A Compelling Business Case for Club Kitchen Renovations

At the pool restaurant, an order for a grilled cheese without cheese came in. Quickly, the servers asked if the member wanted toast, as the request caught the servers off guard. Embarrassed by the question, the member explained that their five-year-old was lactose intolerant. We prepared two pieces of bread pushed together, toasted on the outside, and sliced diagonally.

That was twenty-five years ago; now that guest is thirty, with children of their own and in their wake they left a path for deconstruction through allergens, trends, fads, or personalized preferences. Everything from coffee to entrees and sides is customized by operators or their customers based on appetite. Professional kitchens that embrace these personalized menu designs and pivot regularly will become tomorrow’s leaders. The customer is not always right, but they are paying the bill and have a choice.

In a recent presentation about a renovation at a historical club, we explained why their kitchen was out of date after forty quick years. The location of the kitchen was centralized and sizable, but the equipment and its placement were no longer current. With their board, we pitched the history of modern cookery, discussing the time-honored classic preparations at their club when the kitchen was constructed. Popular dishes like Beef Stroganoff, Chicken à la King, Seafood Newburgh, or roasted Cornish Hens stuffed with wild rice. These batch-cooked, served-up dishes would sit on the club’s kitchen line in a series of steam wells. Even the side dishes of rice pilaf, scalloped potatoes, creamed spinach, and ratatouille were held. Their beloved club desserts of baked cobblers, floating islands, and classic bread pudding followed the same style.

We explained that lighter proteins of fish, poultry, and veal were never ordered rare or even medium rare during those years. This era could be called the well-done era, influenced by emerging food safety standards, the poor quality of meats rationed during world wars, and home pantries stocked with canned goods. Dining out often meant cafeterias where everything was served in sauces as customers pointed out their choices.

Back then, salads were mostly sides, accompanying the entrée-style main course. There were very few hot-cold combinations, as the few cold plates consisted of scoops of chicken/tuna or ham salad. The humble sandwich was not a luxury and was certainly rare in a private club. It would be years before the simple club sandwich had any company on most menus.

These dining habits influenced the classic cooking lines, allocating most of the space for hot offerings and leaving only a fraction for cold items. Most cold appetizers were pre-prepared pâtés, terrines, or smoked fish, pre-plated in advance and placed in the cooler. The cold à la carte section was simply a small carved-out space for special requests or garnishes for those pre-plated cold items. Their club’s kitchen was set up just like this, with very little refrigeration and a lot of French top stoves, holding units, and steam tables. The present kitchen still produced food, but its organization had become overwhelmed by the current menu and member requests, leaving no space for all the made-to-order dishes and quick cooking need to meet member demand.

The discussion during the board meeting shifted to the example of their cars. We compared all the new technology in their own cars that cater to a driver’s requirements. Adding a touch of humor, we suggested that a three-year lease for the kitchen, similar to their cars, would be ideal. Keeping up with kitchen technology, design, or coolers is akin to the beloved “cup holders” that have been added to every nook and cranny of cars. This seemed to resonate with them as they could feel the difference in their automobiles.

To strengthen their commitment to the kitchen, we moved on to changes in member preferences using a classic Starbucks case study. A coffee company that started with a few offerings had evolved into a generational drink outlet, offering milkshake-like Frappuccinos, iced teas, and juice infusions. It has now expanded to fifty odd drinks, sprouting from the humble black coffee, espresso, cappuccino, and latte. Sources confirm that dairy and sweeteners now rival coffee in terms of volume of purchases for the brand.

Even before the current energy drink craze, Diet Coke had already replaced coffee as the morning beverage of choice. Caffeine is the craving, and with America’s love for sugar, this shift made sense. Culinary staff can’t change these trends, so a club must address member desires.

After discussing dining trends and member preferences, we moved on to the evolution of food networks, global travel, and a health-focused population. We are creating foodies out of those five-year-olds, exposing them to some of the best restaurants in the world. Meanwhile, new norms like internet speed, societal impatience, and ordering technology have brought the humble club kitchen to its knees.

Throughout the past forty years of the club’s original kitchen concept, an annual kitchen capital budget wouldn’t suffice to replace more than a few pieces of equipment each year. Chefs often found themselves balancing trends like cryo-vacuum, sous-vide, or blast freezers against the need for a modernized line with more efficient ovens and ranges. It’s almost as if an Executive Chef must choose between the perception of “tools” versus necessities, given that most of their kitchens are really dinosaurs.

Every club struggles with what they call member “touch points” expenses versus back-of-the-house updates. The philosophy of “out of sight, out of mind” prevails since members don’t experience the antiquated back of the club. This confirms the notion that if members were involved in cooking their own meals, as they are in golf or tennis, the modernization of the back of the club would become a competitive race for bragging rights. This lighthearted example illustrates that kitchens could have modern environments, high-tech pans, and even state-of-the-art ranges.

All these points lead us to the advice that an Executive Chef’s great business case starts with an educated story. It involves presenting the history of the professional culinary industry in bite-sized pieces for the members to understand. Speaking over their heads or leaving them to figure things out themselves could relegate the kitchen to an afterthought.

One of the most valuable things an Executive Chef can offer on behalf of the entire membership is to arrange for the board, committees, and others to tour their kitchens. Showcasing examples and solutions behind changes or points of service will enhance their understanding. The dated but effective Chef tables provide members with a bird’s-eye view of a typical night and the professionalism of the culinary staff.

Fortunately, our club project received full support, and the club has embarked on a complete renovation of their classic kitchen. While not every Executive Club Chef needs a complete kitchen renovation, without a business case backed by examples, data, or education, no membership group should approve these expenditures. The cost of the business case is only the time the Executive Chef invests in it, and the potential return could be substantial.

Lawrence McFadden, CMC, ECM, Global Hospitality Professional

Lawrence T. McFadden, CMC, ECM is a Certified Master Chef and Search & Consulting Executive for KOPPLIN KUEBLER & WALLACE. He is also Executive in Charge of the Club Leadership Alliance Food & Beverage Experience Network. Prior to joining KK&W and CLA, Lawrence served as General Manager/COO of the 146-year-old Union Club of Cleveland. His impressive 30-year career spans the globe with roles in Hong Kong and Singapore as well as some iconic operations state-side, including The Greenbrier, MGM Grand Hotel and Casino, The Ritz Carlton Company and The Waldorf Astoria Hotel.