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Defining and Achieving Dining Success: “A Favorite Place to Eat”

Defining dining success for private clubs is simpler than most of us would guess: The club is one of the members’ favorite places to eat. That’s it! Not a place with the best gourmet food or the fanciest décor; but a place that has consistently good offerings in food quality and service … a good menu … conveniently located … and finally, a place “where everyone knows your name”—where your friends are and where the club staff is like family. This defines what club dining should be. How to achieve this is a challenge facing many clubs.

The characteristics of a good club dining program are very basic, and they are easily tested for aspects most important to members. In McMahon Group’s membership survey research, the most important dining aspects are the following in order of importance:

  1. Food quality
  2. Meal consistency
  3. Menu variety
  4. Quality of service
  5. Value for price
  6. Staff friendliness
  7. Dining area décor

Provide the above key characteristics well, and a club is likely to experience a successful dining program. Yet to do so requires a very strong partnership between the general manager and the chef. One alone cannot do it. The chef obviously has the culinary skills to create great food, but the general manager must guide the chef in understanding the club’s food culture.

The Ever-Changing Food Culture in Private Clubs

            Today we continually see the popularity of more casual dining in relaxed atmospheres for clubs. Fewer members want a formal dining environment (meaning white tablecloth décor, coat and tie dress code, etc.). Yet at the same time that dress codes are being relaxed, the quality and variety of food offerings are increasing. With clubs focusing on family offerings, the dining program must reflect this too, not only in menus, but also in dining areas of the clubhouse.

Many clubs still provide their mainstay mixed casual dining in one dining room. Such mixed grills combine all age groups and dining styles in one area. There is the bar with a fun-loving, boisterous crowd seated at it. There are adults trying to have a quiet, relaxed meal. And then there are the young families with children. By mixing all three dining activities in one room, nobody is enjoying what should be one of “their favorite places to eat.”

            Trends in club dining endorse having separate rooms or room areas for the three basic à la carte dining needs. First, the grillroom is the primary à la carte dining room in a clubhouse. It should have a great bar in it with a bartender holding court, and managers should consider whether bar stools are in fact necessary. This room should have the best outdoor views and have the club’s covered outdoor dining area immediately adjacent to it. This room should be casual in style and inviting for all members to use. Adjacent to the main grillroom should be the bar/pub area with a bar members can sit at. Such a bar/pub should have a variety of other seating options like soft seating around a fireplace, some cocktail tables and good access for outdoor seating around fire pits. From a labor-saving viewpoint, it is desirable to have the grill room bar and main bar in the pub back-up to one another. This way one bartender can service both bars in slow times.

            Finally, near or adjacent to the grillroom should be the family alcove for members with children. In lieu of the family alcove however, clubs are also creating an entire family-friendly activity area for food service with a Panera-style open kitchen and a Starbucks lounge area combined. Such very casual dining/lounge areas are becoming one of the most popular areas in clubs. There is nothing wrong in emulating the most popular commercial dining operations in our clubs. Versions of these Panera/Starbucks-type very casual club offerings can be found in such clubs as the Columbia Club and Hawthorne Country Club in Indianapolis, the Pelicatessen at the Bald Head Island Club and the proposed Mid-Island Grill at The Landings Club in Savannah. The lesson is clear—the more casual the dining experience, the more members of all ages use it.

The Club Dining Outlook

            Clubs are focusing more on dining quality and proper facilities than ever before. The major thrust in club improvement programs is on dining and bar areas, inside and out. Surveys show dining is the most important club activity for the majority of all club members. So if a club wants to achieve real success, it must start with its dining program. And the best way to begin a dining emphasis program is to ask the members, in a brief survey, about their satisfaction with the current dining program. From the survey results, it will be clear how to develop a program for making a club one of “the members’ favorite places to eat.”

            Of all things clubs should do in 2015, improving their dining programs is number one. The goal in dining is not just to have satisfied members, but to strive for the “very satisfied” reputation that contributes to overall club success.

Club Trends Winter 2015