Ansley GC’s Executive Chef Kevin Walker, CMC, says the silver lining in COVID-19 closures is that clubs have more time to get their reopening right.
The year was 1992. I was the a la carte Sous Chef with Houston Country Club and we were just starting a three million-dollar renovation of the kitchen. The entire back of the building was ripped off and the only thing separating us from the jack hammers was a sheet of 3 millimeter black plastic stapled to a makeshift 2’x4′ frame. Slowly the construction workers encroached into our ever-shrinking kitchen until we were forced to seek refuge at the pool for the final six months of renovation.
As with all projects, ours was running on an extremely tight timeline. The Republican Convention was set to begin the third week of August not five miles from the club. The President, George Bush Sr. was a member of the club. To say we expecting to be busy was an understatement. Running behind schedule, the project became the immovable object, while the convention and our certain opening was the unstoppable force. Both were about to collide, and it wasn’t going to be pretty. In addition, the “powers that be” decided, as a thank you to the membership, to offer two for one entrees the first two weeks we opened.
We were able to get partially into the kitchen for the convention. We had access to the pastry shop, butcher shop, garde manger room, pot sink and dishwashing areas. Out of those spaces we served 400 conventioneer’s breakfast, lunch, dinners and cocktail parties for over a week. In a twist of irony, we were now separated from the main cooking line by the same 3 mil black plastic that kept the jack hammers at bay 8 months earlier. Then, in the blink of an eye, we were given the kitchen back.
Monday afternoon the construction workers were gone and on Tuesday morning we opened for business. This started a three week stretch of 22-hour days for the five of us who made up the management team. Training the P.M. staff in the A.M. and vice versa. Consistently feeding 400-500 covers a night all the while trying to assimilate into our new surroundings. All the question that are asked during an opening process were being handled on the fly. Learning best practices in a new space while trying to run a marathon was extremely difficult and some of the best training I have ever had.
Twenty-eight years later we are on the cusp of another reopening. Though similar in some respects to my time at Houston CC, the two experiences couldn’t be more diametrically different. Here at Ansley GC, we were already in semi-shut down when COVID-19 brought everything around us to a complete halt. The closure gave us a chance to deep clean the areas we were using and properly close them down. We could be present while the new equipment was being installed making sure everything was placed, or rearranged, before having anyone, any food or smallwares moved into the space. While waiting for final health and C.O. inspections I brought in a small team to help hang shelves, cabinets, assemble racks and arrange the kitchen without any interference.
Needless to say, we cleaned and sanitized the kitchen over and over again during those three weeks.
When we were finally allowed to move back into the space, we had an entire week to wash and move all the smallwares, pots, pans, utensils, etc. into the space. We were given a week to order food, organize coolers, modify SOPs, set up guidelines, and establish a new working order before a single line employee entered the building. We spent two weeks dialing in station guides, recipes, dough for the new pizza ovens and more. I cannot tell you how nice it is to have the time to get things exactly right.
We begin each day now by taking employees’ temperatures and recording them in a club wide log. All employees wear masks while in the kitchen and we social distance as much as possible. We have broken the team into two units, both working three 12-hour shifts.
Hopefully, if someone does get sick, we know which crew is more likely to be quarantined and we still have a workforce to remain open. We have designated one steward to sanitize all handles, touch pads, and common surfaces hourly. All family meals are prepackaged. All expeditors wear gloves and change them every 20 minutes.
If there was an upside to COVID-19, it was opening for to-go only. Starting with a small menu and gradually adding to it over a three-week period has made adjusting to the space much easier. We started with lunch and dinner a la carte. Both menus were small with 8-12 staple items we knew the membership loved, missed and would enjoy straight away.
Each week we have added 1-3 items gradually building the menu up. We dialed in the pizza dough and added that menu this week. Since opening we are averaging 100-110, topping out at 241 one night. Pre-COVID-19 our average for dinner was 130-150, so we are not that far off, which is extremely encouraging.
Along with pizza, we added pre-package three-course family meals. These are order today for pick-up tomorrow. Admittedly, they have not been as popular as the a la carte and after two weeks, we are discontinuing the program.
As a lark, we added a pop-up special on Sunday: Fried Chicken Dinner for four. It includes 12 pieces of chicken, green beans, whipped potatoes, gravy, biscuits and butter for $70. We started the night with 36 meals and sold out in 15 minutes. I was told later we could’ve sold 60 more if we had the product.
This will be staying on in the “new normal.”
We added pre-order grill kits, (Thanks again for the idea, Chef Russell Scott.). The kits consist of two 12-oz. ribeye steaks, two 6-oz. marinated chicken breast, two 4-oz. salmon fillets, mac and cheese, two sweet potatoes, blanched asparagus, corn on the cob, and Texas toast. Proteins are all raw and vacuum packed and everything comes with proper accompaniments, (i.e. salmon with chimichurri, asparagus with salt, pepper, and olive oil for grilling, corn with whole butter, salt and pepper, etc.). All sides are based on two people. We market this package as “The Saturday Grill Kit” and it includes everything you need for a weekend cookout—but the grill. We sell it for $99. Yes, that is cheap. No, we are not making a single dollar on the program. But we are keeping the membership engaged and giving them value for the dues they have continued to pay while not being able to use the clubhouse.
This also will be added to the “new normal.”
Phase two began this past weekend—Memorial Day weekend—with the opening of the pool. Our foodservice, as of the writing of this article, consisted of pre-packaged, snacks, drinks, candy, ice cream from the snack bar window, hamburgers and hot dogs off the grill on the deck. The grilled items were cooked to order, garnished by a server, wrapped and handed to the guest. All necessary sanitation practices are being strictly followed.
On Saturdays, we introduced a grill on the turn where we sell $2 skirt steak tacos. On the first day, we sold 130. We are also selling a special blended “Saturday Burger” for $5 made from brisket, chuck, veal, Applewood bacon, caramelized onions and roasted garlic all ground into the burger. It’s topped with cheddar cheese and tomato jam. The first time we menued it, we sold 64 burgers.
This also will be added to the “new normal.”
None of these ideas will be tremendous money makers, but they will keep the membership engaged and help them to see value in the dues they continue to pay.
We are currently in discussion about phase three, which will add a la carte dining back to the Ansley Room, our family dining outlet. Dining will be by reservation only and there will be two seatings a night. Members will arrive no earlier than 10-minutes before their reservation and temperatures will be taken upon arrival. Only families may sit together with no more than six people at a table. All employees will be wearing masks and members are encouraged to do so as well. Bread, butter, and water will be preset at the table before arrival. The entire order will be taken at once, drinks and food will be delivered accordingly. There will be no refilling of glasses or recooking of food. If there is a problem with an order a new plate will be made and sent out. To-go ordering will still be allowed—and I suspect it will remain popular.
As we move into and explore our new world, I am thankful for the experiences of my past. Those at Houston Country Club, plus the other four renovations I have been involved in, have given me the foundation to make each one a little more successful.