Two clubs are combining ingenuity with a sense of member responsibility to still provide a memorable holiday season that stays well within CDC guidelines.
As COVID restrictions hold strong, the question of the upcoming holiday season hangs in the air: How can clubs safely uphold traditions?
For Rob Oosterhuis, CEO and General Manager of Sherwood Country Club (Thousand Oaks, Calif.), and Fabian Ludwig, Executive Chef and Director of Culinary Operation at BallenIsles Country Club (Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.), the holiday season will still go forward joyfully, thanks to a sharp focus on intricate planning and making clever adjustments.
After months of re-imagining their hosting styles, these two clubs have set the scene for a welcoming and warm few months ahead.
A Quick Shift
For Oosterhuis, this challenging year has provided an opportunity to approach dining with fresh eyes.
“Forget about everything you’ve done in the past—I don’t know that I’ll ever manage the same,” says Oosterhuis. “In the past, we asked, ‘What do we do well and how can we do it better?’ But at the start of COVID, it was, ‘What can we do?’”
With the help of the culinary team led by newly hired Executive Chef Michael Beck, Sherwood built its dining plan from the ground up, focusing initially on a complex to-go menu before completely overhauling the club’s outdoor and indoor dining setups.
Within a few months, the team transitioned all dining from two clubhouses into one. New menus, new seating areas and new plans for engaging members emerged.
Each week, Oosterhuis and his team watch the county-specific COVID requirements in California. Spikes in cases can change restrictions quickly, so backup plans—and backups to the backup—are needed.
“We’re trying to make plans A, B, and C, and have plan D in the back of our minds,” says Oosterhuis.
Contingency plans are also key to every decision that is being made as the club plans important nights around the holidays. For Thanksgiving, Sherwood will again be ready to pivot last-minute should county regulations change, but the current plan already has built-in flexibility. “Essentially there will be three plans—a dine-in option, a to-go family pack, or a hybrid of those two,” says Oosterhuis.
The dine-in option will feature a family-style meal. Families will reserve their tables, allowing them to enjoy a meal within their own “bubble,” but as part of a large dining setting filled with other familiar faces.
Sherwood also has a robust to-go menu, which can add its own sense of ease. “The to-go option takes away a bit of the decision-making [when cooking for the holidays],” says Oosterhuis.
The club offers both whole and sliced turkey as to-go options, as well as traditional sides.
Planning this year’s Halloween event, which in a normal year attracts 500 to 700 people, served as a model as Sherwood CC planned the upcoming holiday season. The smaller guest list and extensive outdoor dining arrangement allowed a safely distanced seated dinner, with activities for children at each table.
During dinner, staffed food stations welcomed up one table at a time. In this model, there is no threat of long lines, bunching up, or mingling. The kids—who have spent a fun night completing activities at their tables—were able to trick-or-treat at designated stations on their way out.
Come December, families will have their pick of several small, thoughtfully designed events in place of Sherwood’s traditionally large “Winter Wonderland” party. Holding more events, however, requires greater variety, Oosterhuis notes.
“We will focus on having a variety of menus so the party feels different each time,” he says. “This may mean using different rooms, different entrances, lighting concepts or entertainment.”
The club may also offer distanced events with Santa, gingerbread house decorating with staggered time slots, and specialized wine or champagne dinners for members. Indoor gatherings will remain intimate and far within CDC guidelines, with reserved tables and staggered arrivals, so everyone can experience a range of holiday events without ever having to be in a crowded room.
Preparation is Everything
Even with six unique dining options and 2,600 members, BallenIsles CC rapidly adapted this year to create safe and dependable space for members and guests.
But in a normal year, the number of people celebrating Thanksgiving or the holidays on site can nearly double. “During the holidays, it can bulk up to 4,500 people from the 2,600 members,” says Ludwig.
The club plans to manage this influx of guests by closely tracking who is staying on premise. And Ludwig and his team remain confident that they can plan to safely handle the added volume.
With the weather constantly changing in Southern Florida, the range of BallenIsles’ restaurants will allow for an array of safe indoor and outdoor setups, with plenty of room to expand seating to serve members safely.
Serving All Preferences
“Due to social distancing, we have to come up with different plans for Thanksgiving,” Ludwig notes. “Some people like to have the family-style dinner, and some people just want to have an individual turkey dinner.”
Groups that wish to sit together will be able to enjoy the passed family-style meal, while members looking for individual prix fixe plates will enjoy those in the bistro location.
BallenIsles will also offer an extensive holiday to-go service, which will build off a system built during the early days of COVID and still is widely popular.
“We anticipate having about 200 to-go orders for Thanksgiving. And that could be 200, 20-pound turkeys,” Ludwig notes. “We require reservations for to-go orders a week beforehand, and members will have a specific timeframe for picking up their order.”
With decades of international experience, Chef Ludwig is accustomed to hosting large and challenging events. But shifting to a COVID-ready holiday season, he says, will require an eye for kitchen management and a keen awareness of the membership’s varying needs. C+RC