|Chef Mike Dowdy (far left) has guided F&B operations for even more Buick Opens at W|
In 24 years at Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Executive Chef Mike Dowdy has not only guided F&B service for more Buick Opens than Tiger Woods has won, he’s also found innovative ways to maintain regular business levels, no matter what challenges arise.
Mike Dowdy has been Executive Chef at the 50-plus-year-old Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, in Grand Blanc, Mich., for the past 24 years. Each year during that time, he has been responsible for food and beverage service for the Buick Open—even more Buicks than Tiger Woods has won, and that’s saying something.
Mike Dowdy CHEF PROFILE
Experience: Executive Chef, Warwick Hills Golf & Country Club, Grand Blanc, Mich. (since 1985, hosting 24 consecutive Buick Opens)
Besides getting Warwick Hills’ marquee event down to a science, Mike also knows the ins and outs of the “regular side” of the private club industry. He has never been a complacent club chef who stands around waiting for direction. Even in the most challenging times, Mike has remained proactive, team-oriented and driven by a constant desire to bring the best to his membership.
C&RB thanks Chef Dowdy and his management team for helping us to put this informative interview together.
Q Mike, many club chefs complain that just to avoid friction, they are forced to stay fully staffed during the offseason so a number of small groups can utilize the club. You’ve managed to convince the Warwick Hills membership that it is a sound business decision to scale down your clubhouse operations to three days a week during the offseason, saving significant labor dollars in the process. Can you tell us how you first presented this plan, how you implemented it, and what, if any, membership concerns came of it?
A Years ago I had proposed to our General Manager at that time that we could reduce labor expenses by up to 35% if we went to a four-day schedule in the offseason. The excuse for not doing this was always that the members pay monthly minimums, so we had to be open for them to use the club as needed.
But when we hired a new General Manager about 10 years ago and the concept was presented to him—showing our current revenue/cost numbers and proposed new numbers—the plan was brought to the Board again, and this time it was accepted. When we started to implement the plan, at first we had some negative feedback. But the results were as we expected—we took six days of revenue and squeezed them into four days, with no loss of sales.
In the budgeting process for 2009, as we looked at the challenges facing the local and state economies, it was proposed that for this most recent offseason we would only open our dining rooms on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, until Easter. As part of this process, all hourly kitchen staff, except for utility/dish personnel, would be laid off temporarily, and salaried staff would work double shifts three days a week, to save $15,000 in labor per month.
The only problem we could foresee with all of this was how it would affect the card players who like to use the club year-round. We decided that between the maintenance and management staffs that would still be present, we could still be open extended hours to meet these members’ needs, and make coffee and tea service available to them. On Wednesday evenings, we’ve also had a bartender on site.
This has worked out well and we plan to have the same schedule for the coming offseason, starting in November. It has helped us reduce expenses by a large amount while still providing full service to members from April through October. These steps, along with a clubhouse renovation that was completed in 2002, have helped us avoid any F&B assessments for the past eight years.
I do want to stress that when plans like these are presented to a Board, you must be prepared to present as much information as possible about not only potential cost-savings and revenue implications, but also to answer the questions that will come up about the effects on service.
Poll a few of your members who would normally use the club on the days you are proposing to close, so you can report on how they will plan to change their routines. Run all of the numbers and leave nothing out. The more work that is done ahead of time, the easier the process will become and the more support you will receive. Also, make it clear that if a member wants to have a function on a closed day, you will still be prepared to accommodate them, providing that the revenue generated will cover the costs involved.
Q Right now you’re in the middle of one of the worst economic periods in your state’s history. Sales are down but your cover counts are, remarkably, up—and from what you say, this is true for both catering and a la carte. What have been the contributing factors?
|Warwick Hills has minimized large volume swings through a greater emphasis on lunch and casual dining.|
A I believe that people still want to dine out and entertain. And with the economy in the shape it is in, a lot of people are working longer hours and don’t have the time to prepare a meal. But everyone’s watching their expenses and the whole country is “dining down.”
We had a noticeable increase in lower-priced dining this past spring, with our average guest check dropping about 10% for a la carte and about 15% for banquets. But lately we’ve started to see a return to more higher-priced items being ordered. This could be a sign of the economy returning to normal, or maybe just that people have been missing prime beef, etc.
Q Chef, the upswings and downturns in the volume of business at private clubs differs from public restaurants, hotels and resorts, where it can be more constant. How do you get your team fired up for the peak business periods as summer approaches at Warwick Hills?
A Having staff that has been here for several years is key, because they know first-hand what it’s like to go from 60 to 120 covers overnight. But if you can do more to bring in more lunch and casual business, you won’t see such large swings from day to day. The harder part is gearing up to go from three days a week to six, as you come out of the offseason.
Q You’re a good example of how a long-tenured chef can develop strong continuity with the front-of-the-house staff for effective training and communication, What are some of your challenges in this area?
A The challenges include training the front-of-the-house staff so they know the different cooking techniques, sauces, rubs, etc. We have classes before each dining period and function that cover specials, soups, starch alternatives, etc.
Recently, my banquet chef, Heath Ax, developed new training manuals for the clubhouse, halfway house and cabana staff that cover everything for each department. These have been very successful and will be updated seasonally. Additionally, all department heads, along with the sous chefs and our General Manager, Rich Fairman, are certified serve-safe managers; this helps a lot in deterring health and safety issues.
Q Mike, after 25 years the 2009 Buick Open was your last, due to loss of sponsorship money. What is the mindset you must possess to execute an event of this magnitude?
A Great question. First of all, without the staff we have, it would be a nightmare. You know going in that it will be a 100-hour-plus week. I had former staff members who had worked for me years ago who would then return every year just for the Buick Open. Along with my existing staff, they made my job much easier.
The weeks leading up to the tournament are the hard part, with a lot of functions, scheduling the deliveries, getting all the phone calls from suppliers that you only hear from once a year. Through it all, record-keeping is very important, I have all of the records for the past 25 years, to help me know precisely how much ice we will need, how many bottles of water, how much shrimp, etc.
We have a terrific GM and clubhouse manager, and by working closely together prior to the tournament, we have very few issues crop up, so there is little to deal with during the tournament.