A creative, determined and responsive F&B staff hasn’t let size stand in the way of turning Hillview Country Club into a distinctive dining destination.
There was a time when Hillview Country Club, established in 1926, was the only place to play golf around Franklin, a small, unassuming town in central Indiana. Today, there are five courses within a 20-minute drive of the modest-sized (300-member) private club.
Club Name/Location: Hillview Country Club; Franklin, Ind.
Annual F & B
Membership dining 45%; Banquets 30-35%
Average No. of Dining Room Covers per month: 450
Average No. of Banquets per year: 125
F&B staff: 13 (10 front of the house, three back of the house)
Dining venues: Four (60-seat formal dining room, 40-seat full-service lounge, banquet hall that seats 125, and golf course snack bar that can comfortably accommodate 40, plus a patio)
With all of that competition, it takes more than well-maintained greens to attract and retain business. Sheryl Feyen, who is now Manager of Club Operations and Sales after originally joining the club as a member, has teamed up with Executive Chef Denny Brunning to take on that challenge. They work together daily to find new ways to respond not only to the increased competition, but also the challenges of a troubled economy.
A key part of their strategy is to use a distinctive and exciting food and beverage program as a cornerstone for building upon the club’s vibrant past and generating new interest in its facilities (and food). Through that approach, they feel, they can reinvent Hillview’s position in the club marketplace, and keep it relevant and solvent for decades to come.
From Member to Manager
Hillview has always displayed a determined attitude to do right by its members. In 2002, the club spent half a million dollars on course upgrades (current usage is around 14,000 annual rounds). The clubhouse was also upgraded after the original building burned to the ground in the ‘70s. The attractive new structure includes a formal dining room, lounge, and patio. The club also has a family-friendly pool and an on-course snack stand to round out its offerings.
All of this was enough to attract Feyen and her husband to become members of Hillview in 1999. But at that time, the club was short-staffed when it came to event planning. Thrilled to be a part of life at the club, Feyen, who had befriended the catering manager soon after becoming a member, began helping to plan social functions and private events.
Then, in 2001, when the catering manager decided to move on, Feyen was asked to take over the position. Although she had no official industry experience and was a pianist by profession, she said she knew the banquet business “by osmosis” and therefore felt she was ready to take on the role, at least for the interim period until a new manager could be found.
|Hillview’s F&B operation is small by every measure. The kitchen is just 700 square feet, and a staff of three handles all the prep, cooking, and cleanup.|
The numbers speak to how she successfully adapted to the new role. In 2000, Hillview’s banquet revenues were $100,000. By 2004, when Feyen decided to step away from Hillview to serve as Director of Golf Sales and Marketing for another small, semi-private club, she had increased them to $175,000. She returned three years later, at the request of the club’s Board of Directors, with broader responsibilities and a mandate to make much-needed changes.
Those changes would start with what Hillview served in its dining rooms. “The food was behind the times,” Feyen says. “The chef at that time was set in his ways. There hadn’t been a new menu in the dining room for over two years. That’s unacceptable in this industry.”
When that chef moved on, the club promoted Denny Brunning—who was at the time completing his formal culinary training—to Executive Chef. He’d started at Hillview as a line cook nine years earlier—and in that time, had seen four chefs come and go. From that perspective, he developed a good grasp of the basic problem: The chefs were failing to do what was needed to understand the club’s clientele.
“Denny was creative, personable, and totally on board with the practices we needed to implement,” Feyen explains. Most importantly, Brunning liked coming into the dining room to talk with members—something his predecessors had been reluctant to do.
“Guests are getting increasingly interested in food, chefs and restaurants, and are now seeking more out of their experience than just great food,” Brunning says. “Interacting with the chef and seeing the kitchen staff at work can be very entertaining and fascinating for them. ”
As Hillview’s members and guests have become more knowledgeable and sophisticated, they’ve come to look for more unique experiences from the club than just a meal. “As the cost of dining goes up all over the country, guests want to get more for their money,” Brunning says. “By walking the floor and interacting with members, we are able to give them a more special—and memorable—experience.” At the same time, it’s also an opportunity for him to get valuable feedback.
“I pay close attention to member comments and requests,” he adds. “This is the Midwest, and people are generally conservative. They lean toward simple comfort foods and familiar dishes. They like to be heard as well.
“In the past,” Brunning notes, “the chefs overlooked these key elements to success and cooked what they wanted. The club threw a lot of food away, and the dining room grew less and less busy.”
Hastening to Please
Promoting Brunning was just the first step towards a turnaround, though. Feyen and her new chef still faced an uphill battle to transform the perception of food and beverage at the club from uninspired to exciting. Seeking a good way to make an immediate impact, they first set out to remedy the slow lunchtime service in the dining room.
“Golfers were looking to come to the club just before they teed off and eat quickly,” explains Feyen. So Hillview set up a self-serve salad bar that would allow members to get in and out in less than hour. It was an immediate success.
“Golfers were excited to be able to eat something more substantial than the hot dogs or bags of chips that were available at the turn,” says Feyen. “The salad bar also appeals to those who come to the club on their lunch hour. Without sacrificing taste, the option is equal parts delicious and quick.”
Looking to inspire even more member participation, Feyen organized an evening extravaganza early in her tenure, featuring a seafood buffet and a jazz orchestra. A third of the membership bought tickets. Later in the year, Brunning put together a seven-course wine dinner for members. The cost, $75 per person, was kept intentionally low, and it too became well-attended.
