Selling the Sizzle

By | November 14th, 2013

F&B_leadBe it through a dedicated steakhouse restaurant, steakhouse-inspired dishes or a well-done weekly steak night, clubs are finding they can offer an especially good fit with the wide and lasting appeal of this “old school” concept.

Even as club and resort cuisine evolves to incorporate more casual dining, small plates, regional fare and local ingredients, one “old school” restaurant concept—the steakhouse—is showing real staying power.

Born in an era of simplicity and indulgence, steakhouses can still be an especially good fit for many properties’ dining programs. Their special combination of warm ambiance and comfort-food menus have proven appeal among all segments of the dining populace, from kids to seniors, and a special connection with the core segment of businessmen and golfers. Steakhouses can be an equally strong draw for lunch as well as dinner and thus particularly “comforting” to an F&B program’s bottom line—because when done well, they offer especially good opportunities to achieve higher price points and margins.


  • Incorporating steakhouse-style dishes into a more traditional a la carte program can elevate the quality—and variety—of a club’s F&B operation.
  • Elements like proper seats, knives, lighting and tablescapes help achieve the right steakhouse-style atmosphere.
  • Because of the menu’s intrinsic simplicity, a steakhouse’s success relies on high-quality ingredients prepared correctly and consistently.

Back in Time
Dubbed “1894” in a reference to the year the club was founded, the steakhouse at Washington Golf & Country Club (WGCC), Arlington, Va., now stands as “the perfect solution to a much bigger issue,” says Ted Hughes, the club’s Executive Chef.

“It has a classic, cozy steakhouse feel with a menu that stands on quality ingredients, prepared correctly,” Hughes reports. “But it took some doing to get there from where we were.”

About eight years ago, he explains, WGCC completed a $22 million renovation to its facilities. But very little attention was paid to the club’s formal dining room during the process.

“It was pigeon-holed into an ugly space that was impersonal and uncomfortable, with no outdoor access,” says Hughes, who has been with the club for nearly 15 years. “Members would almost always opt for one of our other four dining rooms downstairs.”

The club’s Board hemmed and hawed over what to do with both the space and the concept. Then, when a Board member suggested new chairs might solve the problem, Hughes decided it was time to propose a different, more radical plan.

Greg Volle, Executive Chef,  Panther Creek CC

Greg Volle, Executive Chef,
Panther Creek CC

“They were thinking of spending $30,000 on new chairs, but the chairs weren’t the issue,” he says. “The room itself was the problem. And if we were going to make formal dining successful, it had to move.”

And Hughes saw that the move wouldn’t have to be an extensive one, either in distance or cost. Just down the hall from the formal dining room was the club’s library—a large, spacious room with a fireplace, access to an outdoor patio, beautifully maintained dark wood paneling and trim, brass sconces, low lighting and oriental rugs.

In other words, it was a room that offered the opportunity to create a great steakhouse restaurant.

“They did a beautiful job renovating the library, but that space also went largely unused,” says Hughes, who proposed to the Board that the club close the formal dining room and transform the library into a specialty steakhouse.

“The library with the attached patio was already the perfect setting,” he says. “We figured we could seat about 70 inside and 20 out.”

The Board blessed his proposal on a trial basis, and Hughes and his team set to work, beginning with chairs.

“As a result of the renovation, we had about 90 newly refurbished Queen Anne dining chairs in storage, earmarked for banquets,” says Hughes. “But most of our banquets are over 150 guests, so we never really used them. We brought them down from storage and set them up in ‘1894.’ ”

With seats secured, Hughes repurposed the tables that were previously used in the formal dining room. Ditto for table settings, service carts and other necessary accoutrements to create both indoor and outdoor dining options.

“It was a pretty easy transition,” says Hughes—and an immediate success. “The initial feedback was overwhelmingly positive,” says Hughes. “Members couldn’t believe we hadn’t thought to do this before.”

