When Robert Josey, CCM, came to The Country Club (Pepper Pike, Ohio) as General Manager in 2002, the dining operation was in need of some help. The kitchen hadn’t been updated since the current clubhouse was built in 1930. The dining rooms were dated. And a handful of members were reluctant to support change, claiming “no one wants to eat at the club.”
How wrong they were.
Josey, having spent time at a number of clubs in New York, knew the importance of F&B in a club’s overall success. And during his first visit, he saw a great deal of potential at the 125-year-old club that’s come to be known fondly as just “Country” to those in Cleveland and its surrounding area.
Thanks to his passion and support, as well as a major $7.9 million clubhouse renovation in 2005 that placed more emphasis on casual and family-style dining, The Country Club’s dining operation now averages about $2.3 million annually.
Josey’s management style fosters continuous improvement and creativity. And Country’s dynamic team of talented culinarians—headed by Executive Chef Scott Ryan (“Worthy of the Title,” C&RB, August 2013), a presenter at C&RB’s 2014 Chef to Chef Conference and winner of numerous prestigious cooking competitions—continues to thrive under the leadership of its General Manager.
Q: What brought you to Country?
A: I was looking for a new challenge. A recruiter asked if I would be interested in interviewing at Country for the General Manager’s position. To be honest, I wasn’t interested. I didn’t know much about the club, and Cleveland was not very high on my list of potential new hometowns. After some arm-twisting by the recruiter, I came for a visit.
Q: What changed your mind?
A: When I saw the club, learned about its unique history and met some of the members, I realized what a special place this is and how rewarding it would be to work here.
Q: What was the F&B operation like?
A: The kitchen was pretty much the same as it was when it was built in 1930. It had one long cold food line on one side of the room and one long hot food line on the other, with both used for both banquets and a la carte dining. Some of the equipment was original, like the old wooden coolers. The member’s main dining room was located in an unattractive room in the lower level of the clubhouse, and the service staff had to run up and down steps all day.
Fortunately, the Board recognized these issues and had already begun planning for a major renovation.
Q: How did the renovation transform F&B at Country?
Dining at the club became very popular and cover counts rose dramatically in the first few years. The renovation was controversial due to the cost and scope, and a few members fought against it, saying it was a waste of money. It turns out that some of those naysayers are now some of our best customers.
Q: How has F&B evolved since the 2005 renovation?
A: Our philosophy is continuous improvement. So each year we try to get a little bit better, whether it’s on the culinary side or the service side. We have found that as we improve, members trust us more with new ideas and menus. Chef Ryan is offering many more interesting, modern dishes that in the past might have been tough to sell.
Q: What is your relationship like with Chef Ryan?
A: We both have a passion for good food and whenever we go out to a new restaurant, we enjoy sharing our reviews and plate photos. I love his cooking and he claims to like my homemade pizza (even though I always think it could be improved). Most importantly, we both like to laugh and have fun—usually at the expense of one another.
Q: Is the ability to laugh an important characteristic for a chef?
A: Absolutely. I value most of the same things anyone would value in a chef—culinary skill, passion for their profession, management ability, etc. But I also place a high value on the Chef having a good sense of humor. There are too many annoying little things that happen in the club industry, and it can drive you crazy if you don’t laugh about it—like the member who orders Steak au Poive and asks the Chef to hold the pepper.
We once had a dishwasher who, on a particularly busy day, stopped in the middle of his shift and told Chef Ryan in his thick Russian accent, “It’s my birthday—I go home now,” and then walked out. Now, whenever it gets crazy busy in the kitchen, someone inevitably breaks the tension by yelling out, “Hey, Chef. It’s my birthday—I go home now!”
Q: Chef Ryan has competed in some pretty impressive culinary competitions. How do you support him outside the club?
A: When he was competing in Orlando for the American Culinary Federation [ACF] Chef of the Year competition, I surprised him by flying down on the day of the competition and watching his winning performance. He was so focused on his task at hand that he didn’t notice, until about 20 minutes into the competition, that I had sat down with his family in the stands. I have a great photo of him smiling and laughing when he first looked up and noticed I was there.
