Stockdale CC’s Executive Chef, Erik Copeland, stresses quality, freshness and teamwork.
Club chefs are leaders and experts. They’re creative, business-minded and artistic. Members trust that they will create great food, but they also trust that it will be made from the highest-quality ingredients and served at a fair value. When members choose to dine at the club, they choose to embrace the chef’s creativity and vision.
Subsequently, the influence a club chef has over a food-and-beverage operation—and the members’ opinion of their club—is profound.
Such is the case at Stockdale Country Club in Bakersfield, Calif., where Executive Chef and Food & Beverage Manager Erik Copeland brought with him a passion for culinary excellence, a love of seafood and an unwavering dedication to quality and freshness when he came to the club six years ago.
Stockdale Country Club
AT A GLANCE
Location: Bakersfield, Calif.
“Before me, members were satisfied with the food, but there was so much more potential here,” says Copeland, whose extensive culinary background includes roles in restaurants around the globe. “We took our time with it and slowly rebuilt Stockdale’s culinary foundation. I retrained the staff, hired new, passionate people, and together we modernized our menus. We began sourcing fresher, better-quality ingredients—especially seafood. And we find creative ways to make those ingredients shine on every plate we put out.”
Despite the ongoing challenges that Bakersfield has faced as an agricultural and oil-reliant town, Stockdale CC has continued its upward trajectory and today does about $1.1 million in annual F&B revenue, with 700 members and a mix of business that splits 70% toward a la carte and 30% toward banquet.
The End of the Line
“When I came to Stockdale, the quality and freshness of our seafood was not where it needed to be,” says Copeland. “So that’s where we started.”
Copeland’s guiding principle was simple: If it’s been out of the water for more than 36 hours, Stockdale will not serve it to members. The rule is hard and fast; all of the club’s cooks know it and understand why it must never be violated. All of Stockdale’s servers are happy to explain it to curious members, too. And Copeland is not afraid to retool a dish if the product that comes in isn’t up to snuff.
“We’re two hours from the ocean,” says Copeland, who spent years cultivating relationships with fish purveyors and distributors to ensure that he always gets top selections. “There’s nowhere in Bakersfield where members can get high-quality fresh fish. It’s become a point of distinction for us. We’re known for what we bring in and how we prepare it. We will not sacrifice quality—ever.”
Copeland frequently takes to the floor of the dining room to talk with members about the specials the club is running each week.
“People love to hear the backstory,” says Copeland. “I’ll tell them where the fish came from, when it was caught, the name of the boat it was brought in on, and even the name of that boat’s captain. It helps them to feel connected to [what’s being served], and to us.”
A Touchable Chef
Being on the floor is also a great way to encourage sales, mediate complaints and improve member satisfaction. It’s a big part of the reason Copeland was hired in the first place.
“When we were looking for a new chef, we wanted someone who was touchable,” says Susan Greer, Stockdale’s General Manager. “We wanted a chef who would engage with our members every day.”
Greer has been at Stockdale for nearly 18 years and was instrumental in hiring Copeland. During the search and interview process, she explained the club chef’s growing influence to Stockdale’s Board. She knew the club needed someone who could not only cook well, but also be professional, accessible and able to carry the club into its next phase.
“[Chef Copeland] truly listens to the members,” says Greer. “He connects with them and cares about them. He has extensive culinary experience, but he’s willing to make everything from a tuna melt to a multi-course wine dinner. It takes a special person to be a club chef—and he embodies that spirit.”
Like most clubs, Stockdale CC hosts dozens of activities to engage kids in club life. Last summer, General Manager Susan Greer and Executive Chef Erik Copeland hosted an etiquette class for kids.
“Our strategy was to hammer home the message by showing them what not to do,” says Greer.
When they told the kids not to run with food or plates, Copeland ran out carrying a tray full of plastic plates and food. He ran, dropped it and it splattered everywhere—including on some of his staff members.
“The kids were shocked,” says Greer. “Then they started to giggle.”