USDA Beef Quality Grading SystemGrade    Marbling Score
Prime+    Abundant (00-100)
Prime°    Moderately Abundant (00-100)
Prime-    Slightly Abundant (00-100)
Choice+    Moderate (00-100)
Choice°    Modest (00-100)
Choice-    Small (00-100)
Select+    Slight (50-100)
Select-    Slight (00-49)
Standard+    Traces (34-100)
Standard°    Practically Devoid (67-100) to Traces (00-33)
Standard-    Practically Devoid (00-66)

Chart Courtesy Sterling Silver Premium Meats

Chart Courtesy Sterling Silver Premium Meats

The grade of a steak speaks to the quality of the meat, based on marbling and age. In the United States, grades are prime, choice and select, with prime at the top of the scale, and select at the bottom (prime-grade beef makes up about 2% of all beef produced in the U.S.).

Marbling is an important factor in grade and steak selection. To visually determine the marbling of a steak, examine the texture of the meat. If the meat is free of all fat, then the cut has little or no marbling and is often a lower grade. While this will result in a leaner and often more tender steak, it will not be as flavorful. Small, thin streaks of fat through the meat will produce a more flavorful steak.

The response, and usage, has remained positive ever since, he reports. Today, “1894” is open for dinner Wednesday through Saturday and sees about 50 covers each night.

The restaurant’s menu (click here to view) features traditional steakhouse fare with myriad cuts of beef, prepared to temperature, with preparation choices including Béarnaise, peppercorn sauce, blackened and gorgonzola-crusted.

“The chateaubriand served with Dutch yellow peewee potatoes, carved tableside, is definitely our best-seller,” says Hughes. “The 5-oz. filet, served plain, is our next most popular dish when it comes to beef.”

But surprisingly, the appeal of the restaurant has gone well beyond steak. About 40% of members who dine in “1894” choose beef, Hughes has found, while 50% opt for fish. The remaining 10% order from the special-preparations category, which features dishes like grilled lamb chops, pan-seared wild boar chops, and smoked breast of duck.

Sides, which are ordered a la carte, are equally traditional and feature a variety of potato variations, including roasted garlic-Bordeaux potatoes, steak frites, and a classic mashed. Steamed spinach, rice pilaf, homemade Vidalia onion rings and farm-fresh vegetables round out the category.

Click here for recipes for Breast of Pheasant with Speck and Creamy Leeks; Butternut Squash and Apple Soup; and Roasted Top Round of Lamb with Lentils, Roasted Celeriac

“Steakhouse menus rely on simplicity that’s executed perfectly,” says Hughes. “We focus our menu on bringing in the best quality, offering it at a good value, and preparing it correctly each and every time.”

The beef Hughes purchases for “1894” is graded at the top end of Choice and the bottom end of Prime. “It’s the most consistent product I’ve found within its price range,” he says. “When we tried a Prime program, I lost my shirt on it. The members just didn’t support the higher price-point. They didn’t see value in it.”

That’s not to say specialty beef doesn’t ever find its way to “1894.” But when it does, it’s treated as a special, instead of as a standard menu option. Products like Wagyu Kobe, known for its marbling characteristics and naturally enhanced flavor, tenderness, and juiciness, will be featured a few times a year, when Hughes can walk the dining room hand-selling it to members.

“It’s much easier to convince a member to purchase a beautiful product on occasion, especially when you take the time to show them the quality and the marbling,” he says. “But it’s impractical to think we could regularly sell an 8-oz. Kobe ribeye for $75.”

Running a 40% overall food cost, “1894” is now a break-even part of WGCC’s $4 million F&B operation. “The steakhouse isn’t about making money,” says Hughes. “It’s about offering our members a really nice place to eat that’s different from other dining options within the club.”

A simple move down the hall, from Washington G&CC’s unused formal dining space to a renovated but also underutilized library, paid off through the club’s successful “1894” steakhouse restaurant.

