Executive Chef Ryan Cavanaugh was integrally involved from the start to help plan and execute a major project that created four distinctive new dining venues at Carmel CC.
Carmel Country Club, in Charlotte, N.C., recently completed a $3.5 million renovation that transformed the 68-year-old club’s former Grill into four distinct new restaurant concepts. Response from the club’s 1,350 members has been “tremendous,” reports General Manager John Schultz, since the new restaurants—the Nineteen Forty-Seven Grill, The Oak Room (a high-end dining venue), the Lamplighter Pub and The Overlook (an outdoor venue)—opened this summer. “The word I hear most often is ‘amazing,’“ Schultz says of the reaction he and his staff have been receiving.
|CHEF PROFILE: Ryan Cavanaugh
Current Position: Executive Chef, Carmel Country Club, Charlotte, N.C. (2012-Present)
Equally impressive is the fact that Carmel not only remained open throughout the seven-month project, but actually achieved an increase in member usage, compared to the same period a year earlier, in its food-and-beverage operation over that time. “Our focus was to put a special effort into providing alternate dining areas [during construction],” Schultz says. “And a large amount of credit [for how Carmel successfully sustained its F&B business] goes to our chef and clubhouse manager, for how they saw and executed the right opportunities to move things around [and provide acceptable service to members].”
With many clubs now embarking on major dining-venue renovations (a topic that will be explored in-depth at C&RB’s 2016 Chef to Chef Conference in San Diego), we thought it would be timely to devote this “Chef to Chef” interview to a detailed discussion with Executive Chef Ryan Cavanaugh, who has moved up through Carmel’s culinary ranks since starting there as a Grill Cook in 2004, and has been in his current position for three years.
We appreciate Chef Cavanaugh taking time to provide insights into how he and his team participated—before, during and after—in the renovation. Their efforts were key in not only helping to attract more F&B volume to what was already a very busy clubhouse, but also in sustaining business during the project, so disruption to the membership could be minimized and the club’s revenues could be kept at healthy levels.
C&RB: Chef, many clubs try to compete with public restaurants by menu design only. Your team helped to create contemporary spaces that are unlike the traditional club dining room. What thought and details went into this?
Cavanaugh: It’s important to note that we didn’t create just one new dining room; we created four, and adjusted the menu offerings throughout the club. The old “Grill” became four restaurants—or maybe three, if you combine the Lamplighter Pub with the outdoor space we call The Overlook. Each space is physically a “wow,” and the way they flow together, yet remain distinct, has had its own impact.
From a culinary point of view, our big accomplishment was to create all of the new menus and still prepare everything from one kitchen line. My wonderful culinary team and I created menus for each space with a wide variety of options to suit our membership. The overall goal was to have enough options so our members would want to dine with us multiple times a week.
We have an upscale menu in The Oak Room, with steaks, fish and a more “chophouse, tablecloth” feel. The Nineteen Forty-Seven Grill has a menu that’s incredibly accessible to families, yet still elegant. The Lamplighter Pub has bar food and small-plate offerings. We also adjusted our offerings in other areas of the club, such as the Honors Terrace, to complement the new restaurant menus and make it all work.
I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve accomplished. We wanted to provide the members with destination-dining experiences, and become THE place that our members want to be. Whether it’s before dinner for a drink with friends, or coming in for a glass of wine and a dessert after a date night, we just wanted to create experiences that our members rave about and are proud to call their own.
C&RB: How were you and your culinary team involved in the planning process, brainstorming sessions and idea exchanges for the renovation, before any contractors even started work on the project?
Cavanaugh: Carmel went through a very detail-oriented planning process. The strategic-plan process included focus groups and a lot of input from members. The dining renovation is “Phase One” of the strategic plan, and once that was in place and the architect was selected, we convened a committee to oversee the planning process.
The Phase One Committee consisted of club members, the General Manager, the Clubhouse Manager, and myself. We discussed the club’s wants and needs, what the “musts” were, and where we could give some ground, based on our budget and timeline. Separating family dining and adult dining was a must.
We had an idea to open the kitchen for the membership to view during service, but that was eliminated during the planning process. We considered all of the ideas that had come from years of listening to the members, paying attention to what worked well operationally and the areas where we could provide better service. Then we made tough decisions and set priorities. The design architects, The Johnson Studio, were fantastic in how they worked with us to turn the vision from our strategic plan into workable plans.
It was actually during construction that we went full-force into designing our new menus, defining the identity of each dining room, selecting the glassware and tableware, and fleshing out the experience that we would offer in each individual area.
C&RB: How did you successfully attain 100% member usage while you were down during construction?
Cavanaugh: A lot of credit goes to our restaurant managers, including Clubhouse Manager Shawn Wilkes, F&B Manager Thomas Sullivan and Events Director Kerry Flye. We anticipated a 50% dropoff in business but actually ended up with 104% usage. We offered alternate dining throughout the club, utilizing rooms and areas typically reserved for banquets. From our biggest venues such as the ballroom to the smaller private rooms, we maximized use of the entire clubhouse.
The Men’s Grill turned into a steakhouse on weekend nights. We tented our outdoor Honors Terrace to help accommodate large events like Easter and Mother’s Day. Let’s just say our front-of-the-house team moved a lot of furniture during that time. We also added entertainment like live music, games for kids, and as many extra incentives as possible to encourage the members to keep using the club.
C&RB: If you had to cite one specific decision you and your team made where you said, “Man, I’m glad we did that!” what would it be?
Cavanaugh: That would have to be the introduction of our sous vide program, which speeded up service and improved the quality and consistency of our food. Also, the custom redesign of our hot line and pantry made both sides of our à la carte line more efficient, and has made servicing the members easier.
C&RB: It seems there is really no seasonal dropoff in business at Carmel, except for a slight downturn in July. Did you plan to finish the project and reopen in July to give you the chance to get the kinks out of the newly designed areas?
Cavanaugh: I don’t think there’s ever a “good” time to do a seven-month renovation. Although summer is as close to a “downtime” as we get, as soon as we opened we were seeing a 300% increase in usage, and it went full force all summer.
I like the way we made use of the time during the renovation. We finished all of the upgrades in the kitchen in May, which gave my team and me time to practice and perfect the new menu. Toward late June, we had two weeks of soft openings, and that also helped a lot to get the front and back of the house in sync.
C&RB: How do you think the new spaces will affect F&B sales volume, labor percentages and overall profitability down the road?
Cavanaugh: To me, the most important factor is that these new spaces are making the members incredibly happy. They’re bringing more guests and doing more business entertaining than ever.
In budgeting, we’re anticipating a minimum increase of 25% in activity over the course of next year, and we’ve seen numbers far exceeding that through the first four months of being open. These restaurants have become a true destination for the membership.
Of course, increased use of the club means more hours worked—so yes, labor will go up. For overall profitability, the bottom-line impact is likely to be negligible. Many factors influence profitability, but the largest is likely to be our continued desire to provide outstanding service and high-quality foods at below-market pricing. Add the challenges created by operating four different dining concepts, as opposed to one large dining room, and any gains in revenues are balanced by increased operating costs.