Club chefs are serving up tasty tapas-style dishes that allow members to be more venturesome in their eating, while helping to control inventory and reduce waste.
Small plates can satisfy a lot of needs.
For starters, their trendiness provides excellent appeal for younger members looking to dance around a tapas menu, sampling and sharing a variety of different dishes at the same time.
Their smaller size also makes them perfect for those counting calories and who either can’t, or don’t, want to finish a full-sized entrée. And with a lower price point, they allow the budget-conscious to dine at their club more frequently.
Beyond these benefits on the member/guest side, small plates also serve a club’s F&B operation quite well, too. They can help control inventory, reduce waste, increase cover counts, add excitement and give chefs a creative culinary outlet that doesn’t necessarily involve a full menu commitment.
“Small plates allow us to experiment with different kinds of dishes that might not be as well-received on our a la carte menu,” says Jeff Hamilton, Executive Chef of Oswego Lake Country Club (OLCC) in Lake Oswego, Ore. “We have a segment of members who are much more adventurous diners and want to try a bunch of different things, without committing to one full entrée.”
Small plates are perfect for this group—and so many others.
Timeout for Tapas
For months, Wednesday’s dining room dinner service at OLCC wasn’t very profitable. With a full back- and front-of-house staff on the clock, plus very few covers, it was a night that was ripe for change.
“Members wanted us to find more ways to use the patio at Murphy’s Snack Shop,” says Hamilton. “This seemed like the perfect opportunity.”
And so Wednesday’s service shifted from the clubhouse dining room to Murphy’s patio. The full a la carte menu was eliminated, and a smaller, made-to-order menu of small plates was introduced.
“It took some time to iron out the logistics of what we needed,” says Hamilton. “But we’ve developed a system with check lists, and now it runs very smoothly.”
Every week, Hamilton and his team fire up the grill that’s piped into the patio area, which overlooks a putting green and seats nearly 30 members at a time.
Other kitchen equipment, bistro tables, plates and ingredients are trucked up to the patio, too, to set up a mobile kitchen that the staff uses to dish up an ever-changing menu of four to five tapas, priced at $5 each.
“The tapas menu changes every single week,” says Hamilton, who changes a la carte menus every two weeks and runs a 38% food cost across the F&B operation. “But it allows us to use up ingredients we can’t use on the a la carte menu, while keeping our inventory—and costs—under control.”
A sampling of OLCC’s small plates include a blackberry BBQ pulled pork slider; a crab-and-shrimp-cake Caesar salad; a homemade veggie burger with honey BBQ sauce; bacon-wrapped chicken skewers with a curry sauce, and even a grilled banana split.
Tapas night at OLCC now draws in anywhere from 30 to 60 covers. “We were able to take a hit-or-miss night in the dining room and transform it into something with less labor and more appeal,” says Hamilton.
OLCC’s weekly small-plates night plays to a broader mix of members, too. “Old, young, families, empty-nesters—you name it,” Hamilton says. “We always have at least one dish—if not four—that satisfies any demographic.”
Members can order either at the chef’s table or by circling the dishes they want on the paper menus and handing their ticket to the server, who passes it off to the chef.
“A lot of the members like to interact with our chefs and watch as they prepare the different dishes,” says Hamilton. “Plus, it’s a great opportunity for the staff to get out of the kitchen and get instant feedback, too.”
The good grub isn’t the only attraction on Wednesdays at OLCC. Looking to involve other parts of the operation, the club ties tapas into junior golf programming, extended pool hours, beer tastings and even a putting contest.
Six months ago, Daniel Barrs accepted the Executive Chef position at Houndslake Country Club (HCC) in Aiken, S.C. Up to that point, HCC had been losing more than $130,000 annually in F&B. But with a new owner on board and Barrs in the kitchen, things were about to turn around.
In Barrs’ first month as Executive Chef, HCC’s F&B operation turned its first profit since 1994. “It isn’t miraculous,” says Barrs. “It’s just better management.”
Running a weekly chalkboard menu focused on local, seasonal fare, Barrs specializes in scratch-made Southern cuisine with modern twists. His menu is divided between small and large plates.
“There had been a lot of members who would order one entrée and split it, so by offering smaller plates, we’re actually able to increase our check averages,” he notes.
Small plates have also found big success in HCC’s pub, where younger members are now mixing and mingling during happy hours while they nibble on a few shared dishes.
“Because we run a chalkboard menu, I’m able to switch things up and cross-utilize product, so we don’t have a lot of waste,” says Barrs. “We also don’t hold a ton of inventory, and we preserve a lot of our own food.”
A sampling of HCC’s small plates include pork ribletts served with truffle fries; a blue cornmeal waffle with grilled quail, shrimp and grits; sea bass with collard greens and a rich beurre blanc, and salmon over polenta with a seasonal tomato fondue.
Priced between $7.50 and $12.50, the small plates have helped Barr keep his food costs running between 24% and 26%. They have also increased both check averages and dining frequency.
“Last year, we saw 10 to 25 covers during the week and maybe 40 on the weekends,” he says. But now, HCC averages roughly 175 covers per night on Tuesday through Thursday, and 250 covers each on Friday and Saturday.
“With that much volume, it’s important that we keep it simple, and make sure the flavors of our dishes speak for themselves,” says Barrs. “When you create a small plate, you only have a few bites to ‘wow’ your member’s palate, so every element counts.”
According to Barrs, plating is just as important to a small plate’s success as flavor. So he uses a variety of appropriately sized dishes in different shapes. He starts by plating in the center, then building up, instead of out.
“I don’t believe in tacky garnishes,” he says. “Members eat with their eyes first, so the food itself should be attractive on its own. Plus, with a small plate, there is a very fine line between looking plentiful and looking too small.”
When Small is Big
For the longest time, the bar at Northhampton Country Club (NCC), Easton, Pa., was home to a group of regulars who ordered the same dishes off the bar menu week after week. But as the club’s membership base grew, new members were starting to fill the seats, looking for trendier foods and a livelier atmosphere.
So what’s a chef to do?
“Small plates on one side and club classics on the other,” says NCC’s Randy Zerfass, Executive Chef.
The small-plates side at NCC now changes every four to five weeks and features a variety of dishes—everything from sugar & spice “lollichops” (i.e., grass-fed lamb) to steak fondue—as well as vegetarian options like the heirloom beet salad.
“It’s a great place for us to feature produce, like heirloom tomatoes, from our vegetable garden, too,” adds Zerfass.
A year into the new menu style, Zerfass is finding that NCC’s small-plates menu satisfies more than just younger members.
“People have changed the way they eat,” he says. Moroccan veal skewers and Sriracha calamari have become fan favorites, he reports, and “some of our older members—the ones who would order the patty melt every time they came in—have been ordering edamame and Kobe beef sliders.
“Plus, with a lower price point than an entrée, the small plates give [members] more options that are affordable,” Zerfass notes.
He also attributes much of the success to how the club’s small-plates menu was launched. “We invited members to come and sample the new menu,” he reports. “But instead of doing a buffet, we had five different chef-manned action stations serving composed small plates, so members could literally see and taste the different items.”
For members who had never seen or eaten in the tapas style, this proved to be a great way to casually introduce the concept without forcing them to commit, Zerfass says.
NCC’s small plates are priced around $9, with 11 options on the menu each cycle. “Our biggest challenge is taking certain small plates off the menu, once the members have fallen in love with them,” says Zerfass. “I guess that’s a good problem to have, though.”