For the dessert course, they brought out ice cream sundaes and cans of whipped cream, and told the kids they shouldn’t play with their food. Then Greer demonstrated precisely what not to do.
“I took the can of whipped cream and sprayed it all over Chef [Copeland],” says Greer. “The kids thought it was hilarious and then they got a turn! Talk about being a ‘touchable chef!’ It doesn’t get much more touchable than that!”
One of Copeland’s biggest ongoing challenges at Stockdale is labor. Bakersfield is a small, agricultural town two hours north of Los Angeles, four hours south of San Francisco, and four hours west of Las Vegas—three culinary hotspots that draw a great deal of talent away from the small towns between them. But rather than settle for second-string personnel, Copeland is steadfast in his dedication to hire cooks and staff members, like Ruben Barrios, Chef de Cuisine, who aspire to be executive chefs, and to train and support them as they move forward in their careers.
“Being able to offer benefits, a 401(k), paid vacations and share my network of culinary professionals has helped us to attract talented individuals,” says Copeland, who also began an internship program with a local culinary school to bring in new talent. “Once we bring someone into the fold, we work with them hand-in-hand. We’re invested in them. And when they’re ready to move on or to stage somewhere, we help get them the interview.”
Two years ago, Copeland sent one of his cooks to stage at Coi, one of the best restaurants in San Francisco. The cook was grouped with seven other cooks and lived in a hostel on his own dime. At the end of the stage, he had risen to the top and was offered a position.
“Stockdale is extremely proud of the caliber of cooks we produce,” says Copeland. “They have a strong work ethic, drive and passion for what they do.”
And as these individuals move on in their careers, they become ambassadors for Stockdale’s culinary operation, creating another point of pride for the club.
Improvements with Impact
Beyond finding and developing stars for his staff, a big part of Copeland’s success as Stockdale’s Executive Chef comes from the support he gets from Greer, who has been instrumental in attracting younger families to the club.
“F&B has always been very important here, but as our membership becomes more food-savvy, it’s become even more important,” says Greer. “Chef [Copeland] has elevated our menus by introducing sound cooking techniques, more interesting flavors and more modern applications. He’s also helped to make the operation more efficient.”
About a year and a half ago, Stockdale CC finished an $850,000 renovation to its kitchen that increased refrigeration, storage and freezer space. New equipment was also purchased, and the layout of the kitchen was reconfigured to be more effective.
“The new setup allows us to better serve our members,” says Copeland, who changes the club’s fresh-list menu weekly to highlight the best of what’s in season. (And with a handful of members who own some of California’s top organic farms, Stockdale often has access to some of the best produce well before anyone else.)
“This week, we’re doing harissa chicken with tahini and turmeric-roasted cauliflower with marinated chickpeas,” he describes. “Next week, we’ll do a Jamaican jerk chicken with sweet potato puree and organic, fresh kale sautéed with bacon.” The potatoes and the kale, he notes, both came from the farm of a Stockdale member.
A number of Stockdale’s members are health-conscious, so Copeland goes out of his ways to make dishes that align with whatever diet they’re following.
“We do a ‘bulletproof burger’ for members on the Bulletproof Diet,” says Copeland. “It’s a grass-fed beef patty with two thick-cut slices of sweet potato. It’s gluten-free with healthy carbs, and has been one of our biggest sellers.”
Weathering the Storm
As oil prices have dropped, Stockdale CC has had to take a hard look at its operation.
“The city has lost over 5,000 jobs in the last 12 months,” says Copeland. “But we survived it in 2008, and we’ll survive it again.”
To weather the storm, the club plans to tighten its belt and reduce costs where it can.
“We have to focus on the positive and continue to bring in new membership while banquet sales slow for the time being,” says Copeland. “We need to focus on industries outside oil and agriculture, to attract new members and business.”
As the club moves forward, Copeland will be steadfast in upholding quality.
“We’ve established our integrity and we will never go back on that promise to members,” he says. “It’s become part of our identity and it’s what will make members stay with us, while also bringing new members to us.”