Eduardo Castillo, CEC, Executive Chef of San Antonio Country Club, is taking the time to focus on his team and their abilities as well as adjust various part of operation to be more successful now and when the pandemic is over.
The last few months have been the most challenging months I have ever had to work as a chef. Taking the reins of a new kitchen and being thrown into a pandemic in the middle of my first year has been nothing but surreal. I could not have anticipated this, even in my wildest dreams.
Many things have been challenging, but looking at the bright side, I can start by telling you that this pandemic has allowed me to slow down and really dig deep into the processes. I have gotten to know the team and evaluate the “hows” and “whos” on board.
What I’ve learned is this: If you are not having fun, you have not been paying attention.
I know there is a lot of stress. I am not dismissing the many chefs who have lost jobs or been furloughed. Nor am I dismissing the clubs that have permanently or temporarily closed, leaving behind shattered teams. I feel for all those chefs and I hope for this time to pass so we can get back to some kind of normalcy.
I am mostly speaking to the chefs who are still managing on a daily basis and trying to make it through without breaking.
If you read my past blogs (San Antonio CC’s Chef Considers What Reopening Might Be Like and What 50% Means for San Antonio CC’s Eduardo Castillo), I talked about how during the first few weeks of the pandemic, we started making fast decisions. Some were shortsighted. We were thinking this would be short and painful, a temporary disruption to our model, and that things would get back to normal in a few months. But six months have lapsed and there is no clear end in sight. We have adapted and responded and we are lucky to have a very supportive membership and board that encourages us to keep going. The club has followed the CDC guidelines along with local rules since the beginning.
The first two months we focused on carryout, eliminated in-house dining for the club house and focused on grab and go, online or phone ordering, and creating meal packages that would service the members as a family. As we moved along, we started to see our orders dwindle and with that food cost rise. Luckily, at the same time, Texas allowed us to start serving in house again so we eliminated our packages and replaced them with a limited a la carte menu that was also available for carryout.
As numbers started to climb, we rebuffed the classic club nights. We took our past regular schedule and adjusted it to provide the service members were missing. On Wednesdays, our pasta night buffet and action station, changed to an order form, offered in-house or take out. Thursday prime rib night became a popular carry out item, with up to 40 slices to go. Friday happy hour is now served from the kitchen, since we cannot stop providing wings and queso with chips, we prepare plates that serve two people and servers pick up on-demand. Saturday is chicken and noodles only offered to go, and Sunday is our member favorite: fried chicken with macaroni and cheese and green beans.
Our in-house dining numbers have become more consistent, steadily increasing as the members visit the club and feel safer coming in. A slow night now starts with 100+ reservations. We initiated one feature per night with limited production and started rotating daily or every other day. We are now expanding our menu and offering as many as three features per day for dinner and two for lunch.
On the service side of things, we have a dedicated staff person to sanitize all doors handles and high contact superficies. We eliminated menu covers and have single use disposable menus along with QR codes. Servers continue to wear gloves and masks and we have made masks mandatory while traveling through any of the indoors areas of the club.
One of the most welcome changes has been the enforcement of the reservation system. We even started taking reservations for the cocktail areas. Member feedback has been so positive that this policy will stay in place.
Staffing has taken on a very important role. I have spent an enormous amount of time talking to staff, learning about what they want and what their goals are. We also schedule four long shifts for many employees instead of five day weeks. This has been very appreciated by many since it helps manage their family life with homeschooling or no school. The change in hours, along with the lower volume, has given us the opportunity to cross-train team members on different stations and focus on skill development. Given the stricter reservation system, we have also seen a more controlled flow in the kitchen. So far gone are the days of slammed dinner services, crushing 150 plus covers in 45 minutes. We now have a steady flow that allows us to manage better with less staff.
We had a few employees leave. Some of them decided to move on. Others relocated closer to family or took new jobs. We also had sincere conversations with the under performers, calling out their issues and asking for change. A few decided to leave and some have made major changes, improving dramatically and taking the opportunity to better themselves. We decided not to fill the empty positions and instead use the thinning to offer full time hours for the team in place. We continue to keep close contact with the top performers, ensuring we are listening to them and keeping them engaged, providing a clear and honest assessment of the future and what we can offer to help them advance.
For as much as we have been busy, not having the constant hustle of lunches, dinners and events, the pandemic has allowed me to slow down and really understand the operation, focusing time on the team and the common effort, and creating a tight knit group that has learned to work together better and support each other.