Lawrence McFadden, CMC, General Manager of The Union Club of Cleveland, was able to replace the club’s food-and-beverage committee with a weekly chef’s community table. Here’s how.
The menu needs of private clubs are varied and vast. Picture a family sitting down to dine together at their club. The grandfather orders liver and onions, while his son orders a steak. His granddaughter orders poached fish on leafy greens, while his great granddaughter, who recently became a vegan, is wondering what the chef can make for her a la minute that will satisfy her new ethical diet—and taste really good.
Until the restaurant has your name on it, you must professionally balance between, “yes,” “no,” or “not available” for all menu requests. Some chefs often become frustrated when members deconstruct their dishes in the middle of a busy service, but we’re in the member business and our job is unique. We want to satisfy our members, but at what cost?
In 2015, the Union Club had a food and beverage committee. The mission of that committee was to review menus on behalf of the clubs’ population. The meetings were scheduled once a month and during these meetings, our Chef would present several dishes while our sommelier poured wines. Members would offer feedback and our job was to figure out how to apply that feedback.
The problem with these meetings wasn’t that members wanted to have a culinary voice. It was that dining experiences are highly subjective. Remember that family I mentioned earlier? Grandfather is not going to want the same menu as great granddaughter. So how can a small committee truly speak for the majority of the membership, especially in a club with 1,600 members?
As the newly appointed General Manager, I had an idea. I suggested we begin hosting quarterly tasting dinners that aligned with our seasonal menu changes in place of the food and beverage committee meetings. During these tasting dinners, we’d invite thirty members, free of charge, to sample six to eight menu items. (Beverage would be charged based on consumption.) We’d seat these members at banquet-style rounds so as to create a sense of community and encourage them to share their thoughts and opinions with one another.
At each place setting, we put out a printed menu that featured a rating system and offered a few lines for comments. The guest lists, which changed each time, would consist of Board or standing committees, members who dined in the Grille restaurant often or new members who needed culinary exposure. We also used SurveyMonkey to measure our guests’ satisfaction. As a result, we had an immense amount of data that we could use to guide our menu development. Plus, we had exposed two hundred members to this process, which gave the club a much broader culinary voice than the food and beverage committee ever had. We were finally able to move away from providing individual member favorites and instead identify true club favorites, while pushing the culinary envelope to introduce new dishes, flavors and techniques.
Ultimately, the Food and Beverage committee disbanded, but these tasting dinners evolved.
When we brought on Arnaud Berthelier, CMC, as our Executive Chef, he replaced the quarterly dinners with a weekly chef’s community table. During the community table, twelve members sit at a dedicated table in the middle of the a la carte dining room, surrounded by other members. Chef prepares five courses featuring the best of what’s available in the market while our sommelier offers a host of pairings.
The experience is by reservation only and is sold out through the end of the summer. It has given our membership an opportunity to indulge in our chef’s culinary creativity, while allowing them to share in a unique culinary experience with other members they may otherwise never directly interact with.
As a General Manager, my challenge is satisfying members while balancing our chef’s desire to be creative and moving the operation forward so that we never grow stagnant. The shift in culinary perspective has been profound. We went from being dependable to being impressive and I’m proud of our team and excited about what the future holds.