Events may be more intimate these days, but these club chefs are enhancing member engagement in a time of social distance.
After nearly a year without packed dance floors or ballrooms, chefs are left to look back on how quickly and dramatically the nature of the events side of the club business has changed.
What do events become after months of distance between members? While their smaller size is the most obvious difference, two club chefs have seen how hosting successful banquets now goes far beyond moving tables and restricting reservations.
Innovating on the Fly
For Graeme Blair, Executive Chef of Newport Beach (Calif.) Country Club (NBCC), the spring of 2020 brought about a massive research and development effort. Everything from the club’s to-go presentations to its serving style had to balance safety with member engagement.
After only a day to close the club and build a plan, the team dove into the massive job of serving takeout for the foreseeable future.
Eventually, the club transitioned back to in-person events piece by piece. Mother’s Day, for example, offered a socially distanced day of welcoming, family-focused fun.
“We curated a picnic basket with 35 items for each family to enjoy,” says Blair. “There was also a flower cart in our entryway for kids to point to their favorites, put together a bouquet for mom, and then hand-write a card.”
When the time came to return to the club, the Father’s Day weather was welcoming enough for members to have a safe barbeque on the lawn. Painted circles on the ground and pre-reserved tables ensured minimal interaction between groups. The staff brought family-style trays of barbecue to each table, and jazzed up the day with live music.
All in the Details
Critical safety habits—limited seating, clear mask requirements, and frequent sanitation of tables—became second nature as NBCC opened up for regular service in the summer and began scheduling member- and club-hosted events.
Beyond the typical safety expectations, however, Blair focused on the choreography of the dining room and the challenge of food prep. If the club hosts a micro-wedding outside, the chef requires different equipment, to ensure food is served fresh and hot.
“We still customize the food to bring their visions to life, but the execution has changed,” says Blair. “If we have an outdoor event like a smaller wedding, I’d rather rent a [fully equipped] kitchen tent and do the plate-up out on the lawn.”
Amid all this change, Blair and his team focus on what they can control. With more time to speak with each member, for example, the small details such as decor and menu choices all receive even greater personalization.
Flower design, table settings, and individual food containers reflect the style of the host in even greater detail. Canapes are given just as much flourish, but now come in individual vessels for safe distribution.
The link among all these efforts goes back to the club’s marketing focus and desire to delight its members, Blair explains.
Small Banquets Were Always the Key
LedgeRock Golf Club in Mohnton, Pa. is a private club “that wasn’t designed for large banquets,” says Clubhouse Manager/Executive Chef Norris Waters.
“I’ve fit up to 160 people in our building in the past, but the members prefer an intimate atmosphere,” Waters says. “It’s why the club is designed this way.”
When Waters joined LedgeRock several years back, he recognized the potential to elevate member engagement within a smaller, more personal dining experience. Buffets slowly morphed into prix fixe and a la carte dinners, for example. So when COVID-19 placed broad restrictions on gatherings, Waters and his team were ready to make the shift.
From the first days of takeout to the return of indoor dining, Waters looked for ways to improve the lives of his members and ensure their comfort.
For example, Waters transformed a 30-person outdoor seating area into a space for 65, by gathering furniture from around the club to meet demand.
Thinking on Your Feet
When the time came to host small events again—such as LedgeRock’s three-day member-guest tournament—last-minute decisions became the team’s saving grace.
The club’s member-guest serves three meals on each day of the event, typically with an elaborate buffet displayed in the main dining room. Because of the restrictions, the chef transitioned to a mix of grab-and-go options and course-side service stations for safer social distancing.
All went according to plan until the forecast brought a threat of torrential rain. Keeping the golfers safe and well-fed in the final hours before the rain came turned into a race against the clock. Without the option to gather large groups indoors, bad weather is one of the largest fears for a smaller club.
“We made a decision that morning at about 8 a.m.,” Waters recalls. “We had roughly three hours to wrap up the food, get it all on the golf carts in heated containers, and prepare our staff to safely deliver meals to the players on the course itself.”
That game-time decision saved the day, as steaming hot steak or shrimp burritos, beer, coffee, and hot chocolate was delivered right to the players on the course.
Between experiences like the member-guest and from generally working with a small dining room, Waters knows that creativity is key. “I’ve learned over the last several years to gather every inch of space you have,” he says.
The layout of an “indoor” banquet, for example, should now encourage guests to spread out to use available outdoor space as well, even bringing in heated igloos when the temperature drops.
In a normal year, dining at LedgeRock closes from January to Valentine’s Day, but Waters saw an opportunity to engage members.
Inspired by wine dinners, he decided to offer an ever-changing chef’s menu each Friday and Saturday night, in addition to a traditional Sunday brunch.
While members can still order from the full menu, the chef’s menus feature a range of dishes like pork osso bucco to sesame-crusted Ahi tuna, depending on the theme.