GM/COO Zack Wygant elevated the club’s F&B program by empowering the club’s Executive Chef and hiring a strong new Food & Beverage Director.
The food-and-beverage operation at Fort Wayne (Ind.) Country Club (FWCC) is comprised of interlocking sets of goals, roles, processes, values, communication strategies and assumptions. Changing it would be a difficult thing—especially for a new General Manager.
But when Zack Wygant accepted the position as the club’s new General Manager/COO in September 2019, he faced that challenge head on. He made a strategic new hire in Sam Bailey, Food & Beverage Director, and leveraged the talent already in place with Executive Chef Aaron Parkinson, CEC.
Those moves, combined with some capital improvements, have paid off. In the past year, Fort Wayne CC has nearly doubled its a la carte business despite a global pandemic.
C+RC: What brought you to FWCC?
Zack Wygant: I actually grew up in the area. After spending nearly three years in Naples (Fla.) at Quail Creek Country Club, I was ready to come home. When the FWCC Board President called me about the position, I couldn’t pass it up.
C+RC: Can you tell us a little about FWCC?
ZW: We’re in the middle of a revival and we’re attracting a lot of new, younger families. Membership is the highest it’s been in eight years. We just finished a capital project where we added a resort-style pool and pickleball. The food-and-beverage operation is the best it’s ever been, too.
C+RC: What do you mean?
ZW: In 2020 we’ve almost doubled our a la carte revenue. We went from $700,000 in a la carte sales in 2019 to $1.1 million in 2020.
C+RC: How did you do that?
ZW: The pool had an outstanding year and that has helped immensely. I also brought in a new Food & Beverage Director—Sam Bailey—who had previously been with Shaker Heights (Ohio) Country Club. [Bailey] was supposed to start in March, but with the craziness of quarantine, he ended up starting in May, the week after Mother’s Day. Simultaneously, I gave Executive Chef Aaron Parkinson, CEC, the freedom and support to be more creative with his culinary approach.
C+RC: Let’s unpack that. What was Bailey’s top priority as F&B Director?
ZW: The back and front of house were not on the same page, so his top task was to redefine the service culture. He began by implementing new service standards, and then did some new training with the team. He implemented a new operating system and cleaned up the POS system, so that ringing in tickets became streamlined and standardized. There is now synergy between the front- and back-of-house and there are clear standards for how servers should approach tables and ensure the best possible member experience.
C+RC: And what happened with Chef Parkinson?
ZW: In March, Chef and I changed the format and look of the menu. For a long time, the creativity of the kitchen was stymied. Now Chef has the freedom to do what he does best. He actually grew up in Canada and his father was a chef. He lived in Japan for a while, too. He uses that diversity well in his cooking and in how he collaborates with his team.
C+RC: What’s the dynamic like between you and Chef?
ZW: We are both very focused on a mutual goal—to give our members the most exceptional experience we can. Chef is very reserved. He doesn’t have a big ego. For him, it’s all about the members and the team. He seeks feedback and he thrives on collaborative strategies. He’s also a very skilled culinarian, and I respect him deeply.
C+RC: You’ve made big progress in a short amount of time. How will you keep moving the needle?
ZW: We actually had a meeting yesterday about this very topic. The first wave of changes was obviously super-noticeable for membership, but now we have to refine the details and make the little tweaks that collectively add up to the big overall experience.
This means we will constantly evaluate the details. We will ask ‘How can we go above and beyond?’ in every interaction with members, as well as with each other.
C+RC: What is your management style?
ZW: I’m very hands-on and visible to the team. I’m also a sommelier, so I’m on the floor, helping members with their wine choices. The staff sees me as a person who supports them and directs them when needed.
C+RC: A la carte is booming at Fort Wayne, but how are banquets?
ZW: We’ve lost about $260k or so from budget on banquets, and any events we’ve done have been scaled down. It’s hard to swallow because we have a beautiful banquet operation with a really nice outdoor space. We also had a
record number of events book pre-COVID.
But that’s not the world we live in anymore. So instead of bemoaning the loss, we are focused on making members and guests feel safe and on creating experiences, albeit smaller, that are still meaningful and fun.
C+RC: What does 2021 hold for you?
ZW: We’re cautiously optimistic. We have a lot of momentum behind us.
Our membership numbers are great. We also hit 20,000 golf rounds for the first time in 20 years. And while there are still a lot of unknowns, we are prepared to sustain that momentum into whatever comes next.