yes. The terrace level is getting a major facelift. It’s slated to open July 29th. That’s another great thing about having Sean come online when he did. He can be a part of all the new projects here at Cherokee. He can be part of our future.