Oakmont Country Club, outside Pittsburgh, is a gem of a golf course steeped in history, having hosted more major championships than any club in history: seven men’s U.S. Opens, five U.S. Amateurs, three PGA Championships, and one Woman’s U.S. The likes of Bobby Jones, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus have all won titles at Oakmont, and the course was the site of what some consider the greatest round of golf ever played, when Johnny Miller fired a final round 63 during the 1973 U.S. Open.
It’s no surprise, then, that Oakmont is rated 4th in the latest Golf Digest ranking of the Top 100 courses in America. And where there is great golf, there is great food. Executive Chef Thomas Pepka was nice enough to talk with Club and Resort Business about some of the challenges he faces running the food operation at one of the country's premier clubs.
Q: Chef, we are approaching the point in the year where all of that wonderful summer staff you need to get you through a busy golf season goes back to school. What do you do when you lose valuable personnel and you still have a few more months’ worth of heavy golf rounds?
A: We have a multi-faceted approach at Oakmont. I believe in cross-training kitchen personnel. The line cooks in the offseason will work different stations throughout the kitchen. The sous chefs will rotate morning and evening shifts for a week or two at a time, giving everyone the needed experience and myself the confidence for them to run the different departments. Our human resource department has new employees fill out date availability forms, so department heads know when employees can work and when their employment for the summer is through. I also stay in touch with local area chefs, to discuss with them if they might have any additional applicants that they did not have room to hire.
Q: What can you share with us regarding how you recruit seasonal culinary employees and what are some of your selling points for attracting those workers–aside from the obvious attraction of being able to put Oakmont on their resume?
A: Our golf season starts in mid-April and ends in late October. We are open every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner service. I tell potentials that they will be exposed to many culinary applications. They will make stocks and soups from scratch, fabricate various meat cuts, clean down whole fish, bake breads, create desserts, learn breakfast cookery, buffet set ups, grill on cookouts, ice carve, work wine-tasting dinners, party prep and catering, So you can see, Oakmont also sells itself from an educational aspect. Cooks work hard, apply themselves, and leave with an abundance of knowledge and work experience that better prepares them for a career in culinary arts.
Q: How long have you been at Oakmont, and can you tell us about a some of the improvements to the club’s foodservice offerings that you are most proud of since your arrival there?
A: I started at Oakmont in February of 1997. I’m proud of improving the quality and selection on the menus, but what I am most proud of is our family atmosphere at Oakmont. It is a special working environment. We have people in the kitchen who have been here anywhere from two months to fifteen years. We have knowledgeable chefs, hardworking dishwashers, and good waitstaff personnel. When you spend more time with your coworkers than your family, you become a closer-knit group of workers. Our people have fun, laugh, and have a good time, but they also work hard and perform at their highest level, not only because they do not want to let you down, but they also don’t want to let themselves down.
Q: Signature items are something that all of us constantly strive to develop. Do most of yours just grow from daily or weekly specials, or is there another way you experiment?
A: Our signature items come from our daily and weekly specials. In my 24 years of experience in clubs, I’ve learned that change can take a little time. You introduce new items, educate the service staff through daily lineups, and visit the dining rooms throughout the night. My best feedback will be at the dining table. Members want to try new menu items and be proud of their clubhouse staff. We also have numerous wine-tasting dinners throughout the year. We push the envelope and the membership has responded very positively to the efforts and culinary ideas that find their way to the menu.
Q: All of us chefs would like to have all loss leaders on our menus, if we were annually budgeted to have a high food cost percentage. But that is just not reality. Do you have dishes at Oakmont that knock members’ socks off, sell out nightly, but are very expensive and don’t make financial sense to be plugged in to the menu permanently?
A: I want my members and their guests to leave Oakmont saying they had a wonderful dining experience at Oakmont. Although costs are important, it is more important to me that the members feel good about the quality and selection of menu items. If I give the membership what they want and it’s the best product available, well-presented amd properly priced and delivered in a reasonable time, the costs will take care of themselves. By word of mouth the message will get out, a reputation is developed, and party business picks up, which helps to carry our a la carte business and allows me to price very aggressively on my menus.
Q: Can you share with us some of the techniques you use to speed up lunch service for the golfers with a tee time in twenty minutes?
A: Things that help us in that area include daily (staff) lineups before lunch and dinner service, a system of individual beepers for servers and floor managers, and an updated POS system. A small message on every menu asks diners to let us know if they are hurried for their tee times, so we can expedite their orders. Another key is adequate staffing during peak lunch hours. Cooks also understand their time constraints, so pre-prep is important, but it must be done without sacrificing quality.
