Skip links

Successful Dining Programs

Q: We continue to struggle in our dining program. What are other clubs doing that makes them successful?

A: Food and beverage programs remain the single biggest challenge area for private clubs. That’s the result of multiple factors, including serving a limited audience, changing tastes, and the inherent difficulty in creating and maintaining a successful restaurant (which is why so many fail). The dining operation at a private club faces the additional burden of trying to satisfy largely the same group of members time and again. This makes variety and consistency special burdens. Many of your members may eat at the club multiple times in the same week. This leads to menu boredom and heightened sensitivity when a dish looks or tastes different on Friday than it did on Tuesday. It’s not easy.

In the longstanding debate in the food industry as to which is more important, the food or the service, we come down on the side of food. That’s not an opinion; it’s sourced from crunching the data of several hundred thousand member surveys. Successful clubs start with a great and passionate chef who can consistently provide quality food and then build their strategy on that foundation.

We also see clubs moving away from the practice of setting the tone for the room by dress code (i.e., the formal dining room, the casual dining room) and building it around a concept. New club dining features an integrated concept from arrival and pre-meal socializing to ultimately being seated at a table. The look and feel matches what is happening in commercial dining rooms: More open and flowing floor plans, connection to an outside area and an overall immersive atmosphere that makes use of lighting, television/video and music to create a buzz.

Clubs tend to try to please everyone—like the Committee approach that wants the old club favorites and new cuisine, full dinners and small plates and on and on. Unless the club has a membership numbering more than 1,000, the club needs to make choices, or “live within its menu.” This means building your menu around core ingredients and entrees that can be mixed and matched, but isn’t going to try to do too much. This also matches what we find most members want from club dining—a casual extension of their home, spiced up with an adequate dose of special features to keep it fresh and interesting. T

he next big step is to have a friendly and professional service staff. This, too, can be challenging. Some clubs approach crisis mode trying to fill basic server positions. There’s a dearth of talented people who want to serve others. Clubs often use dated compensation plans that make them training houses for commercial restaurants—growing staff skills at the club only to lose them to cash restaurants once they gain experience. Smart clubs have revamped their compensation plans to reward and keep their service staff.

Winning clubs also do a couple of other things well. First, they generate significant revenue from banquets and events. This gives them a revenue stream to attract good talent. They also have done the financial analysis and educated their board to understand that a great dining program is a worthwhile amenity, just like a great golf course, gym or pool. There’s a cost involved in putting together and maintaining this sort of program. There’s typically a reward. As we see it, the path to a happy and satisfied membership is through their stomachs.

Frank Vain is president of McMahon Group, Inc., a premier full-service, private club consulting firm serving more than 1,600 private clubs around the world. He also serves as a director of NCA and chairs the Communications Committee. He can be reached at [email protected]. For more information, visit