At Home at The Beach Club

By | May 31st, 2017

The Beach Club, Santa Monica, Calif.

With a focus on facilities and finance, a new GM with fresh eyes is polishing the iconic Santa Monica, Calif., club for the next generation.

When Michael Chase, Jr., CCM, joined The Beach Club in Santa Monica, Calif., as General Manager just over a year ago, he had legendary shoes to fill.

Gregg Patterson, who served as the club’s well-known GM since 1982, retired from the facility in 2016 to focus on his own company, Tribal Magic. In that venture, Patterson has continued to provide leadership and motivational counsel in the same distinctive style that has made him a must-see speaker at club managers’ conferences for many years.

When setting out to find Patterson’s successor, The Beach Club Board noted in its job listing that there were “currently a number of excellent, long-tenured employees in place who can and will help make the management transition a smooth one”—emphasizing that longevity has been at the heart of what has made The Beach Club an iconic club property with an enviable culture for nearly 100 years.

The Beach Club

Location: Santa Monica, Calif.
Founded: 1923
Members: 715
Clubhouse Size: 42,000 sq. ft.
General Manager: Michael Chase, Jr., CCM
Assistant General Manager: Andrea Curthoys, CCM
Athletics Director: Roland Sunga
Executive Chef: JoseLuis Jimenez
Food & Beverage Manager: Jose Mendoza
Grill Manager: Cesar Melgoza
Maintenance Manager: Rafael Chavarria
Controller: DJ Joyce
Beach Manager: Eric Chavarria

“If I’m understated, Gregg is in your face,” says Chase—who was previously St. Martins Club Manager for The Philadelphia Cricket Club, and before that a winner of the Excellence in Club Management “Rising Star” Award while Club Manager of The Loxahatchee Club in Jupiter, Fla.—in describing their management styles. “But we share the same intrinsic values: culture, community and relationships, and my goal is to maintain the immaculate culture that he built.”

In fact, Patterson is an honorary member of the club, and Chase says they’ve maintained a good relationship, especially in the early days of the transition.

“Gregg is very exuberant and expressive—a natural, charismatic leader,” says Assistant General Manager Andrea Curthoys, who has been at the club for 25 years and considers Patterson a mentor. “Michael is more cerebral, and gets buy-in and enthusiasm as effectively. He has inherited a well-run club, and has effected change gradually and deliberately.

“With Michael’s new set of eyes, he sees ways of doing things that reflect the evolution of our culture,” Curthoys says. “For members now, the tangibles are important—the look and feel of the facilities, better food and beverage. The focus stays on relationships and service, but he’s also working on improving the facilities.”

Low-Hanging Fruit
When Chase interviewed for the available GM position, he noted that some areas of the clubhouse could use some TLC. The Transition Committee appreciated that dose of honesty, and it served to form the foundation for what Chase would bring to the club.

From a service perspective, Chase says he hasn’t changed much. So far, his focus has been on what he calls “low-hanging fruit”: small but meaningful projects such as refurbishing the gym, refreshing an area of the women’s locker room, and adding two wildly popular bocce courts.

The Beach Club uses a grid system to organize member-owned beach equipment that is stored at the club. Members are invited to request spots on the beach, and during holidays or events, they make their requests up to two weeks in advance.

A planned renovation that is proposed to begin in 2018 would rebuild the main kitchen, expand the grill into a stand-alone kitchen, and update staff-support facilities, creating a better working environment and increasing output speed and efficiency.

“My job is to give staff the best possible experience, so they can give members the best experience,” Chase says. “There will be a lot of education to do [to get members on board for the renovation] once the costs and drawings are done.”

Founded in 1923, the club is frequently described by staff as “a home on the beach,” featuring two acres, a 42,000-sq. ft. clubhouse, and a beach that has grown by 1,000 sq. ft. over the years, due to accretion. A public bike path was installed in the 1990s on the outer edge of the property, between the club and the beach itself. While it was controversial at the time, Chase reports that members enjoy the people-watching opportunities the path created, and now often vie for front-row viewing.

To secure their spots on the beach, The Beach Club encourages members to place a call to the beach department and select a spot on the established beach grid on a first-come, first-served basis. The staff then finds members’ corresponding beach equipment in the clubhouse basement catacombs, and sets everything up before members arrive. During holidays, members will call one or two weeks in advance to reserve their spots, but during the regular busy season (which extends from Memorial Day through December), they’re usually able to wait until the day they want to come.

Including outdoor areas, the club features eight dining locations, all serviced by either the full kitchen or grill. In 2006, the club bought a neighboring home to build a terrace onto the grill room (which saw its own updates in 2015) that opened up casual seating and offers traditional, cafeteria-style dining service for which members fill out a chit, take the order to the grill, and stand in line chatting with friends and staff while waiting for their orders.

A public boardwalk was installed in the 1990s at the edge of the property—a move that was initially controversial, but is now favored by members who enjoy the people-watching opportunities it provides.

To further cultivate the property’s sense of community, the only private room is a boardroom—no private dining or cabanas are available.

“Members are looking for a place where they can run into somebody they know,” Curthoys notes.

