When you run an enterprise in Delaware, which is less than 100 miles long and varies in width from 35 to just 9 miles across, you learn to make the most of the space you have. In the state’s golf industry, a shining example of such successful resourcefulness can be found just off I-95 in Wilmington, Del., at Rock Manor Golf Course.
Owned by the city of Wilmington and operated through the Rock Manor Golf Course Corporation—a non-profit entity that helps the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation with administration and maintenance of both Rock Manor GC and another city-owned layout, Ed Oliver Golf Course—Rock Manor is one of the oldest municipal courses in the U.S., dating back to 1921.
While Wilmington has only 70,000 people, it sits in the middle of a busy I-95 corridor that may now see over four times that many vehicles, including as many as 30,000 trucks, rush by the city in a single day. Over the years, road construction needed to accommodate this heavy and ever-growing volume cut into the Rock Manor track, eventually reducing it to less than 5,800 yards.
The city then decided to close Rock Manor in 2005 and bring in renowned mid-Atlantic course designer Lester George, who directed a complete redesign and lengthening of the course, to 6,400 yards. The course reopened in 2008 along with a new clubhouse (see photo above), and Billy Casper Golf (BCG) was awarded a management contract. Not surprisingly, avid daily-fee golfers quickly found their way back to Rock Manor’s new-look layout, with annual rounds soon returning to the 40,000 level (the club has also developed volume through an Annual Pass membership program that includes discounted privileges at Ed Oliver and Delcastle Golf Course, two other Wilmington courses that are now also managed by BCG).
F&B Profile: Rock Manor GC
Club Location: Wilmington, Del.
Fueled by Food
What is a bit more surprising about the Rock Manor revival story, however, is the strong contribution to its recovery that has been made by its food-and-beverage operation. Here, too, the club hasn’t had much to work with—it can seat 36 in its “main” dining room (see photos, pg. 32), another 28 in its bar (including stools) and, when the weather cooperates, make use of seven outdoor tables (see photo below). The clubhouse kitchen is hardly a culinarian’s dream either—some of the big rigs roaring up and down I-95, in fact, might have bigger cooking areas in their tractor cabs.
Despite these physical limitations, Rock Manor’s F&B business doesn’t have to take a back seat to any club. In fact, among the more than 120 golf courses managed by Billy Casper Golf, guess which one brought home intra-company honors in 2010 as Food and Beverage Grille Operation of the Year?
Brian O’Hare, who focuses on the Northeast as one of four VP of Operations at BCG, explains why Rock Manor earned this distinction: “F&B spending per round for high-volume daily-fees is usually in the $10 to $12 range,” says O’Hare. “[At Rock Manor], it’s improved steadily and dramatically since we reopened in 2008; overall it’s grown 30%, and is now at $12.50.”
This alone is notable, O’Hare adds, because while a new pavilion with a 143-person capacity was built as part of the property’s renovation, Rock Manor has still not developed much of a catering or outings business. “We’re nowhere close to full buildout [at Rock Manor] yet,” O’Hare says.
“Banquets and outings can get your per-round spending into much bigger ranges—at least to $15 per round, and maybe even to $25 or $30. So we still have tremendous opportunities to grow that side of the business and have catering help to drive the total round-spending average significantly higher.”
“Diving” Into Best Practices
But the revenue side of the equation literally tells only half the story of why Rock Manor has earned national recognition for its grille operation—and of how F&B has helped to make swift and significant contributions to the reopened club’s bottom line. The criteria for earning the Best Grille award from BCG included “service, quality, cost of goods and net profit”—and “the most impressive part” of Rock Manor’s performance, O’Hare says, is how food and beverage at the club, under the guidance of Rob Polillo, has delivered overall operating margins in the “high 30s.”
“It’s a very well-controlled, well-run [F&B operation],” says O’Hare. “[Rob] has been very efficient in managing food costs and being very labor-conscious.”
Polillo, who became Rock Manor’s Food & Beverage Manager in January 2009, after serving as Head Chef at Brigantine CC in Atlantic City, N.J., says he draws his sense for how to operate efficiently from experience that started when working in his family’s restaurant, and then grew to include jobs at everything from “dive bars” to high-volume gourmet catering operations.
“You just have to have a good feeling for when you’ve hit the breaking point between running tight and beating people up,” Polillo says of his approach to labor management. “As someone who’s worked in just about every line position for just about every kind of foodservice operation, I think I’ve learned when that is.”
Polillo also gives credit to being able to take full advantage of the national buying programs made available through BCG for a big assist in helping to keep food costs down, along with internal efforts to control waste and cross-utilize ingredients as much as possible. “Every week, we tweak the menu to try to use anything we might have over-ordered or have left over,” Polillio says.
That menu doesn’t stray too far from what Rock Manor’s average customer, “the 21- to 40-year-old male,” is looking for, Polillo says. Burgers are big—both literally, as in the case of popular favorites like the “Big Tex Burger” (see photo above), and in terms of variety, with four new burger options, including an ahi tuna version, added recently.
But these menu additions only serve as the most apparent evidence of why Steve Brady, Regional Manager for BCG’s Philadelphia & Delaware region, cites Rock Manor as a good example of how a high-volume daily-fee course can take food and beverage “well beyond hot dogs” to become a key part of an overall course management strategy.
“In the golf business, [F&B] now has to be seen as another important amenity that also needs full operating attention,” Brady says. “Even a place like Rock Manor has to be able to give the customers more than just a great golf experience.”
Billy Casper Golf has backed up its recognition for how F&B has performed under Polillo by recently promoting him to Director of Golf at Rock Manor. Drew Davis, a Delaware native with 12 years of experience, the last four as General Manager, at Kelly’s Logan House, a popular Wilmington landmark housed in a 150-year-old building in the city’s historic Trolley Square, has been brought in to be the club’s new F&B Manager.
“With his knowledge of the bar business and his history in the area, Drew can take an already successful operation to the next level,“ says Polillo.