How Seattle Tennis Club is making the leap by focusing on F&B.
When Christian Thon, General Manager of the Seattle (Wash.) Tennis Club (STC), applied for his first club job as a Food & Beverage Director, he wasn’t chosen despite an impressive background in hotel management. But like all the greats before him, he persisted, and his career has since exploded with success.
Before taking his current post three years ago, Thon was the General Manager of the Menlo Circus Club (Atherton, Calif.), a very private, high-end family club with an equestrian center. Prior to that, he was the General Manager of Palo Alto (Calif.) Hills Golf & Country Club.
Thon’s management style is hands-off. He also believes that the food-and-beverage program is what differentiates a good club from a great one.
C+RC: What brought you to STC?
CT: I loved the Menlo Circus Club, but living in the most expensive zip code in the U.S. was challenging. My wife and I decided to move for purely personal reasons. We’re big on nature—sailing, hiking, biking and skiing—so Washington seemed to be a great fit for our family.
C+RC: What was the F&B operation like at STC when you came aboard?
CT: It hadn’t been top-notch for quite some time. There had been very little leadership, and no one really cared about the F&B product. The food was underwhelming. The service was unprofessional, and ticket times were often 60 to 90 minutes during the busy summer months.
C+RC: How has it changed?
CT: We have made significant inroads with all of those issues. Ticket times and service have improved tremendously through menu development and training.
We’ve had three chefs in four years, though, so consistency has been a challenge. But we are excited to now have Stephane Collomb as Executive Chef. He is producing menus catered to our membership’s tastes. He is also elevating our operational standards.
C+RC: What were you looking for in a new Executive Chef?
CT: Someone who listens to the membership’s voice, values his or her crew, and understands the big picture between the front and back of the house. It is very important to me that the kitchen environment is welcoming, and that the team has a can-do attitude.
C+RC: What made you decide to hire Chef Collomb?
CT: He has worked in some of the greatest restaurants and clubs in the world. It was an easy decision.
C+RC: What was your first impression of him?
CT: He is humble and quiet. He wants to do well and will do whatever it takes to make the membership happy.
C+RC: What were your expectations in the early days with him on board?
CT: He arrived on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving in 2018. He didn’t stop until the holiday season was over.
He had some tremendous staffing challenges in front of him, so it has taken quite some time to get the kitchen operations under control. The labor market in Seattle is as bad as it can be, so hiring good help is challenging, and getting the right people in place takes time.
C+RC: What kinds of people thrive on your club’s F&B team?
CT: People who are self-starters, have high standards, and don’t settle within themselves or their departments. I am very lucky to have a food-and-beverage team with people who are serious about what they do, but don’t take themselves too seriously.
C+RC: What is your relationship like with Chef Collomb?
CT: We have a close relationship. We talk about challenges, issues and opportunities. We discuss how to “make it better” and to go more local almost daily. I try not to get into the business of kitchen operations; I’d be more in the way than helpful. At the end of the day, he is the Executive Chef.
C+RC: What should a club manager’s role be in the overall operation of an F&B department?
CT: I don’t think there is a single right answer to this question. There’s a lot of “it depends”—it depends on the nature of the club, the size of the club, and the offerings of the club. The larger the club, the more distant the club manager will probably be from the food-and-beverage department.
C+RC: How does F&B contribute to the greater goals of a club?
CT: Without food-and-beverage, a club is just a place where members go to do an activity. To socialize, you must have an F&B entity as the “tool” to make it happen. It’s extraordinarily important.
C+RC: What drives F&B success?
CT: A combination of value propositions: great food and beverage programs provided by a caring professional staff, in a welcoming environment.
C+RC: What do you value most in an executive chef?
CT: Great chefs need to be 50% manager and 50% culinary genius; both are needed in order to succeed. They need to leave their ego at the door and realize they are employed to make the kind of food the members want, not necessarily the food that they want. I trust the chef to be the master of his or her own domain, and to be the ruler of the kitchen.
C+RC: What have been some of STC’s most significant F&B improvements?
CT: We are still improving the department each and every day. The kitchen is more welcoming, more organized and much prouder of what’s put out. The food is more local, light and healthy, and changes more often. All the credit goes to our chef and the F&B team he has built.