“These were not meant to be big moneymakers for us,” Brunning explains. “We wanted to show what we could do, and let members know the club was on the upswing. ”
It’s worked—members are clamoring for more, and similar events are planned for 2009.
Bring Your Own Duck
To inject the same energy into a la carte dining, Brunning has been focusing on crafting approachable, affordable offerings that satisfy members’ tastes. He also updates the menu quarterly, launching each new season with a tasting dinner that features all of the new entrees in appetizer portions.
“We now typically average 20 to 30 covers for dinner,” Brunning reports. “That’s up from just 10 to 12.” Wednesday nights are now the busiest, thanks to a drawing that Hillview holds for cash prizes. That keeps the staff hopping, but Brunning says they’ve more than proved up to the challenge. “We do 50 to 90 covers within an hour and a half,” he reports, “and everything is cooked to order.”
Brunning is also taking special care to be exceptionally responsive to special requests from his members. “A hunter brought in ducks and asked that I cook a four-course meal for him and eighteen of his friends,” he reports. “Someone else asked us to prepare a catfish he’d caught. We did a Southern-style spread for fifteen.”
And on both occasions, guests ended the meal by offering a standing ovation to the kitchen staff.
With so few fine-dining options in the surrounding area, Hillview is positioning itself to fill that niche. Feyen sees a real opportunity to grow the club’s F&B business, and her vision is paying off. Dining memberships, which she asserts are a bargain, are up about 20 percent over the past two years.
Icing on the Cake
Hillview’s culinary profile, in fact, has already grown to the point where it can now boast of something clubs double or triple its size often don’t have—a pastry chef. Last October, Maryam Ali, a culinary school classmate of Brunning’s, was hired for that role.
Now for the first time, Hillview’s banquet customers can purchase wedding and birthday cakes and other housemade confections directly from the club. While this is still a relatively new venture, Chef Brunning predicts it will create an important revenue stream for the club.
Indeed, Ali’s sticky buns, served on Wednesday night, have already proved so popular they are now available for sale fresh from the oven or frozen (with baking instructions). Six sell for $10. Labor and ingredients total approximately $6—but while the $4 per-sale profit is welcomed, Chef Brunning says, the marketing buzz and goodwill generated by the sticky-sweet pastries is just as valuable.
|Hillview has found ways to turn its limitations, such as a single banquet room that only seats 125, into an attribute, by stressing how customers will get personal and undivided attention.|
Like everyone on the club’s F&B staff—including Sous Chef Sarah Rotkin who also went to culinary school with Brunning and has been a key member of the culinary team—Ali needs to wear more than one hat. When not baking bread, desserts, and special-occasion cakes, she earns her full-time salary by assisting with cold prep. “We had a need for another set of hands in the kitchen,” Feyen explains, “and she was interested in expanding her skill set, so it was a good fit.”
Hillview’s F&B operation is small by every measure. The kitchen is just 700 square feet (see photo, pg. 29), and a staff of three handles all of the prep, cooking, and clean-up. The club’s one banquet room seats 125.
Feyen, however, has found ways to turn these “limited” attributes into marketable assets. “Because we only do a single function at a time, I tell people that when they come here, they’ll get our undivided attention,” she notes. “I work directly with customers, from pre-booking discussions to the day of the event. There’s no ‘love ’em and leave ‘em’ relationship with us.”
Feyen and her team have also made it a priority to reconnect with the community. As a result, bridge players, business associations, and other local groups are now keeping Hillview front of mind when seeking venues for food-centric gatherings. In a typical, Tuesday to Saturday week, the dining room now serves from 50 to 60 non-member meals. During this time, Feyen goes table-hopping, talking up the club and all it has to offer.
And even with its limited space, Feyen is always ready to show what Hillview has to offer, thanks to a mock banquet set-up in the hall that she can use to “show” the facility to potential customers, at any time. Information packets are also always out in plain sight. Feyen has even begun to book private parties in the snack bar. “Some people prefer the more informal setting,” she says.
Many Ways to Cut It
With 30 items now on Hillview’s lunch menu (pictured above) and 35 on its dinner version, tight cost control is also critical. To maintain that much variety, Chef Brunning emphasizes using the same basic ingredients in multiple preparations. Grilled chicken breasts, for example, go into sandwiches, Cobb salads, a pasta dish, and a “smothered” presentation made with cheese, bacon, barbecue sauce and onion tanglers.
“Cross-purposing lets me buy in bulk,” Brunning explains, “so I get quantity discounts.” He also offers single proteins, such as pork chops, prepared with four to six different sauces or seasoning combinations.
Soups are among the chef’s most well-received—and economical—innovations. He typically creates a soup de jour using whatever’s on hand. “By working with leftover proteins, I avoid waste and save money,” he notes. “Chicken Florentine is a big hit. People call and order it by the gallon for parties.”
The same approach dictates what goes onto his banquet menu; those customers now also get plenty of options out of a relatively short list of foods. “If I have two or three banquets back-to-back, I can get my food costs down to 20 percent,” Brunning says.
Looking to bring costs down even further, Brunning sought out a new distributor that could offer better deals on basic supplies. Hillview has also made it more of a point to take better advantage of seasonal, less-expensive ingredients, and to pay closer attention to which dishes are selling best, so the ones that aren’t can quickly be eliminated.
“I treat this as my own business,” Brunning says. “I set a budget, and live within my means.”
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