How the CC of Buffalo Transformed Its Dining Operation and Itself

By | November 15th, 2017

GM/COO Tim Minahan and recently appointed Executive Chef Joe Piazza plan to take the Country Club of Buffalo—and its newly renovated dining spaces—to the next level.

For old-line clubs deeply rooted in history and tradition, change can be difficult. But when change is embraced, it can lead to a dynamic and often positive shift in the way a club satisfies its members.

That has been the case at the Country Club of Buffalo (N.Y.), which was founded in 1889 and has nearly 500 members. A recent wave of change to CCB’s $2.1 million food-and-beverage operation has improved the club’s ability to serve its members throughout the year.

Seeing the Future Through the Past

More than a decade ago, CCB embarked on a series of renovations that put a new emphasis on casual dining. At that time, a lounge bar was added in a small room down the hall from the club’s two main dining spaces, the Terrace and the First Tee. As casual dining grew more popular with members, so did the newly built bar.

But as the club evolved over the next decade, the bar became inadequate.

“It was grossly undersized for the way members are using the club, especially in the past few years,” says General Manager and Chief Operating Officer Tim Minahan, CCM, CCE. “It was also disconnected from the main dining spaces near the center of the clubhouse.”

The bar wasn’t the only part of CCB’s F&B operation in need of attention. The Terrace—which offers an uninterrupted view of the 18th hole and the valley below—also needed some structural updates, including a new sliding glass door system. So when the Board approved a $1.1 million renovation to the Terrace, members decided to include the bar as part of that project.

To fix the bar, though, it needed to be relocated. “That’s when the ‘Pink Room’ became the focus of the committee,” says Minahan, who has been with CCB for more than 15 years.

A Well-Decorated Hallway

(l. to r.) Arien Singletary, PM Line Cook; Samantha Owen, PM Sauté Chef; Jason Morgan, PM Sous Chef; Joe Piazza, CEC, Executive Chef; Joe Sledz, Chef de Cuisine; Grace Peters, PM Garde Manger; and George Taylor, PM Broiler Chef

The Pink Room had served as the club’s formal social venue for decades. But as formal cocktailing went by the wayside, so did the use of the room. “It was basically just a well-decorated corridor connecting the Terrace to the First Tee,” says Minahan.

Because of its prime location, the member committee decided the Pink Room would be the perfect spot for a new, bigger bar. An architect was hired and a design was developed.

“We didn’t want to lose the fireplace or change the feeling of the room,” says Minahan. “We wanted it to look like it’s always been this way, so it was critical to match the moldings and wainscoting. The carpenter was meticulous, and it turned out better than we could have hoped.”

CCB’s new bar seats 14 members and anchors what is now the Club Room. There are two large-screen televisions behind the bar, as well as cocktail tables and soft seating throughout the rest of the room.

Behind the bar, a French door was added to connect the Club Room’s bar to the Terrace’s bar. “It’s much more efficient for staff as they move between the two spaces,” says Minahan.

Transforming the Terrace

In addition to a new service bar connected to the Club Room and the sliding glass door system, CCB also removed drywall in the Terrace to expose most of the original stone walls, and repaired the floor.

Piazza makes it a point to visit with members no matter if they’re dining in the Terrace, Club Room or First Tee (pictured), to learn more about their preferences.

“Because it was formerly outdoor space, the grade of the Terrace slopes away from the building,” says Minahan. “In order to fit the new door system, we had to remove and relevel the floor.”

The ceiling was also redone, and new carpet and lighting were added. The service bar was reconstructed, and every finish in the space was updated.

Down the hall, in what is now called the Lyman Room (named after the clubhouse’s original designer, Duane Lyman), the old bar has been removed and the space has been restructured to serve as a private function room.

The Pine Room, one of the club’s living rooms, also saw some minor updates. Most of the furniture and the carpet from the Pink Room was still usable so the club decided to reuse both in the Pine Room in addition to new drapery and lighting.

“We went into the project with a budget of $1.1 million and plans to only update the Terrace,” says Minahan. “But it ultimately became a $1.6 million renovation [through which] we updated the Terrace, the Club Room, the Pine Room and the Lyman Room.’ 

The new spaces reopened for member use on May 10th.