A simple move down the hall, from Washington G&CC’s unused formal dining space to a renovated but also underutilized library, paid off through the club’s successful “1894” steakhouse restaurant.

Their Rightful Place
At Panther Creek Country Club (PCCC) in Springfield, Ill., steakhouse-inspired dishes are taking root alongside more traditional a la carte options.

When Greg Volle arrived at PCCC for his final interview for the Executive Chef position at the club, he was asked to blindly prepare a six-course meal for eight Board members in two hours. He had access to the entire kitchen and pantry, as well as the sous chef, who helped in any way needed.

“That interview was a telling sign of how important quality cuisine is to this club,” says Volle, who nailed the challenge and was offered the position that night. “When I started, I was given a blank canvas and encouraged to try new things.”

First, he updated the menu structure.

“Before, everything was ordered a la carte. I’m a big fan of completed dishes,” he says.

Next, Volle rewrote the menu, incorporating both comfort foods and steakhouse-inspired dishes. Separated into four categories—Air, Land, Sea and Earth—the menu (click here to view) now has enough variety to satisfy the club’s 400 members.

“It’s not often that you can put shrimp and grits or chicken and waffles on the same menu as an applewood-smoked ribeye or a filet served with a wild mushroom cabernet demi-glace and aged Stilton bleu cheese,” says Volle. “But it’s gone over like gangbusters. We’re able to please more of our members and we’ve increased cover counts, because there is truly something for everyone.”

Click here to view Chef Volle’s demi-glace recipe

The steaks Volle uses on a daily basis are Choice primal cuts that the staff butchers to order, to preserve freshness and quality. Occasionally, he’ll procure beef from a local farmer whose cuts rate higher on the prime scale, and serve those as specials.

Doug Firestone, Executive Chef, Greenwood CC

Doug Firestone, Executive Chef, Greenwood CC

“We try to do a beef special on the weekends, to give our meat-lovers a little something extra,” says Volle.

To minimize waste from the primal cuts and keep his food costs in check, Volle uses the cap from the ribeye to season the grill and the trimmings from the filet to create the club’s classic beef tartare, as well as the beloved Panther Creek Angus burger.

Once he had the new menu in place and streamlined certain operational practices like purchasing, Volle’s next undertaking was to purchase new china that better suited the menu.

“We were able to get some nice rectangular plates and some funkier shapes to frame the food,” he says. “We also upgraded the quality of our steak knives.”

A Whole Lot at “Steak”
Greenwood (S.C.) Country Club’s weekly “Steak & Martini” night, which dates back to 2009, has not only become part of the club’s fabric, it is now also one of the operation’s biggest, most consistent revenue generators.

Serving only a daily lunch service as well as an elaborate Sunday brunch, Wednesday has become the one night of the week when the club opens for dinner. “Lunch is a minimal part of our operation,” says Doug Firestone, Executive Chef, who came to Greenwood this summer. “Steak night and banquets are our biggest revenue producers.”

Each Wednesday, the menu changes to feature four different steakhouse-inspired entrees, ranging from a New York Strip with a rich Jack Daniels sauce to a blackened chicken with a spicy creole cream sauce (click here to view the recipe for creole pasta). There are always two different beef preparations, as well as two additional entrée options. Plus, Firestone always features three different homemade specialty dessert choices, such as peanut butter pie, Grand Marnier chocolate mousse and a decadent chocolate layer cake.

“For a long time, the club ran the same menu every week for Steak & Martini night,” says Firestone. “Since we started with a new menu each week, we’ve increased member usage and satisfaction.”

In fact, Greenwood went from seating anywhere between 10 and 30 covers on Wednesdays to now regularly seating between 75 and 100. “Steak & Martini night gives members a chance to use their club in a different way,” says Firestone. “The ever-changing menu has generated a lot of buzz. Members know they’ll get good food that isn’t overly priced, but served in an upscale, comfortable atmosphere.”

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