• Club name/location: West Lake Country Club, Augusta, Ga.
Georgia’s golfing mecca now has a go-to destination for good fun and exciting club food, too.
The dates on the two club newsletters are exactly three years apart. In terms of how they reflect the startling transformation of the food-and-beverage program at West Lake Country Club in Augusta, Ga., though, it might as well be 3,000 years.
The first newsletter, from February 2007, touts the upcoming Valentine’s Dinner on the front, along with a plug for the Martini Club and a Member Notice about upcoming Board elections.
The front of the newsletter from February 2010 is devoted entirely to the Valentine’s Day event. Still, while the menu for this year’s dinner is clearly more elaborate, and the per-person price has gone up $2.50 (to $65), this isn’t where the extent of how fully things have evolved really becomes apparent.
|Live music in the Lounge is now a two-nights-a-week staple at West Lake, but members see every F&B occasion as a special event, even when no music or dancing is involved.|
That happens as you go through and compare what’s inside each issue. In the 2007 version, you’re hard-pressed to find any further indication of anything special or exciting about F&B at West Lake, with tiny blurbs about Dinner to Go and the Sunday Country-Style Buffet fighting for attention among other headlines such as Automatic External Defibrillators, Need Something Notarized? and Hit a House? Break a Window?
Turn to page two of the latest newsletter, though, and Food and Beverage continues to get top billing—this time to promote 10 other special events, in addition to the Valentine’s dinner, that will be held in just the first 20 days of February—everything from “Two for Twenty [Dollar] Tuesdays” to “Kids Eat Free Every Thursday Night” to a High Tea and a Low Country Boil and Buffet.
West Lake’s remarkably swift journey out of the era when members still roamed its property in search of everyday F&B excitement began to unfold shortly after the February 2007 newsletter was published. The grand reopening of West Lake’s renovated clubhouse, first built when the club was founded as part of a gated community developed in 1969, was held in September 2007.
By itself, the renovation didn’t bring the club into a new period of advanced culinary stimulation. But the project helped West Lake take an important first step, by creating the blueprint, literally, for a more food-friendly habitat that would be created through a unique “four-leaf clover” design for the building’s main dining area. The four rooms arranged in that pattern, all of roughly the same size and all served by a main central kitchen, were set up to position family and adult dining, and accompanying party rooms for each, as equally appealing, equal-status choices (see floor plan).
“It’s a huge advantage,” says West Lake’s Director of Operations, Bert Morales, about the layout and room setup. “It gives us tremendous flexibility depending on what kind of [F&B] event we want to plan for a given night, be it a family-oriented night or a ‘date night.’
“It also gives members a choice every time they come here,” Morales adds. “They can turn left if they feel like being in a more casual atmosphere on that night, or turn right if they want a quieter and more romantic setting instead.” (And usually the choice can be made with the very last step before turning in either direction, as the club’s dress codes for each room are almost identical, except denim and shorts are prohibited in the adult room.)
|By earning members’ steady and enthusiastic approval, West Lake’s F&B operation has swung from losing well over $100,000 annually to putting over $140,000 in net operating income on the club’s bottom line.|
The next key part of the dawning of a new age for food and beverage at West Lake came two months after the renovated clubhouse was reopened, when Morales arrived to replace the club’s General Manager, who had retired. As described in the November 2009 issue of C&RB (“Winning Teams”), Morales was a lifelong restaurant veteran who had never expected to work in a club environment until he was approached by West Lake’s Board and presented with a challenge he couldn’t resist taking on. “I think the key moment,” he now recalls, “was when they showed me their F&B financials and I remember thinking, ‘You’re losing how much?’
The announcement published in the club newsletter about Morales’ appointment made it very clear why he was seen as the man for the job at hand, why the club now wanted to emphasize operations in his title rather than general management, and what his primary mission would be:
“Bert comes to us from Carrabba’s Italian Grille, where he was a Managing Partner hired specifically to save the failing business,” the announcement read. “His background consists of in-depth experience starting up, turning around and managing high-quality operations. He is dedicated to building and managing organizations that strive for excellence in dining, and delivering customer service that is second to none. He is ready and willing to take West Lake Country Club to the next level.”
Finding Good Help
Morales immediately set out to pull together the team that would be needed to help West Lake reach these goals. He quickly saw that some on the existing staff weren’t ever going to be able to adopt the attitude and grasp the approaches needed to reverse the long-held acceptance at the club that it was OK to lose money in F&B. At the same time, many others who were already on board were eager for the opportunity to show the important contributions they could make to help break the pattern.
|Sunday brunches at West Lake that have been consistently attracting well over 200 guests have become “the talk of the town” for the combination of value and quality that they offer.|
Knowing, too, that it would be important to extend the reach of, and belief in, the power of F&B through all of the club’s activities, Morales made a special point of enlisting the help of key managers from other operating departments. Two of his strongest advocates in this regard have been Head Golf Professional Kirk Hice and Member Services Director Emily Crider, both of whom also came to West Lake in 2007.
Even in a golfing mecca like Augusta, Hice says, food and beverage has now become a vital component of a complete club experience. “We tag-team [golf and F&B] every chance we get,” he says. “If we can ensure that members will have as good an experience in the dining room as on the golf course, that makes it easy for them to set their calendars around our events and decide where they want to spend their time and money.”
As West Lake conducted an initiation-fee special (reducing the required upfront down payment) that helped to add over 100 new members in 2009, the buzz created around the club’s revived F&B offer was a key factor in first attracting prospects and then closing many of the sales, Crider adds.
“Our [Ellis Maples-designed] golf course has been well-known for some time, but now it’s really helped to also be able to suggest, with much more confidence and enthusiasm, that [prospective] members should just come in and experience the great food here, too,” Crider says. “Having them come for our Sunday brunch [which now routinely seats over 200] has been especially effective, as one of the best ways to show what the club has to offer and how it can come alive.”
|The F&B team led by (left to right) Director of Operations Bert Morales, Executive Chef Matthew Chiras, and F&B Service Director Erick Bowe have brought menu and event choices to members that now match the variety of venue options offered by West Lake’s renovated clubhouse.
To ensure service and quality on the F&B side, Morales relies on a staff and operation led by F&B Service Director Erick Bowe, who brought the strong combination of impeccable club training gained while working at the highly respected Sage Valley Golf Club (C&RB, May 2008) with the valuable experience of running his own catering business.
Finally, because there are always important stages of evolutionary progress that can’t be totally explained and just have to be chalked up to providence, there’s the story of how the picture was completed when new Executive Chef Matthew Chiras came to West Lake at the end of 2009. While Morales was traveling throughout the Southeast to interview candidates, Chiras, a Culinary Institute graduate with a strong club background in Massachusetts (Vespers CC) was preparing to move so his wife could attend the Medical College of Georgia. He dropped by West Lake, not even knowing a position was open, and left his resume on Morales’ desk.
Now, West Lake has not only added a talented and experienced club chef to its team, it has brought authentic New England flair to its menus to give its cuisine a real distinction in the region. Combined with tight cost controls and operating efficiencies that Morales and Bowe have instituted, drawing on what they’ve learned through years of experience with high-volume operations, F&B at West Lake has already made the full leap from perennial money-loser to a producer of real profits ($140,000 in net operating F&B income, off $1.5 million in revenues, in 2009). And it’s all been done without a food minimum in sight.
“Everything has dovetailed together nicely,” Morales says. “And we still have lots of room to grow. It shows what can be accomplished when you refuse to accept that things have to stay the way they always were. ”