“The membership was very supportive of the entire project,” Minahan reports. In fact, 82% supported the change in format.

“They saw the value the new space would bring to the club,” he says. “And the continuity in committee leadership throughout the process made it very seamless.”

Meanwhile, in the Kitchen…

Clubhouse renovations weren’t the only changes afoot at CCB in early 2017.

Once he came on board, Executive Chef Joe Piazza hired Joe Sledz (left) as Chef de Cuisine.

“Last fall, we had an opening for a sous chef, but decided it would be wise to wait to fill the position until after the [renovation] project was complete,” says Minahan. “Then on the day I returned home from helping with the Masters tournament, our Executive Chef put in his notice. He had been with us for six years, but he received an offer from Fishers Island Club in New York that was too good to pass up.”

The previous chef’s last day was April 15th, which meant CCB would have to make it through its grand reopening without an executive or sous chef.

“Fortunately, our Banquet Chef, Phil Hitzges, and our PM Sous Chef, Jason Morgan, are very talented, and were able to run the operation until we filled the open positions,” says Minahan.

As the search for a new chef began, CCB was very specific in what the club wanted, and would expect, from the winning candidate.

“We needed a working chef,” says Minahan. “We also wanted someone with a proven track record with clubs who could handle our busy a la carte operation.”

When Minahan learned that Joe Piazza, Executive Chef of Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md., was interested in the position, he knew it could lead to the right match.

“[Piazza] is from this area, so I knew his background and I had some interaction with him when he was at Oak Hill Country Club [in Rochester, N.Y.],” says Minahan. “And when we first met about the position, [Piazza] had this self-confidence that no other candidate had. He was clearly comfortable in this setting, and his maturity and skill level were unmatched.”

Soon, the club made an offer that Piazza accepted.

“Congressional was a $10 million operation,” he says in explaining his interest in coming to CCB. “I was spending too much time at work. I needed a better balance, and I wanted to move back closer to my family”

All of the recent changes, and plans for the future, that were in motion at CCB sweetened the deal for him.

“Nothing was broken,” says Piazza. “Plus, the membership is fully engaged, the facility is in pristine condition, and the management team is very supportive. Everyone I met during the interview process was so excited. It was infectious. I needed to be a part of this place.”

Making Friends

“In the short time he’s been here, we’ve already seen a lot of positive change,” says Minahan about his new Executive Chef. “One of the biggest things I emphasized with him is front-of-house and heart-of-house harmony. [Piazza] also wants a great relationship with the staff, and he goes out of his way to make sure the two sides are working as one.”

Case in point: After his first Friday-night service, Piazza came out into the dining room to ask one of the managers who has been at the club for 30 years how she thought it went. They agreed it went well, and Piazza gave her a high-five.

“She was shocked,” says Minahan. “In all her time here, she’s never had a chef who was as approachable as he is.”

This accessibility extends to the membership as well; Piazza is on the floor interacting with CCB’s members daily. “The best way to learn about your membership is to talk to them,” he jokes.

Soon after he came on board, Piazza hired Joe Sledz as sous chef. Not long after, Sledz was promoted to Chef de Cuisine.

“I wanted someone with club experience,” says Piazza. “[Sledz] had been the Chef de Cuisine at The Greenbrier, but was looking to move back to the area. It was a perfect fit.

“He’s a bundle of energy, but we work together really well,” he continues. “We’ve only known each other for a short time, but he can already anticipate what I’m thinking.”

What’s Next

As CCB moves beyond a busy summer and into the fall and holiday season, Piazza plans to further develop menus for all parts of the clubhouse.

“In the short term, I’d like to get a better handle on the new small-plates menu we have running in the Club Room,” he says. “We’re going to introduce some new items that are more in line with what the members are looking for.

“In the long term, I’d love to see us double our F&B revenue within five years,” he continues. “I’d also like to develop an intern/extern program, do some of our own dry-aging, and bring more pastry in-house.”

How will Minahan support Piazza as he pursues these goals?

“My job is to make sure he has the tools he needs, whether they be human, equipment or time,” says Minahan. “We’ve already invested in a talented chef de cuisine, and I think [Piazza’s] skill level will attract other talent as well. Beyond that, I think I just need to stay out of his way and give him the latitude to do what he knows is possible.”

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