In an interview with a trade magazine that focuses on the foodservice, restaurant and hospitality industry in metropolitan New York, Tom Nevin, General Manager of the historic club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., described “the evolution and current state of country-club dining” and what it now takes to deliver on members’ heightened expectations in all aspects of club operations.
Total Food Service, a trade magazine focusing on the foodservice, restaurant, and hospitality industries in metropolitan New York, recently interviewed Tom Nevin, General Manager of Sleepy Hollow Country Club in Briarcliff Manor, N.Y., on how he seeks to deliver member satisfaction in a demanding environment where members “want a club they can be proud of.”
Nevin, whose career has included positions at clubs throughout the East Coast, including Hope Valley Country Club in Durham, N.C., Trump National Golf Club in Sterling, Va., and the Robert Trent Jones Golf Club in Gainesville, Va., has been striving to meet that goal every day since arriving at Sleepy Hollow in 2014, Total Food Service wrote. “Each day gets better,” Nevin told the publication in describing how he looks forward to many more years of meeting the needs of the club’s members.
Here is the full interview that Total Food Service conducted with Nevin about the changing demands of the private club business and the evolution and current state of country-club dining:
Q: Tom, how did you first get into the club industry?
A: I was fortunate to have worked for Restaurant Associates right out of college. I spent six years with Restaurant Associates and worked at five different locations, including the West Side Tennis Club (Forest Hills, N.Y.). After Restaurant Associates, I worked for the Waldorf Astoria Hotel as a Catering Sales Manager. In 2000 I began my first day as a club manager at Indian Harbor Yacht Club in Greenwich, Conn.
Q: How has the club industry evolved since you began your career?
A: In a positive way, the members of private clubs expect more from their club. They expect faster greens, resort-style pools, activities for all ages, and cuisine that competes with successful restaurants.
Q: Could you expand on what the members want out of their club?
A: Rightfully so, they want a club that they can be proud of. It is my job to know what they would like and then explain what needs to be done to accomplish that objective.
Q: What is your approach to recruiting, training and maintaining a great staff?
A: I believe our managers need to be role models and lead by example. I park where our employees park; I help move tables and carry bags.
With regards to recruiting, I have had great success finding people through colleagues. I am always open to looking at candidates from the hotel and catering world, because I worked in those industries before coming to clubs.
Training employees is a never-ending process. If we as managers enable low-energy employees to stay with us, then the high-energy employees either leave or become low-energy themselves.
Q: Do you have any examples of high-energy or active staff at Sleepy Hollow?
A: One of our servers offered a guest an hors d’oeuvre but she declined because she was allergic to one of the ingredients. The server asked the guest if she was allergic to any other items. The server then went in to the kitchen and had a cook prepare a plate of hors d’oeuvre that the guest could eat safely. This was all done without the guest asking for it.
I take stories like these and repeat them to each staff member that we have. Eventually I have a team that is eager to be the next “story” at Sleepy Hollow.
Q: What is your sales pitch to selling special events at Sleepy Hollow?
A: We are lucky at Sleepy Hollow. It is one of the most spectacular locations in the country. When you offer an elegant Vanderbilt estate with bucolic views of the Hudson River, it is very easy to sell. We focus on “upselling”.
Q: What are customers looking for in club dining?
A: Members and guests that are sponsored by members expect and deserve cuisine and service that is as elegant as the setting at Sleepy Hollow.
Q: What stands out about the menu, venue and service at Sleepy Hollow?
A: For the menu, we are using unique passing trays for hors d’oeuvres. We serve on slate wood planks and custom trays that hold miniature cones filled with salmon mousse or tuna tartare. We even have a miniature “clothes line” where we offer honey-glazed bacon.
Seated dinners are the most popular. Anything using crab meat is normally the pick for the first course. We try to guide guests into a set entrée—often a duo of meat and fish.
As for the venue—[we always try to take it] outside! Many weddings offer a post-party with cocktails on our expansive lawn, as well as dinner and dancing in our tent.
A high standard of service is important, always plated, and we blanket and sweep each table.
Q: What trends are you seeing in club menus?
A: Balanced menus are paramount for a club to succeed. We have items that are modest in price and then we have high-end items. For example, we offer a selection of house wines that are anywhere from $8.75 to $20 a glass. Value for the money! Farm-to-table dining has also been trending for quite a while.
Q: Is farm-to-table dining a practical shift with a large volume of diners in your club?
A: Yes, we can handle the volume, plus our location is quite close to a number of great farms.
Q: What is your approach to wine and spirits?
A: We have a percentage of members that enjoy and support big wines, so we make sure we have a large inventory. Most members select a moderately priced wine.
Spirits is truly getting—or shall I say is—out of control. Twenty-five years ago, a bar had 30 different bottles of liquor. Today, we have 30 different flavors of vodka.
Q: What are the popular cocktails and drinks right now?
A: By day on the course it is the “Transfusion.” Overall, vodka-and-soda is the most popular, although Manhatttans are also a favorite.
Q: What are some “green” or sustainable initiatives you are focused on in your club?
A: We installed solar panels in 2015 and had a natural gas line hooked up to the mansion and replaced the boilers and hot-water heaters with new energy-efficient equipment. Last month, we joined the ConEd LED program. Additionally, all of our to-go containers are now eco-friendly, and our new chef will have a herb garden.
Q: What is your approach to equipment in your kitchens?
A: Buy the best and keep it clean and on a maintenance schedule. Preventive maintenance is the only way to go.
Q: Do you have a go-to equipment dealer or established connections?
A: Not particularly—we purchase based on price. We do have an agreement with a company that maintains and repairs our equipment.
Q: Where do you see yourself five and ten years out from here?
A: Spending each day making employees and members happy!