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One of the most challenging aspects of club management today is achieving a successful dining program. When asking members what their expectations are for club dining, 70 to 80 percent will say, “just make it one of my favorite places to dine.” But when asking these same members if their club is one of their favorite places, only about 30 percent say it is. Another finding is that while dining is not the most important reason for joining most clubs, it is the most important club offering to members once they belong.

Good club dining in all its aspects is important to club success. And yet most clubs only have marginally successful dining programs in their members’ eyes. Why is it that few club managers are able to offer dining at the level their members want? We have to acknowledge that most managers are not “foodies.” This is neither bad nor good. If managers come from the food side of the hospitality industry, they usually understand how to run a successful dining program. They may have been a chef, restaurant manager, hotel food and beverage manager or trained under a real “food” club manager. But in today’s world, such food-oriented general managers and F&B managers with deep dining experience are the exception and not the rule. So how do the other 90 percent of club managers deliver the food experience members want when dining is not their strongest talent? And remember that the club dining experience may not be expected to serve the best food in a city. The goal is to just be one of members’ favorite places to dine (one of four or five restaurants or clubs members frequent regularly).

If a general manager does not have the dining skills, then he or she must know how to add these skills to a management team. But highly talented chefs and “foodie” F&B directors are not easy to come by.

One way to tackle the dining challenge for club managers is to start at the beginning, i.e., the manager’s education and apprenticeship. While nothing beats hands-on experience in restaurants or hotels (at least during summers and with part-time jobs while in school); hands-on, real experience in actual food operations will better prepare club managers for the world of dining in which they will live. CMAA’s Business Management Institute and Certified Club Manager certification process are recommended continuing education programs that address topics like food quality and consistency, service, back-of-the-house operations and front-of-the-house operations. This may not be as fun as sponsoring wine trips to Sonoma or golf trips to Scotland, but understanding dining operations from the inside out will significantly help a manager’s career.

To have a truly “favorite place for member dining” a general manager or F&B director must understand their club’s dining culture, and he or she must be able to work with a good chef to achieve it. In other words, the ability to have good club dining is not just the chef’s job. A chef has only half the responsibility in providing successful dining. The other half of the responsibility, and the most important part, rests with the general manager and/or the F&B director. Remember the GM selects and hires the chef. Also we can’t forget about the front-of-the-house in delivering the dining experience.

Often, good club dining programs—those that members have on their list of favorite restaurants—include some in which members will say, “our club has good food for a club.” This is not a compliment. From McMahon Group’s research with many clubs, only about 30 percent of club dining programs truly are among their members’ favorite places to dine. This means that the magnitude of the dining challenge for the club industry is significant.

Club Dining Success Stories

From recent membership surveys at clubs all across North America, McMahon can identify the following clubs and their general managers who truly deliver to members one of their favorite dining places. A sampling list includes:

  1. High Ridge Country Club (Boynton Beach, Fla.): General Manager Carlos Perez and Chef Ed Balboni
  2. Annapolis Yacht Club (Annapolis, Md.): General Manager Brian Asch and Chef Michael Herr
  3. Old Warson Country Club (St. Louis, Mo.): General Manager Aidan Murphy and Chef Dan Holtgrave
  4. Union League (Philadelphia, Pa.): General Manager/COO Jeffrey McFadden and Chef Martin Hamann

A good question to ask is what makes these dining programs so successful? Based upon interviews with these general managers, here are some of their philosophies and axioms they live by:

  • In all cases, these managers take an active role in delivering a superlative dining program at their clubs. They know food and they know their members. They lead the chef in a partnership that works.
  • They know how to select a talented chef and, in some cases, F&B directors with whom they can work.
  • In order to achieve “one of members’ favorite dining places” versus “having the best food in a city,” one manager’s philosophy on his club’s dining is as follows: “The management culture and expertise between the back-of-the-house and front is dramatic. Great food with poor service is a losing experience. Consistently average to good food with great service is a very positive experience you can bank on. A good club dining program is system- and formula-management driven.”
  • Always start with the best raw product. If the starting product is marginal in quality, no amount of preparation will truly enhance it. A chef is not a magician.
  • Staff training, especially for those in contact with diners, is critical. There is no excuse for not having a friendly, professional waitstaff that know members and know the food they are serving.
  • Décor and dress codes should be welcoming. They must complement the way members live and fit their lifestyle.

An interesting formula for achieving dining success is often seen when a club’s general manager comes with direct food industry experience—possibly as a chef, kitchen worker, front-of-the-house manager or even a hotel food and beverage manager running multiple dining operations. A common progression is the “chef to general manager” path. There are not many chef-to-GMs, but when they lead, a club always seems to attain its dining goals. It is also true that a good commercial restaurant chef or dining manager must learn club dining culture to be successful in the private club world, and this can be a real challenge for some people. But one thing is certain, if a general manager and F&B director have some foundation and experience in the commercial dining world outside of clubs, their chances of running good club dining programs are significantly improved.


How do you define good dining?

“Good club dining is about a comfortable setting, attentive, knowledgeable and friendly service staff with consistent great quality food, whether it is a hamburger or a gourmet meal.”

-Aidan Murphy, General Manager

Old Warson Country Club, St. Louis, Mo.

“A good member dining program provides a balance of options to meet diversified tastes. Some critical components; wonderful food served by well-trained and friendly staff in a setting that reflects the culture of the club, and at price points that will draw members to the club without minimums. In fact, elimination of dining minimums (if they are currently in place) might be the first step in creating a good dining program, as it would force management and the membership to correctly identify what menus, days and times of service actually work in their particular club.”

-Albert Antonez, General Manager

Sankaty Head Golf Club, Siasconset, Ma.

“I define good club dining as consistently reliable, always fresh with traditional favorites always available, yet there’s something new and interesting regularly offered that fosters intrigue. All food and drink must pass the test of deliciousness every time. The service is always prompt, accurate, attentive and familial. Special orders don’t upset us, they delight us. ‘Their club’ is the place they get it ‘their way.’ Whether it is a quick-during-the-week ‘eat it and beat it’ with the kids, or a weekend dining destination with special friends, every experience must be viewed as our last opportunity to make sure they’ll want to return. Everything about the club’s dining venues must be presented with an attitude. Clean, creased, polished and crisp are the appropriate descriptors.”

“Good club dining also encompasses the nurturing of fond and caring relationships between the service and culinary team and members. Faces are recognized, preferences are remembered and needs and wants are anticipated. While the team needs to be continuously prepared to serve, enthusiastic, and have a sense of urgency about what they do, they mostly need to show that they care about the person they are engaging. If we are successful with all the aforementioned, then we have created a sense of place, of contentment and belonging.”

-Richard Lareau, ECM, Food & Beverage Consultant


Club Trends Fall 2015