Known for its two award-winning golf courses, Desert Willow Golf Resort is making a new name for itself in Palm Desert’s growing culinary scene.
In traditional “golf only” facilities, food and beverage tends to be a back-burner priority, while golf, lessons and tournaments steal the spotlight. But at Desert Willow Golf Resort in Palm Desert, Calif., food and beverage is anything but second-string.
The dining operation has become such a critical part of Desert Willow’s overall success, in fact, that last year its owner, the city of Palm Desert, approved a $4.8 million, three-phase project that would expand the clubhouse kitchen, Lakeview Terrace and parking lot to accommodate the resort’s burgeoning F&B business.
F&B Profile: Desert Willow Golf Resort
Resort Location: Palm Desert, Calif.
“When the city built this facility twelve years ago, it never dreamed the food and beverage program would be as successful as it is,” says General Manager Richard Mogensen, who has been with the resort for two years. “But the city’s culinary scene has exploded, and the market has grown more sophisticated in what it looks for when dining out.”
Desert Willow, which is managed by KemperSports, has successfully evolved its food and beverage program in step with the market’s growth, to earn a legitimate standing in the Valley as a dining destination.
For years, the resort’s staff, led by Jim Carvajal, Director of Food & Beverage, did this while operating from less-than-adequate facilities during less-than-prime times. (To avoid direct competition with local restaurants, the city only allows Desert Willow to operate during breakfast and lunch. A light bar menu is available in the early evenings as well.)
“The back-of-the-house facilities were inadequate for the number of covers we served,” says Mogensen. “Storage space was non-existent, too. But because of the quality of our food and the service we provide, we attracted business.”
So much so that pre-renovation wait times would soar to upwards of 60 minutes for Terrace dining during the lunch hour.
“For a long time, the city thought we only catered to golfers,” says Mogensen. “The truth is that 80% of our dining business has nothing to do with golf.”
In 2009, Desert Willow management finally got the chance to outline needed changes for its F&B operation and present them to ownership. The goal was to highlight the operational issues that needed to be addressed in both the front and back of the house, while projecting the potential revenue growth that could be gained from an expansion and renovation.
Each head of Desert Willow’s culinary operation team had special needs as the plan was devised.
Carvajal’s biggest priority was to be able to accommodate as many guests at one time, both in terms of available seating and from a service perspective. “If the front of the house is busy, the back of the house is even busier,” he notes.
Mogensen wanted to maximize the experience of the guests, to offer better visual impact as well as better service. “Dining in the desert is all about being outside in the season,” he says. “The weather is great, and the scenery makes it truly a remarkable place to be.”
Euca Burrows White, the resort’s Director of Catering, added a dedicated banquet line to the wish list. “We needed to be able to service both a restaurant and a catering operation simultaneously,” she says.
With a chef as yet unnamed, everyone was also concerned with how the kitchen would be designed, what pieces of equipment would be included, and how the space would flow.
Together, the city and KemperSports management team came up with a plan that was presented to the city council—and after a few revisions and budget adjustments, it was approved. An architect was selected, and everyone set to work ensuring that the needs of Desert Willow’s culinary operation would now be adequately met.
F&B Outlets at Desert Willow Golf Resort
Desert Willow’s Banquet Space includes:
Dining space at Desert Willow includes:
“We also offer Golf Course Beverage and Food Cart Service and a 9th Hole Food Kiosk on the Mountain View Golf Course,” notes Richard Mogensen, General Manager.
Six Months Later…
Desert Willow reopened for business in January 2011. Nearly 65 percent of the clubhouse had been renovated and 5,200 square feet had been added, tripling the size of the kitchen and storage space areas. A new two-tiered terrace that measures 12,000 square feet and can seat 250 comfortably in the main section was also unveiled. Adding to the allure of the space, the terrace faces the resort’s Firecliff golf course, with a backdrop of the Little San Bernardino Mountains. “It’s truly the best view in the Valley,” says White.
Two massive steel roofs cover a portion of the terraces, and a granite outdoor bar around a cozy fireplace and fire pit offers a unique vantage point for watching golfers finish up their rounds. Meanwhile, in the reconfigured bar and lounge areas, flat-screen TVs were added along with a fireplace, to give this area a private club feel.
“The expansion of the clubhouse allows for multiple events to take place simultaneously,” says White, who has seen event business and inquiries increase significantly since reopening. “We can now run an event discretely, without impacting our public guests. We’re getting calls from every sector, including weddings, corporate outings, meetings and private functions.”
New Man, New Menu
Along with Desert Willow’s brand-new kitchen came a brand-new Executive Chef, Francois Gaertner, who was previously with Bighorn Golf Club in Palm Desert.
Cooking primarily from scratch, Gaertner, who hails from France and specializes in American comfort food, took the best dishes from the resort’s previous menu and added new, more modern dishes of his own.
Desert Willow’s new culinary arsenal now includes favorites like Lobster Macaroni & Cheese with cheddar and Monterrey Jack, topped with Parmesan bread crumbs and served with a petite pear salad of mixed greens, fresh pears, candied walnuts and gorgonzola cheese in a walnut vinaigrette. The homemade crab cakes, which come with avocado cream and a Baja coleslaw for a slightly Southwestern twist, are also quite popular.
“We always serve what the guests want to eat,” says Gaertner. “They are our first priority, so we are constantly on the floor asking for feedback.”
Other popular dishes include the Chicken Pot Pie and Papaya Mandarin Salad, both of which are on the lunch menu. On the bar menu, the shrimp tacos and an onion ring tower round out the list of favorites.
“We will change the menu seasonally,” says Gaertner, who averages between 400 and 500 covers at lunch.
“We are now a world-class facility with great flexible space and resources to handle multiple events simultaneously,” says Mogensen. “The food and beverage expansion adds to the golf business and makes Desert Willow Golf Resort a more attractive and professional venue for tournaments and business. We are more competitive nationally, as well.
“Cover counts have doubled, and banquet inquiries have increased 25%,” he adds. “The market is talking about Desert Willow as the destination to go to for not only golf, but now for great food and beverage as well.”