Kevin Walker, CMC, Executive Chef of Ansley Golf Club, is charting a way forward for himself and the culinary program through the holidays and beyond.
2020 is like a train that has jumped the tracks, sprouted wings and taken off. There ain’t no turning back—and it’s definitely going to be awhile before we touch down. We can either curl up in our seats and pull the covers over our heads or we can look for the best way to enjoy the ride.
Trust me, I know the second choice is not the easier of the two.
Here at Ansley Golf Club, we started the year under construction with limited services. We anticipated reopening the week of Easter. This was not something I was looking forward to. I spent most of December and January silently praying everything would go according to plan and we would get the kitchen a week earlier—maybe two—instead of April 6th which was only six days before one of our busiest holidays.
By February, we were aware of COVID, but I’m not sure many of us took it seriously or were contemplating its overpowering impact on our operations. What a difference four weeks makes! By March 17th the decision was to shut down operations completely.
If there was a silver lining or a way to best enjoy the ride, closing our operations was it. As with all renovation projects, ours had gotten off its target date and was pushing ever closer to Easter weekend. Up until March 17th, I had many sleepless nights trying to figure out how we would have a successful reopening. Closing gave us the chance to reset, make sure the project was completed correctly, figure out where to hang all the shelves, store the pots, organize the coolers, and get protocols in place. Anyone who has been through a renovation knows all these things takes time and even the best laid plans are changed once you are working in a space.
Closing also helped alleviate stress on myself and my team, plus the board and membership decided to pay the staff their 13-week average for our entire shutdown, which put everyone at ease. I speak for myself and my entire staff when I say we are eternally grateful for the support we received from the club. All clubs speak of being a “family,” but Ansley proved that beyond a shadow of a doubt.
We finally opened in May with a to-go only program. At first, we tried the Family Dinner approach, however, Ansley is an a la carte club and the membership was not super interested so we implemented an a la carte menu that ran all day. We separated the culinary staff into two groups, both were scheduled for 12-hour days, one working Tues-Thurs and the other Fri-Sun. Our thought process was if we had a breakout in one group, we would still have enough staff to run the operation. The only caveats to this were myself, my office assistant and the culinary management staff of four.
The board gave us the ability to break the bank with our paper budget. This allowed us to purchase high-end to-go containers so we could present food as nicely as we would if members were in the restaurant. This truly helped the get the program off on a positive note and, right out of the gate, we were meeting or breaking budgeted cover numbers.
Two weeks into the to-go program, we implemented “Grill on the Turn” and “Fried Chicken Sundays.” Sold as fried chicken for two, it was a preorder by Saturday at 2:00 that included six pieces of chicken, green beans, whipped potatoes, gravy, and biscuits for $36. Immediately, we added on an average of 150-175 covers to Sunday nights. It’s important to note that this was an add and did not steal from the 130-140 covers we were doing already in a la carte.
The Grill on the Turn was just that. It included a $5 Burger, $4 hot dog, $2 street tacos, and beverages located just off the 9th green. Because members were not allowed in the building, this gave them somewhere to get food while playing golf, tennis or lap swimming. My goal was to give members value for their membership and not to necessarily make a profit. We wanted to keep the membership engaged so when they received their monthly statement, they felt better about paying their dues. The plan was to shut down the grill once the building opened, however, it has been so popular we have continued to offer it, though now only on Saturdays.
In June, we opened up to limited dining with reservation only. Our to-go was still outpacing in-club dining, but members were able to get inside the club. Still, most opted to eat on the patio.
Friday Night Happy Hour has always been a tradition here at Ansley. Pre-COVID, it was offered the first and third Friday of the month from 5:30-7:00 and included free hors d’oeuvres and wine specials. We extended this program to every Friday and moved it from the bar to the pool deck. This was equally well received and enjoyed by all.
In June, we also reopened the Men’s Grill, though we did not bring back the morning breakfast buffet.
Our “train” was moving full steam ahead and we had seemed to get back on track. We were doing our best to enjoy the ride. We were following all protocols, cleaning, sanitizing, taking and recording temperatures daily, etc., etc.
Then came 10:00 p.m., July 9th. I had just finished my nightly workout and was heading upstairs when my phone rang. It was our Clubhouse Manager.
“Two of our hostesses tested positive yesterday,” she said. “We have done the contact tracing and you are one of nine who need to be tested in the morning. When you arrive at the club enter through……”
I didn’t hear much after that. Everything went fuzzy. The train derailed once again and took flight. The same day they tested positive, our grandchildren had spent the night at my house and were with my wife and I again on July 9th. I could have possibly infected my wife, my daughter’s family and how many more through their contact?
Out of the nine employees tested on July 10th, 7 came back positive. I was positive, along with my wife, both sous chefs, exec sous chef, our purchasing agent and two front of house staff members. Because of this, the club shut down and tested the entire staff. 240+ employees were tested the following Monday, with 70+ coming back positive. I would submit if any company tested their entire workforce the numbers would have been similar. Luckily of the 70+ there were only approx. eight severe cases and none requiring hospitalization.
After a two-week shutdown, in the first week of August we began the process of getting the train back on the tracks and reopening the club.
As of the writing of this article, we are open in two of three outlets with the third is scheduled to open on November 19th. This has primarily been because of the lack of demand and trying to rehire and train staff, both front and back of the house. Although we are serving food from the main kitchen to the bar and outside patio area on the third floor, which would normally be serving from the outlet kitchen that is scheduled to open.
We are following the Georgia state guidelines for foodservice. We are allowing private parties that meet and follow the Georgia state guidelines. All events are either passed items in single serving containers, plated, or in some rare cases, served from a buffet. If, as in the case of tennis leagues, we are serving a buffet, it is from behind plexiglass, being plated by an employee using single service gloves and a mask.
We have had three or 4 more employees test positive, but contact tracing has revealed no further outbreaks. We are continually monitoring employee temperatures and all employees and members are required to wear masks inside the building.
With the holiday season approaching, reservations have been substantially reduced to meet distancing guidelines. Thanksgiving was served family style to members’ table. A tree lighting, which would normally include a buffet and is one of our biggest events, is now a prix fixe dinner and the members will be able to view the event via ZOOM should they choose to.
Santa and Jingle Bell Brunches will be four stations, all behind plexiglass, cooked to order and plated for the member.
“Home for the Holidays”—an adult only event—will take over the entire third floor of the club, be limited to 200 persons, and include all passed and “small plates” plated for the guests.
The train, at least for now, has seemed to find the tracks again. We are controlling what we are able to. No one knows when we will reach the next station, so for now we are trying to enjoy the ride.