Q: I took the virtual tour of your facilities ( www.oakmontcc.org) and see that you do a high volume of catering. What percentage of your sales are banquets, as opposed to a la carte, during peak season?
A: Four years ago our a la carte business was 70 percent, to 30 percent banquets. As of 2004, our balance is 50/50. We have an aggressive marketing department, have made numerous clubhouse renovations, and our membership is feeling as proud of what we’re doing in the clubhouse as they do about their prestigious golf course.
Q: When you have a big wedding on Saturday night and a ton of regular reservations in the main dining rooms, can you voice some of the challenges that you have faced in these circumstances?
A: I try to put the cooks and chefs in the best possible scenario to succeed. All afternoon, I communicate the various instructions that I would like implemented. I go through the nightly reservation list and discuss with my sous chef any extraordinary requests that might be made. So if special requests do arise, my cooks are in a comfortable position to make correct decisions. My party prep is staged in various areas around the kitchen, every item is counted, party sheets are gone over, cooking times are written down, and most importantly, nothing is assumed, it is all confirmed.
Q: At my club, the casual concept menu items take over for the evening diners in May, and this emphasis stays strong until late September, when we move indoors. Is it the same for you, and if so, what are some of the tricks you use to keep every member happy during these months?
A: There really aren’t any tricks. We offer a casual grill menu throughout the night, a nightly menu, and a dinner special. Members have an option to order from the lunch or breakfast menu. My philosophy is, if we have the raw ingredients in house and what the member wants is not on the
menu, we’ll prepare that dish. Sure, at times it is difficult to produce, but we’re not here to tell the member no. It goes back to the overall dining experience. I’ve had members ask me how we do it back in the kitchen, feeding so many in such a small timeframe. My reply is, I have an excellent crew, that is what Oakmont deserves, and I work for the best country club in the country.
Q: How do you market dinner specials during the golf and outdoor season? Is it a menu insert, or do servers sell them? Also, can you share with us the specific items they go crazy for?
A: The servers sell them. We have nightly lineups where the entire menu is reviewed and house wines are matched up with the nightly specials. Our dinner wine selections are reviewedwith floor managers. Five to six of our nightly menu items change weekly, three starches are offered, two of which change weekly, and we have five vegetable selections, one which is changed nightly. My members love soft-shell crabs, crab cakes, prime steaks, Chilean sea bass, and lobster. They also love a great soup-and-sandwich special. They really have grown fond of the amuse bouche that we started last fall for Friday and Saturday nights in the offseason.
Q: Your club is over 100 years old and I’m sure you inherited several menu items that maybe you felt needed perhaps a tweak, or even could be flat-out eliminated. Can you tell us about any experiences where a fellow staff member or club member said, for example, “You can never take the Dover sole off the menu”?
A: Sure, that was the case when I first started at Oakmont. Over the years, as you build your team, you improve quality, selection, and service, to where everyone is on the same page and starts to work as a cohesive unit. Then the so-called menu untouchables do not dominate as much, and it gets to the point where members start asking if your new items will be on the menu permanently. That’s a great situation to have. I want them to be excited coming into the clubhouse. We still have our traditional favorites that Oakmont has become famous for, but we’ve built a wonderful selection around those traditions. The ideas flow, the chefs stay fresh, and the members and guests love the variety.
Q: How do you handle members that hand you recipes of a soup or dessert that they had at another club, or while on vacation?
A: I learned long ago not to have an ego in this business. It’s not about that at all. I’m employed by Oakmont, and I do what the membership asks. I’ve been handed magazines, books, recipes from restaurants and asked to dine at places that members find special. I look at all of that as positive; if there is anything that will make me better as a chef, manager, or a person, then I’m coming out ahead. I’ll adjust recipes to make sure I can produce the item for 200 people. My members travel all over the world, and if they feel it is important for me to learn and share in their experiences, how could that possibly be a negative? I enjoy hearing and seeing new concepts and ideas…there is a little light that gets turned on, and before you know it, there is a new signature item on the menu!
Jerry Schreck is a member of the Club & Resort Business Editorial Advisory Board and writes frequently for C&RB on club-specific culinary topics. Have a topic you’d like to see Jerry address in a future issue? A question about a specific F&B challenge you’re facing at your club? Or would you just like to invite Jerry to visit your club sometime to exchange ideas?
Write to him at [email protected]