Chris Hampton, General Manager/COO of Sycamore Hills GC, believes both traits are critical to F&B success.
Some of the most successful club culinary programs work best when leaders encourage a balance of team collaboration and a drive for personal growth.
This is exactly the case at Sycamore Hills Golf Club (Fort Wayne, Ind.), where Chris Hampton, General Manager/COO, has spent three seasons developing a vision for the club’s future and building a team that can execute it, while simultaneously advancing as club professionals.
One of his more successful hires so far has been Executive Chef Anthony Capua, who came to the club shortly after Hampton. Together, the two have built a strong culinary team and successfully elevated a la carte dining at Sycamore Hills.
CRC: You are a fourth-generation club manager. Have you always wanted to be in the club business?
CH: Actually, no. When I was three years old, my father left private clubs. He re-entered more than a decade later as General Manager of The Country Club in Pepper Pike, Ohio. I always wanted to do something with computers, but I spent the summer after my high school graduation working for him as the expeditor in the kitchen. I fell in love with the business, and the rest is history.
CRC: What brought you to Sycamore Hills GC?
CH: I felt I had accomplished everything I could with the resources I had available to me at my last post, at Lakewood Country Club in Westlake, Ohio. I let one of the search executives know I was ready to make my next move. He knew of my family’s desire to stay within a few hours’ drive of Northeast Ohio, where both my wife and I grew up.
It took about a year before he picked up the search for the GM/COO position at Sycamore Hills. I decided to apply and was blown away that a club of this caliber was in a small market like Fort Wayne. I connected well with the club ownership group and was thrilled when they offered me the position.
CRC: What are some of Sycamore Hills’ F&B strengths?
CH: This team is incredibly creative. Most private-club culinary programs are built on tradition, which sometimes can be a detriment for long-term growth.
A wise man once said, “If you are not moving forward, you are falling behind.” And when a club’s culinary program caters strictly to tradition, it stifles the growth of that program for the next generation of members.
Years ago, catering strictly to tradition worked, because there wasn’t as much competition from local dining establishments. Nowadays, in an age where chefs are regularly compared to rock stars, why would a new generation of members embrace the old-school philosophy of tradition over exciting, modern concepts?
This, to me, is how so many clubs’ culinary programs have become stale and irrelevant over the last decade. Here at Sycamore Hills, our goal is to present fresh, modern and constantly evolving culinary concepts and plating, so our program can compete with the many restaurants that have popped up in Fort Wayne in recent years.
CRC: Where do you see room for improvement in your culinary program?
CH: We are an a la carte-focused operation. It’s the nature of the beast here. When building our culinary leadership team, I sought out individuals like Chef [Capua] with strong a la carte backgrounds. The results of that dynamic have been incredible.
I feel we have room to improve our banquet business, procedures and execution. Whether that’s through simple sit-down functions or innovative action stations, it’s a world that is not as familiar to this club and our young culinary leadership team.
This year, I have challenged our team to grow banquets at the same pace we have successfully grown a la carte.
CRC: What was your first impression of Chef Capua?
CH: I first met him when he flew to Fort Wayne to interview for our Executive Chef position. Two things jumped out at me instantly. The first was how passionate he is about his craft and his desire to succeed in this industry.
I also vividly remember how much he smiled and laughed throughout the interview. He has an upbeat demeanor, which fits perfectly into the culture we want to cultivate.
CRC: What is your relationship like with him?
CH: It’s probably very similar to a coach whose team drafts someone young with the potential to become a phenom-level player. It is almost harder to lead or coach someone with an abundance of raw talent, because individuals like Chef aren’t looking to just get to that next level—instead, they want to get to the levels beyond that next level as quickly as possible.
From the get-go, I knew that one of my biggest challenges was going to be constantly challenging Chef in a positive way, so he feels internally satisfied that he is making strides forward to achieve his culinary aspirations.
CRC: What skills do you value most in Chef Capua?
CH: Two things quickly come to mind. He knows how to lift up his team, striving every day to help develop their skills. I have always felt that some individuals in leadership roles don’t embrace instruction, because they fear that the person they are instructing might take their place one day.
My Clubhouse Manager, Alfredo Hildebrandt, is a great example of the type of person I want to bring to my leadership team. He wants the chair in my office so badly he can taste it. Does that make me nervous? Not in the least. In six years, I have never stopped teaching him. I want him to be the best manager he can be.
I want our Executive Chef to live by that same philosophy and to bring individuals to his team who challenge him to be the best he can be, and who also desire to be Executive Chefs themselves one day.
Every good hospitality leader needs to have a “potent pause.” We work in an industry that can be very tense, and culture can be torn down quickly if everyone flies off the handle at a moment’s notice. Chef [Capua] sets the tone for the kitchen and let’s face it, some of the most adverse and intense situations we face in this business happen in the kitchen.
Having a chef who keeps his cool under pressure and can get through those heated situations, without intensifying it through a negative reaction, helps to set the tone and culture of the club. This also helps to ensure a strong level of cohesion between the front- and back-of-the-house teams.
CRC: Why is the dynamic between you and Chef important to the success of the operation?
CH: Chef and I, along with Alfredo Hildebrandt, are the tone setters for our culinary operation. If our visions don’t align, our team won’t have a clear picture of what we are trying to accomplish.
It’s amazing how much our team can pick up on the nuances or dynamics of our relationship. Being on the same page with each other helps to give everyone on our team confidence that we are all working together to achieve the same vision.
CRC: How do you personally support the culinary team?
CH: First and foremost, I always push to give them the resources they need to be successful. This includes labor dollars that are allocated each year to the department. I can’t press my Executive Chef to have the best culinary program in Fort Wayne if our prevailing wage doesn’t net us the level of talent we need to achieve such a stated goal.
Second, one of the most valuable resources I can give the department is my time. As the leader of our organization, if I don’t spend time with them, helping them understand the vision for our culinary program and ways to achieve that vision, the team will most likely never succeed.
The third is the time I take to praise our culinary team for a job well done. People expect to catch heat for a job not well done, but we want to foster an environment where our teams strive to be the best each day, because they know they will be recognized for that effort.