Q: Beyond culinary competitions, how do you think chefs, food-and-beverage directors and general managers should stay on top of F&B trends?
A: Continuing education is certainly one important way to keep up with the trends. And it’s not just the education sessions, but also the networking that takes place before and after the sessions that I find especially enlightening. Also, I think it’s great to attend events that are outside your area of expertise. For example, Chef Ryan is a frequent guest at events held by the Greater Cleveland chapter of the Club Managers Association of America, and in turn I have attended several ACF events with him.
Q: Do you think that food and beverage plays a role in the success of a club?
A: Absolutely. It plays a major role. Here at Country, we recently surveyed our membership and asked which areas of the club were important. Dining ranked number one, with 98% of the respondents calling it important or very important. The next closest area was golf, with 88%.
Q: What drives F&B success at Country?
A: The credit goes to the team. Chef Ryan has put together a very talented staff, and that really showed while he was in Norway earlier this summer, competing against top chefs from around the world in The Global Chefs Challenge [an international competition presented by the World Association of Chefs Societies]. Even though he was gone, his staff took care of 1,100 members at our annual lobster clambake picnic without missing a beat.
Q: What have been some of Country’s F&B goals over the years? And how has Country achieved them?
A: Our F&B teams love to challenge themselves to do more business. About three years ago, we were having a particularly good year and had the possibility of hitting $2 million in F&B sales—a target that was well above the budget that was set for that year. So we made that a goal for our team, and they responded by coming up with new dining events for our members and new ideas to market our facilities. We even got the membership involved in the challenge and asked them to help make it a reality. At the end of the year, we ended up hitting about $2.1 million in sales.
Q: Nice! Did you celebrate?
A: We put together a Restaurant Week with F&B-inspired events and specials, as our way of saying thanks to our members.
Q: Who are some of the F&B managers you most rely on?
A: Our Assistant Manager, Nick Markel, and the Service Managers have developed a strong training program that leads to excellent results on the floor. Our Director of Catering and Special Events, Alisha Binder, is one of best in the business, and I can’t tell you how many compliments I have received on her organizational abilities and calming presence when working on weddings and other important functions.
Q: What should be a club manager’s role in the overall operation of an F&B department?
A: First, build a strong team and make sure they have the tools and resources to do their job. Then, make sure the team understands the club’s culture and expectations, so the product matches what the members want.
I also think it is the club manager’s job to challenge the staff to grow and try new things, even if they don’t always work. When you have a captive audience like you do in a club, you have to keep things fresh and interesting.
Finally, the club manager should be the head cheerleader for the team, keeping members and the Board feeling good about the overall direction of F&B operations. It’s a complicated business and things don’t always go perfectly, so you need to maintain a positive environment that will keep negativity at bay.
Q: What are some common F&B mistakes that you’ve seen or that you’ve been careful to avoid?
A: In a club environment, I think it can be difficult to say “no” to a club member’s request, but sometimes it’s necessary for the good of the majority. For example, it seems like everyone has a favorite dish that they expect to be on the menu, but if you’re not careful, menus can become bloated, unfocused and hard to produce because of all the “must have” items.
Q: So how do you avoid the must-haves?
A: We tell members that if they want something that is not on the menu, just let us know well in advance and we can usually accommodate any request.
Q: What is next for F&B at Country?
A: This year is the 125th anniversary of the club and we have been focusing on various events and celebrations that go along with that. Next year will be the 10th anniversary of the clubhouse renovation, so I’m sure we will begin to look at changing some décor and presentations to keep things fresh.
From a sales point of view, I think we may shoot for $2.5 million in food-and- beverage sales in 2015. It might be a bit of a stretch, but I’m amazed at how well our staff and members perform when we put out a challenge like that.
We are also just beginning to look at a possible major renovation of our pool and outside dining area. Our indoor dining rooms are just about maxed out in terms of capacity, so we are looking at ways to upgrade outdoor areas and increase our seasonal dining options. Cleveland summers are the best, and that’s when everyone wants to sit outside.
Q: So Cleveland’s not such a bad place to live after all?
A: My wife and I have really enjoyed living in Cleveland. It’s a great community with a lot to offer.