How a Chef Became a General Manager

Joe Napolitano, CEC, CCM, continues to rely on his experience as a chef to guide him in his current career path as the newly appointed General Manager of Bonnie Briar Country Club (Larchmont, N.Y.).

Joe Napolitano
Joe Napolitano (left) with The Larchmont Shore Club’s Executive Chef, Guillermo Valencia.

Joe Napolitano’s career began on the line. He is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, a Certified Executive Chef (CEC) through the American Culinary Federation, and has worked in some of the best kitchens in the country. When he lived in New York, he worked at the Waldorf-Astoria’s Peacock Alley, as well as Felidia, Becco and San Domenico. He was a sous chef at The Breakers (Palm Beach, Fla.) and a chef de cuisine at Westchester Country Club (Rye, N.Y.). He was “Manager of the Year” while at Hyatt Regency in Greenwich, Conn., and he held Executive Chef positions at The Patterson Club in Fairfield, Conn., and The Apawamis Club in Rye, N.Y.

Four years ago, Napolitano, who also recently earned his Certified Club Manager (CCM) designation, stepped outside the kitchen to become General Manager/COO of The Larchmont (N.Y.) Shore Club. In January, he will take on his second GM role, at the nearby Bonnie Briar Country Club, also in Larchmont.

The experiences that Napolitano garnered earlier in his career as a chef—the challenges, pressures and successes—have uniquely positioned him as he takes the next step in his career. They also help him relate especially well to the chefs he directs as a GM. Before Napolitano left for Bonnie Briar, we spoke with him about his career path and his relationship with The Larchmont Shore Club’s Executive Chef, Guillermo Valencia.

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C2C: Why did you leave the kitchen to become a gm?

JN: I’ve always been interested in the “bigger picture.” Dining is a key contributor to a club’s success, but there is so much more outside the kitchen, and that has always fascinated me. As a chef, I would often think about how I’d do things differently if given the opportunity to be a GM. When I was contacted about the position at Larchmont, it was a chance to finally put my ideas into action.

C2C: Do you miss it?
JN: I miss the creativity. I miss bouncing ideas off other chefs and coming up with specials that are new and innovative. But I welcome the challenges of being a general manager.

C2C: Why was Larchmont an especially good fit?
JN: Because it was a foodie club and the F&B operation was in growth mode. They needed a GM who understood F&B and could help guide them into the future.

C2C: Did your members perceive the club as an F&B-focused operation?
JN: Absolutely. Our complete budget was $6 million, and 50 percent of that revenue was from F&B. Their dollars spoke volumes about how they used their club.

C2C: When you came to Larchmont, there was a tenured chef here, right?
JN: Yes. He had been here for 25 years. And while he was very good, the operation was expanding quickly, and he decided to move on.

C2C: What were you looking for in his replacement?
JN: It sounds corny, but I was essentially looking for me. I wanted a chef with high-end hotel and fine-dining experience who could use that know-how to help elevate the F&B operation. I also needed someone who understood the intricacies of club dining and working with and feeding members.

C2C: When Guillermo Valencia’s resume came across your desk, what did you think?
JN: That I had found a needle in the haystack. After we conducted the interviews, I hired him on a trial basis. Six months in, he has proven to be a valuable asset to the club.

C2C: What do you appreciate most about Chef Valencia?
JN: His overwhelming desire to please the membership on a one-to-one basis. As club chefs know, it’s nearly impossible to please every member. But if you reach as many members as he has, you’ll hit a home run. Chef is incredibly accommodating. He’s gone above and beyond to please the membership. He has a true service mentality.

C2C: How did F&B grow at The Larchmont Shore Club while you were on board?
JN: When I started, our annual F&B revenue was $1.8 million. Currently, F&B revenue exceeds $3 million.

C2C: What was your F&B philosophy at Larchmont?
JN: Before I accepted the General Manager position, I knew how F&B-focused it was so I visited the webiste, Yelp, and counted the number of dining establishments members have to pass before they get to the club. I found that the average member passes 63 different dining venues. So what makes them choose us?

Trends are important, but tradition, quality and service are equally important, and that’s what differentiated us from those other 63 choices. Those fundamentals shaped how we approached F&B.

C2C: Before you left, you brought the foodservice operation at Larchmont’s Casino back in-house. Why?
JN: Dining at the Casino has always been concessioned out, but when the club embarked on a $400,000 renovation that included building a state-of-the-art kitchen, it provided an important opportunity for us to extend the caliber of food we served in the clubhouse to the Casino. We opened in June and in our first season, we did very well.

C2C: How well?
JN: We broke even by the end of the summer and greatly improved member satisfaction. [Editor’s Note: The Casino is open Memorial Day through Labor Day.]

C2C: What do you hope to achieve in your new role at Bonnie Briar CC?
JN: I hope to achieve similar successes with F&B growth and increased member satisfaction.

C2C: What attributes of being a chef apply to your role as a general manager?
JN: There is a lot of financial management involved in being a chef. You’re in charge of food costs, labor costs and shopping for the best products at the best value. You’re also managing a staff and focusing on member satisfaction. All of that translates to being a GM.

C2C: Do you regret not starting the process of becoming a GM sooner?
JN: Not necessarily. I do regret not starting the process to earn my CCM sooner. But I truly believe all the experiences I’ve had over the course of my career make me the manager I am today. I draw on those experiences frequently.

C2C: What inspired you to earn your CCM in November?
JN: I believe certification is an important part of personal and professional growth. To earn those credentials, you must study and put in the hours. Working toward my CCM helped to ensure that I’m doing things correctly and to the best of my ability. It has benefited me as a person and as a GM.

C2C: You also have your CEC. Do you believe certification is important for chefs?
JN: I do. It shows that you have a dedication to your craft and a loyalty to an organization that supports your industry. It shows your desire for continuing education and self-improvement. When you earn those credentials, you gain a sense of pride and accomplishment among your peers. It holds you accountable to a higher standard.

C2C: If you could tell chefs one thing about club management, what would it be?
JN: Always persevere in any given situation, no matter how tough it gets. Always give your all, and spend time in the dining room listening to your members. 

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