As those of us north of the Mason-Dixon Line watch temporary greens appear and frost delays become more frequent, what do club chefs use the off-season for? Sure, we all have holiday parties and a depleted à la carte business to keep most of our workforce going in the winter. But how do we plan for the next season, keep things interesting for those who are still around for the winter, and minimize potential losses from inflated labor cost percentages? The questions I always ask myself on this topic are:
• What can I do to jump-start a slower time and get members excited, without creating even more of a strain on the P&L?
• Should I try to convince my staff that they should take up scuba diving or skiing and use all of their vacation time during January, February and March?
• Is it possible for me to get my troops really excited about new concepts for the upcoming season if I totally involve them in the process?
• How many signature items can I develop in different areas that members will want to tell their friends about? For me, the last few years have shown the great opportunity that lies in take-out and off-premise catering. Also, small group dining with tasting menus is way up. There is also growing interest in guest and chef nights, wine and beer tastings, and interactive kids’ culinary events.What is important for the culinary team at Merion is to exploit the things that work, weed out the ones that don’t, and keep building on that foundation. When some of my fellow chefs joined me at the 2nd Annual Club’s Chef Institute (See C&RB Special Report) meeting earlier this month at the Greenbrier, I took the opportunity to ask them about their current thinking on the best ways to make the most of the off-season. Here are some of their thoughts: Q Chefs, what are some of the strategies you can share with us regarding layoffs and hour-cutting, and their effect on employee retention? A Christopher Passaro, Preakness Hills Country Club, Wayne, N.J.—Luckily that hasn’t been an issue, based on our club history. Long-term employees—those who have been here for 10 to 20 years—make up the majority of my staff, and they actually look forward to the break. Small-group dining with food and wine pairing seems to offer members and my staff an opportunity to experience some seasonal variations. A William Garbacz, Jr., Sunnybrook Golf Club, Plymouth Meeting, Pa.—At Sunnybrook, a lot of our wait staff goes on unemployment during the winter, so we need people to work the floor. I have five other chefs besides me, and we take turns taking orders, for a few reasons:
1. It splits the labor costs between the kitchen and the floor;
2. It serves as cross-training and helps to teach chefs and cooks what the wait staff does; and
3. It helps the members get to know the staff behind the scenes. Our full-time wait staff comes back every season, and the chefs love the change of pace in the winter.
A Vincent Sanzotti, St. Clair Country Club, Pittsburgh, Pa.— Following the holidays, we compile a list of projects to complete in all of our areas. Deep-cleaning of equipment, wares, and floors, ceilings and walls is completed. Some areas are slated for repainting. We also rework the storage areas and sift through supplies to identify unusable and unneeded items. With this type of work, we have been lucky to maintain our staffing levels and keep key employees. We typically lose two to three staff members before this season anyway, so layoffs are not common. Most of the staff has a fair amount of tenure and they are encouraged to use at least one week of vacation during the off-season.
Q It is easy to sometimes conform to the fact that it is slow, counts are down, and we want to tighten things up. What do you club chefs do to keep things fresh during down time?
A Passaro—We started a Sunday afternoon brunch concept that really took off. Ordering less more often, of course, and buying seasonal products has also helped.
A Garbacz—Change it up and cross train! I feel that this keeps everyone interested because they are learning something new every day. Have fun with specials over lunch and dinner. Give your staff a “blind box” of food and let them come up with the specials for the next day. It keeps them motivated and thinking, and usually makes them come up with menu items while working together.
A Sanzotti—In our formal dining room we hold a monthly “Chef’s Dinner” with a limited selection of items presented in “Art Culinaire” style. We have bingo on select Saturday nights and include a buffet dinner. We’ll also set up a putt-putt style golf course in the clubhouse and host the children in the afternoon and the adults in the evening. In late March we have a Children’s Carnival Brunch with face painting, balloon sculptors, some inflatable jumping activities and, of course, a buffet geared toward the children. My sous chef and I also use the winter to conduct “lunch-n-learn” cooking classes. And every other winter we have a culinary open house, where we serve small plates in the kitchen and let members roam freely as they enjoy a complimentary glass of wine.
Q Chefs, when you all plan for the upcoming year, what is the most important item that you target?
A Passaro—Member requests from prior years, house committee concerns, and, of course, anticipation of member desires. We communicate with our sister clubs down south and we change our grille room menu five times per season, running many specials to try to keep things interesting for both the membership and staff.
A Garbacz—Look back at all the events and figure out how to do each one better next year. You’re basically pushing up staff motivation by knowing we can take our club to the next level.
A Sanzotti—Aside from the activities to improve and maintain our physical plant, we review all banquet menus for new ideas and changes, and perform revised cost-analyses on current menu items. But I feel the most important thing we do over the off-season is provide our staff with a great place to work and the incentive to provide membership with the best possible experience, through showing our commitment to our facilities. Jerry Schreck is a member of the Club & Resort Business Editorial Advisory Board and writes frequently for C&RB on club-specific culinary topics. Have a topic you’d like to see Jerry address in a future issue? A question about a specific F&B challenge you’re facing at your club? Or would you just like to invite Jerry to visit your club sometime to exchange ideas? Write to him at [email protected]