Proper planning, smart execution and a can-do attitude are must-haves to ensure happy returns from the hectic end-of-year season.
As the crisp fall air replaces the warm summer weather, clubs are nailing down detailed plans for what has become, in many cases, their busiest times of the year.
Members who are out running errands or are too tired to cook are more likely to stop by the club for a bite to eat. At the same time, busy families who still want to host gatherings at home are relying more on their clubs to cater at least some portions of their holiday meals, with options ranging from full to-go turkey dinners to desserts and appetizer platters.
On the banquet side, event spaces are filled with corporate and member events ranging in size and scope, with custom menus and specialized needs.
“Ten percent of our annual business is done in the span of about 15 days,” says Mark Freemott, General Manager at Royal Melbourne Country Club (RMCC), Long Grove, Ill., referring to those few precious weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas.
Royal Melbourne CC isn’t alone. Clubs and resorts across the country have found that a well-planned and executed holiday calendar can result in a lucrative fourth quarter, and seal up a profitable year.
Almost every club manager will emphasize how communication is a big part of an operation’s success, no matter the season. But effective, tactical communication proves to be even more important during the holidays, when properties are simultaneously juggling a la carte dining, take-out programs and events.
“Even with a dedicated catering coordinator and an F&B Director, two people can’t manage every piece of the holiday pie,” says Freemott. “It has to be a team effort, with strategic coordination and constant communication.”
At Royal Oaks Country Club in Houston, Jae Mackenzie, Executive Chef, stays in constant contact with his two sous chefs, Joe Cheely and John Bogue. Mackenzie’s goal is not to micro-manage, but to properly support his staff while providing the autonomy to make decisions in his absence.
“I have an incredible staff and I trust their decision-making capabilities,” he says. “I can’t be everywhere at once. They’ve worked here long enough to know when to pull the trigger, based on how it benefits the club and the member.”
Mackenzie, Cheely and Bogue have regular meetings to go over upcoming events, menus and any other bits of housekeeping. They divide and conquer as needed. “The club’s success depends on us being organized, efficient and on the same page,” says Mackenzie.
At Lansdowne Resort in Leesburg, Va., key managers like Kevin Blake, Director of Food & Beverage, and Robert Bradley, Executive Chef, wear earpieces and radios to stay in touch.
“We also have an instant messaging service that we use, so we can discretely reach one another,” says Blake. “Clearly communicating and following through to make sure actions line up with expectations is the key to successfully managing a busy holiday season.”
It’s the holiday season, so break out the eggnog, hang up the mistletoe—and recast your a la carte dining program.
“The holidays are extremely busy, both for us and our members,” says RMCC’s Freemott. So instead of offering a traditional dining experience, the club hosts candlelight dinners on Thursdays and Fridays in December with a prix fixe menu. “We can increase capacity and streamline back-of-house operations without compromising the member experience,” he explains.
This special option also gives members who are looking to entertain a larger group, but not book a dedicated banquet space, an outlet to do so. “The candlelight dinners have become a tradition,” Freemott notes.
RMCC’s prix fixe menu is the same throughout the month and features a variety of both holiday-inspired and traditional favorites. To elevate the ambiance beyond just dim lighting, the dining room is trimmed with all sorts of holiday accouterments, and carolers sing quietly in the corner.
Similarly, The Golf Club at Lansdowne, part of Lansdowne Resort, has found unique ways to become part of its members’ holiday traditions, with culinary-centered events that involve the whole family, the whole property and sometimes the community, too.
“We host contests for pumpkin carving and making gingerbread houses (see photo, above), and find ways to get local charities like Toys for Tots involved,” says Kevin Blake, Director of Food & Beverage.
“This year, we’re hosting a cooking class that will run in November and December called ‘The Study of Braising,’ ” adds Executive Chef Robert Bradley. “We plan to then link the braising theme across all of our culinary lines, by featuring different braised dishes in the different dining outlets.”
According to Blake, these types of programs help the club stay top-of-mind with members, and add value to their memberships.
“Everything we do revolves around the member/guest experience,” he says.
