The Polo Club of Boca Raton is positioning itself to add unparalleled value by creating a culture of culinary excellence, spearheaded by Director of Culinary, Ed Leonard, CMC.
Culinary innovation is not easy to execute. Clubs can’t simply tell their chefs, F&B managers and cooks to go forth and be creative. Rather, it takes planning, practice and careful execution.
Culinary innovation is also not easy to manage. There are budgets, Boards, members, training programs and staffing challenges that must be carefully navigated.
But the purpose of culinary innovation is to provide a greater dining experience for members while simultaneously pushing the industry forward, challenging others to think beyond the status quo.
That’s the premise upon which The Polo Club of Boca Raton’s “Culinary Pride” program has been built. Its mission, and its leader, Ed Leonard, CMC, Director of Culinary, favor free-flowing idea generation, underscored by purpose and execution.
“Innovation must be sustainable,” says Leonard. “Whether that means you renovate one of your dining rooms, update a menu, change a concept or write a new mission statement—you can never rest on your laurels and expect to be successful. You must change with purpose in order to drive excellence.”
Creating a Better Café
As part of its mission to improve the member dining experience, The Polo Club recently unveiled its newly renovated Barefoot Café.
“What started as a simple burger-and-hot dog venue grew into a full-service casual dining outlet,” says Leonard. “We’ve seen record covers in the space over the past two seasons—upwards of 800 a day—but service was painful.”
The kitchen and dining areas were insufficient for the level of volume. Leonard knew it wasn’t sustainable, so he championed a $2.5 million renovation to the front and back of the house.
“Three days before the town hall meeting and Board presentation to the membership, I was asked to make the pitch,” says Leonard. “It was nerve-wracking. The café had already had three slight modifications and fixes prior to my arrival at Polo, but the presentation went extremely well and the membership approved the project without any pushback.”
To execute the upgrade, management focused on needs first, looking for ways to improve the many weaknesses of the space, including poor ventilation, bad flow, and insufficient storage and service areas.
The new kitchen is now twice the size of its predecessor and features state-of-the-art, sensible equipment like a higher-powered griddle, chargrills, stoves, a double convection oven, and a showstopping stone pizza oven. There is a better dishwashing area and also a back prep area with a small walk-in for production work and storage.
Airflow was also improved, and loading and unloading areas were added along with two walk-in coolers, a walk-in freezer and a dry storage area.
In addition to the kitchen, the dining room was updated and expanded, with 60 new seats as well as a patio that would accommodate grilling and special events.
“Making it look beautiful is one thing—making it work is something else entirely,” says Lili Hang, Director of Club Operations. “This renovation was important for the future of Polo. It speaks to our approach: We don’t want to do minor fixes if they won’t solve the greater issue. It’s critical we evolve in a way that’s good for the life of the club.”
A Crowning Achievement
“As a team, we’ve completely changed the identity of the club,” says Samantha Gajewski, Executive Sous Chef, who has been with Polo for nearly five years, but worked with Leonard for nearly seven years. “Members were unhappy with the food and the quality before I came on board. But we’ve listened to their feedback and now we source locally, we make more scratch-based items, and we do everything a la minute.”
This dedication to quality has trickled down to all aspects of the operation, she adds. Case in point: The Polo Club’s reconceptualized steakhouse.
“We have to predict what’s next with members and then have the flexibility, and vision to actually execute on those plans,” says Leonard. “It’s the only way to keep Polo current. With the steakhouse, we needed something new and fresh.”
Polo’s Crown Room now offers an Italian flair with the motto: Steak Bistecca alla Fiorentina.
The expansion and renovation added wine lockers—a first for the club—and the menu features USDA-prime steaks, signature pasta dishes such as Lobster Fra Diavolo, and fresh seafood selections.
“Members have many choices when dining out or hosting events,” says Leonard. “We want each member to consider us first. By constantly improving the experience, we’re able to better ensure we remain at the top.”
Adds Hang, a Level Three Sommelier: “The Crown Room has always been the jewel of the club. And now with the exclusive wine lockers, we’re able to add a whole new program for our membership.”
A Masterful Philosophy
“Polo has always been a big operation, but we’ve changed so much in the past few years,” says Hang, who has been with the club for 13 years, after starting as a dishwasher. “We went from hot boxes to live plate-ups. We are now fully committed to quality. We’re comfortable being uncomfortable.
“There’s more variety in everything we do,” she adds. “We don’t follow trends, we start them. And we do this because we have a captive audience of 3,000 members. Our entire purpose is to keep them excited about Polo.”
As one of only a handful of Certified Master Chefs, Leonard takes his role in the club’s success quite seriously. He is thoughtful about how he mentors and trains his team. He’s tough and he has high expectations, but he pushes his team members to succeed.
“Leadership is about having other people in places they would not have had access to, if not for your influence and mentorship,” says Leonard. “Out of all the awards and accolades I’ve won, I am most proud when one of my associates moves onward and upward.”
“The stronger he makes each of us, the more he is able to trust us,” adds Gajewski. “He is always pushing us to be better, because he’s always pushing himself to be better.”