Family Facility
Twenty years ago, The Beach Club’s summer camp director quit just days before camp was set to begin. Curthoys stepped in at the last minute and “inherited a mess,” with no organization of staff or space, and no programming scheduled. “So I went to the GM and created a budget, proper ratios between counselors and kids, established programming, and started working year-round on events,” she says.

Curthoys has directed The Beach Club’s youth program ever since, and developed its reputation to the point where she now consults and trains other clubs on best practices. She attributes her success in the area to being highly organized. “Junior sports are not lacking in the club industry—but what about the other kids?” she says. “I focus programming on socializing, because the social aspect grows your club’s culture and creates stronger bonds.

“We want to provide something that makes kids become better participants in the world,” Curthoys adds.

Children are welcome in all areas of The Beach Club, other than the adults-only Sky Bar, which offers what Chase calls “the best spot in L.A. for the view,” with Malibu, the Santa Monica pier, South Bay and Catalina Island visible on clear days. The dining room, a more elegant fine-dining area, skews older, with members required to wear slacks (given The Beach Club’s location, the dress code in other areas of the clubhouse is relaxed to the max, with flip-flops welcome).

General Manager Michael Chase, Jr., CCM notes that the relationships and connections between members and long-time employees have contributed to the club’s “immaculate culture.”

A boardwalk painted white connects all exterior activities, which also include five paddle tennis courts that can be transformed into pickleball courts, three sand volleyball courts, and an enclosed padel court (not to be confused with paddle tennis, which follows different rules). In the spring of 2016, The Beach Club installed two bocce courts that have proved successful beyond expectations (over 300 people competed in leagues during the first summer season). To ensure stability, the club’s maintenance staff dug eight feet into the sand to anchor the structures.

All About the People
With the tenure of those in supervisory roles at the club averaging 18 years (the grill manager has been on board for 47 years), and staff averaging 10 years, the relationships established between long-time staff and members are nearly as storied as the property itself.

Chase attributes the club’s long-time employment to the quality of the membership and generous benefits. Staff are also permitted to use the facilities during non-peak times, with many opting to visit the gym or use the courts before or after a shift.

“We have very little turnover here, which makes for a tightly knit community,” notes Curthoys.

But with multiple staff retirements on the horizon, Chase knows that replacing the group that has driven the club’s culture throughout the years will be a challenge—particularly given the high living costs and heavy traffic in the Santa Monica area. Further, the minimum wage in California is set to increase over the next few years, reaching $15 per hour by 2020, which may require the club to do more with fewer bodies.

Athletics Director Roland Sunga has been with the club for 30 years and plans to retire in 18 months. He considers himself “the pied piper” of the facility, encouraging participation in all things athletic. “Interaction is where it all starts,” Sunga says. “So I’m always running around, spreading the love and wholesomeness. I bring a welcoming spirit that’s more than just about sports.”

Throughout his time at the club, Sunga has seen the membership skew younger, with more emphasis on families, and finds that members now want more of a full-service club that is open every day of the week, all year long.

Maintenance Manager Rafael Chavarria (middle row, second from left) has 17 family members who work at The Beach Club.

“We continue to improve and get bigger and better,” Sunga says. “Change is the only constant, and we have to be able to adapt and roll with the punches. This club will face the future head on—remaining stagnant is the kiss of death.”

Sunga is especially proud of the property’s bocce program. “We see kids, teens and people up through age 88 playing bocce—it covers the whole spectrum, and that’s why I love it,” Sunga says. The club offers summer, fall and spring leagues, as well as an inter-club league that includes competition with the neighboring Bel-Air Bay Club.

Executive Chef JoseLuis Jimenez has been on staff for 20 years, starting as a line cook and working his way up while attending culinary school. The property offers what Jimenez calls “classic California” cuisine, from tacos to sushi.

“We want to make food that’s simple but delicious,” Jimenez says, adding that the members love changes and variety in the menu as much as he does. Each week, Jimenez develops a new dish for the “chef creations” portion of the menu, but works to accommodate members at all times—even welcoming kids into the kitchen during non-peak times to don kitchen hats and help out.

While Jimenez notes that culinary staffing can be a challenge, he works to cultivate a culture of happiness. “The first thing I tell employees is that they need to say hi and bye to everyone every day,” Jimenez says. “I like the craziness of the kitchen, but at the end of the day, happiness is translated into food. If you’re happy, the food will taste happy.”

The Beach Club offers eight dining locations, including its more upscale dining room and multiple outdoor venues that lend themselves to casual dining and also serve as prime locations for wine dinners, which are held monthly.

For Maintenance Manager Rafael Chavarria, the club is a family affair—The Beach Club employs 17 of his family members, including two of his sons. Chavarria and his staff handle all maintenance and renovations in-house.

“I like working with family—it brings a new perspective to working as a team,” says Eric Chavarria, Rafael’s son, who has been the Beach Manager for four years. “We want everyone to succeed, so we help each other out.”

Hiring and promoting from within over the years has been great for cultivating the club’s culture, Chase notes. Going forward, he says, any hires from outside of the club will be for personality and culture fit as much as skill set, seeking staff who “understand our vibe here.”

“Rarely do we receive e-mails from members that single out only one staff member as having done an exceptionally good job,” he notes. “It’s a team effort.”

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