On the other side of the spectrum, St. Johns Golf & Country Club, St. Augustine, Fla., closes its a la carte dining room during the holiday season, so it can focus its F&B efforts on banquets and to-go programs. But regular dining goes out with a bang, not a whimper, through a huge closing party for members.
“It gives us a chance to celebrate,” says Amanda Dunn, Director of Club Services, who notes that the club brings a la carte back with a big splash, too, through a reopening kickoff party in January.
With no a la carte service to attend to, St. Johns kicks off its to-go programming at Thanksgiving with a full catering menu that members can order and pick up, or have the club deliver.
“We’ll do about 50 Thanksgiving dinners this year,” says Dunn.
Turkeys can be ordered from a variety of preparation options: oakwood-smoked on the club’s smoker with chef’s rub; Cajun-fried; Asian-wasabi infused fried; golden roasted; maple-glazed roasted, or honey-orange glazed. Complete dinners include the turkey, cornbread stuffing, gravy, cranberry sauce, and pies. Members looking for anything extra can order from an extensive list of a la carte options that includes everything from country mashed potatoes and candied yams to oyster stuffing and deviled eggs.
“We take our first orders in October, and the last order has to be in the Friday prior to Thanksgiving,” says Dunn, who personally takes all of the orders by phone, uploading them into a dedicated and detailed spreadsheet she shares with Executive Chef Herbert Burgin.
“Chef goes the extra mile to make the holiday packages special, by including a thank-you card and homemade ornament,” Dunn adds.
Royal Oaks also has a busy to-go program for both Thanksgiving and Christmas. “For Thanksgiving, we’ll package up an entire dinner with all the trimmings that will feed a family of ten for $250,” says Mackenzie. “For Christmas, we do a lot of filets and pork loins, fruit and cheese platters, and even sushi platters. If a member requests it, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”
With nearly half of its membership living in the community and nearly 75% making use of either the to-go or dine-in options during these two holidays, Royal Oaks counts its takeaway program as a win-win for both the club and the member. “It cuts down on our labor costs, gives us more prep time and allows us to better service our members’ needs,” says Mackenzie, who notes that the club does 25% of its annual F&B business—or $350,000—in November and December.
At Currahee Club, Toccoa, Ga., Chef Manager Anca Timmons has found a clever way to incorporate baked to-go options into the club’s holiday dining experience.
“We get a lot of last-minute requests for platters and baked goods—and I hate to say no to a member,” she says. So, when Timmons is baking pies or other treats for private events or club dining, she makes a few extras to have on hand for those inevitable member calls.
“We have a few members who pre-order these types of things, and that’s helpful,” she explains. “But by baking a few extras, we can cover last-minute requests, too.”
Bring on the Banquets
It’s the holidays. Ergo, it’s also party season.
“Fridays and Saturdays during the month of December are filled with private events,” says St. Johns’ General Manager, Ryan Roberts, who notes that repeat clients make up about 75% of the club’s banquet business during that time.
“If we get a request for an event and it makes sense for our club to accommodate it, we’ll find a way to make it happen,” says Dunn.
A handful of the private events at St. Johns are reserved a year ahead of time, and the bulk of the club’s holiday-related bookings are in place six months in advance, thanks to special efforts by the staff.
“We try to keep in touch with repeat clients who book larger events, so we can reserve space for them,” says Dunn. “Then we backfill the calendar, breaking down rooms as needed to accommodate different-sized parties.”
Royal Oaks sees mostly corporate business the first two weeks of December, with member and family-focused events, including breakfast with Santa, gingerbread house-making and even holiday cooking classes for kids, taking up the latter part of the month.
“We do a lot of wine dinners and big holiday parties for our corporate events,” notes Mackenzie. “This involves a lot of menu writing and coordination on the operations side.”
As he prepares menus, Mackenzie strives to create dishes that share mise en place with a la carte. “Cross-utilizing product can be a game changer when it comes to keeping food costs in line,” he says.
Like Royal Oaks, Currahee Club also sees an increase in corporate banquet business, with custom menus starting to come into play right after Thanksgiving. “People are willing to spend a little extra to wow their guests, which makes these types of events especially fun when it comes to menu planning,” says Timmons.