SUMMING IT UP
• Know your audience. If your club has a highly diverse membership, you’ll need a variety of appetizers.
• Keep prices reasonable. Factor in ingredient cost, portion size and your desired profit margin.
• Watch prep time. Offering complex appetizers can cut into overall kitchen staff time.
The Anglebrook Golf Club in Lincolndale, N.Y., which Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director Susan Nelson describes as a “quiet club,” doesn’t have a food and beverage minimum. Without one, encouraging member dining can be a challenge. Anglebrook faces other obstacles, too: The majority of its memberships are corporate ones, and because the golf club is located in a remote area of Westchester County north of New York City, it shuts down from roughly December to March.
However, during the rest of the year, Anglebrook’s kitchen crew entices members with an extensive appetizer menu. “Our appetizers, soups and salads are the main attraction,” says Nelson (featured in “Supper That Sings,” C&RB, May 2007). “Our entrees are a tough sell on weekdays.”
Last fall, the club offered seven appetizers. “Two were designed to share,” Nelson says. “On the days when members want to come in for cocktails after golf and maybe just want a snack, they are easily persuaded to [split one].”
When planning an appetizer menu, cost and prep time are common concerns.
However, another factor may play a huge role in your menu’s success: the weather.
Appetizers and lighter fare may sell better in summer, especially if members flock to your club to golf or swim.
“Generally, dining is seasonal,” says Todd Daniels, Food & Beverage Manager at Willow Bend Country Club in Van Wert, Ohio. “In summertime, we do more appetizers and sandwiches. We know in the wintertime they’re going to order more meals.”
Prep time is also a concern. Because many clubs experience a higher volume in summer, harder-to-prepare appetizers may be put on hold.
“We do the more complex things in winter,” says Gary Schneider, Clubhouse Manager at Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minn. “We’re very careful to expedite food in summertime because we’re so cramped for time.”
However, not all clubs trim offerings when the temperature drops. Anglebrook Golf Club in Lincolndale. N.Y., offers seven appetizers in fall.
“Most peoples’ appetites increase with the cool weather,” says Executive Chef and Food and Beverage Director Susan Nelson. “I thought it was important to offer a great variety that people couldn’t resist.”
When creating an appetizer menu, cost and complexity can be a concern. However, today’s clubs are finding that inventive appetizers can prompt members to eat more often at the club—and in the process, create a longer, more satisfying (and more profitable) dining experience.
Mixing Up the Menu
The Northland Country Club in Duluth, Minn. changes its menu about six times a year, to ensure that it serves a diverse array of appetizers.
“Duluth’s population is a little over 100,000 people—and there are only two clubs,” says Gary Schneider, Northland’s Clubhouse Manager. “[We need to include] things for well-traveled members and for people with younger kids.”
Northland’s winter menu includes five appetizers—chicken wings, toasted ravioli, and three new options: oven-baked nachos, pumpkin ravioli in sage brown butter sauce, and a hummus dip duo.
Because Willow Bend Country Club serves a small community of 12,000 in Van Wert, Ohio, and offers casual dining, Food & Beverage Manager Todd Daniels doesn’t feel a need to offer a variety of globally influenced dishes.
Still, when he came on board two years ago, Daniels noticed the club hadn’t changed its appetizer menu for several years.
“Willow Benders,” the club’s signature appetizer (french-fried potato snippets topped with cheese, ranch dressing, bacon and green onions), remains a constant. However, the club now tries to mix up its other appetizers each year.
This year, Willow Bend removed four items from its menu. One was cut because it was pre-prepared; the club also stopped serving its spinach artichoke dip, prime rib skewers and bruschetta appetizers.
“For a club that only serves about 500 members, it’s not really necessary to have 10 appetizers,” Daniels says.
Determining Price Point
Serving a number of different appetizers can be expensive. As food prices rose last year, ingredient costs became a concern for many clubs.
“If we’re using ingredients in an appetizer, I would like to see us use it in something else as well, so we don’t worry about turning food over,” says Schneider says. To help reduce waste, the club offers both a halibut salad and entrée.
Anglebrook also attempts to make the most of its ingredients. “I try to use ingredients that I may also be using for an upcoming event,” Nelson says.
Estimating what to charge for each appetizer can be tricky. “We know what percentage we’d like to run our food costs at, and we try to keep things in that range—33 percent,” Schneider says. That doesn’t work out for all Northland menu items—shrimp and steak, for example, cost more. But the least expensive items balance out the more expensive ones, Schneider says—most of the time.
“For a year, we bit the bullet and just watched our costs going up, and then we were forced to raise our prices a little bit,” he notes. “We’d rather do that than cut the portion size and variety of food we offer.”
Rising food costs have also prompted some clubs to simplify their appetizers. “I kept the ingredients simple and recipes uncomplicated, to keep menu pricing from getting too far off from what we’ve given members in the past,” Nelson says.
Portion size is another way to control costs. Appetizers should make members hungry for more—not cut into entrée and dessert sales.
“Portions should really be based as a tasting,” Nelson says. At Anglebrook, she says, appetizers are “properly portioned to whet [member] appetites so they can order three or four courses.”
Preparing for Prep Time
Preparation time can also factor into cost. If a club’s kitchen staff is constantly being pulled aside to construct complex appetizers, overall service can suffer.
Because Northland’s kitchen is on the first floor, all food must travel up a dumbwaiter to get to the club’s second floor restaurant, which greatly affects appetizer service. “You wonder, can we keep it warm? Will it look as good two minutes later?” Schneider says.
Timing, for example, proved problematic with Northland’s chicken satay appetizer. The preparation, which involved poaching the chicken and breading it with nuts and a peanut sauce, “took forever,” Schneider reports.
“If you get three orders, you’re in trouble, because you have to do three things at once,” he notes. As a result, Schneider no longer plans to offer the satay again during the busy summer season.
Staff size can also be a concern. Since Nelson only has two line cooks, prep time has to be a constant consideration.
“I have a very small staff, so time and execution are always my second thought, after the dish itself,” she says. “Also, most of our members are working with time restraints and appreciate quick delivery.”
Once a club has determined which appetizers it will serve and has maximized the cost and preparation efficiencies for each, there’s only one thing left to do: Sell them all to members.
“I have meetings and tastings with my waitstaff each time a new menu is presented, as well as when I see a lull in sales of one particular item,” Nelson says.
Even though servers may know that selling extras can increase their check average, a little push doesn’t hurt, Daniels says. Because many clubs have a set service charge, servers may know they will make some money—but they can always make more.
“A good server can talk someone into getting an appetizer if they want to,” Daniels says.
However, it’s also important to remember that club dining differs from restaurant dining. You don’t want to oversell to your members, who are already regular customers.
“We’re careful not to repeat [our appetizer promotions] too much to the same people,” Schneider says. “That’s one thing about a club: Members come back the next day.”