The Union League Club of Chicago’s $11 million F&B operation sets the tone for city club dining, thanks to its focused and skilled staff.
Michael Garbin, Executive Chef at The Union League Club of Chicago (ULCC), describes his first member interaction at the club 22 years ago.
“The reputation for food was average at best,” he says. “After I accepted the position, I went to my first Board meeting. They barely acknowledged me before one gentleman said, ‘So you’re the new cook?’
“I stood up straight,” he continues, “broadened my shoulders, smoothed my coat and said as calmly as I could, ‘No, sir. I’m the new Chef.’”
Since that day, ULCC’s food-and-beverage profile has been raised to impressive new levels in the eyes of all of its members. Garbin and his team have elevated menus, service and the culinary climate, creating one of the most notable F&B programs in the country.
The club, located in the heart of Chicago’s financial district, now turns anywhere between 26,000 and 31,000 covers each month, and averages nearly 60 events in the same timeframe. It’s grown into a $11
million operation that services nearly 5,000 members.
Even with so many moving parts, what keeps
|Union League Club of Chicago
AT A GLANCELocation: Chicago, Ill.
Average Annual F&B Revenue: $11 million
A la carte/Banquet Mix: 45% a la carte/55% banquet
Food Cost: 34-37%
Average Monthly Covers: 26,000-31,000/month
Average No. Catered Events Monthly: 60
Average Member Age: 55
Kitchen Employees: 15
ULCC’s dining program ahead of the curve is its dedicated team, commitment to member satisfaction, and unwavering level of quality.
Remembering Who’s First
Having one of the longest employment tenures at the club, Garbin brings a great deal of knowledge, history and talent to ULCC. He has cooked for Presidents and Vice Presidents, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, admirals and generals, senators and congressmen, and members of the Supreme Court. He is award-winning and well-known.
Even so, he remains steadfast in claiming ULCC’s members and guests as the most important people he cooks for. And he emphasizes this with his staff, too.
“This is the hospitality industry,” says Garbin. “We respond to the needs, wants and desires of our membership every single day. We prepare food with care and proper technique. Personal and special touches are the tipping points for success.”
According to Garbin, those are the benchmarks by which ULCC defines itself. That, and really delicious food.
Menus highlight global influences with Midwestern flair. Local cheeses, proteins and produce are particularly popular.
“A lot is scratch-made,” says Garbin. “But not everything. There are some tremendous products out there that can help keep food and labor costs in line. Our motto is that we will always prepare the best food and provide the best service possible.”
A New Leadership Trio
Steve Serdar, Director of Food & Beverage, and Mark Tunney, General Manager, agree.
“It’s imperative that we collaborate, support and encourage one another on a daily basis,” says Tunney, who was promoted to GM after serving for 18 months as Assistant General Manager. (He succeeded Jonathan McCabe, who retired after 22 years with the club.) “Big egos aren’t sustainable in this environment.”
Combined, Serdar and Tunney have two years of experience at ULCC, compared to Garbin’s 22. But they have brought a wealth of valuable outside expertise to the club.
Tunney worked with the Chicago Convention & Tourism Bureau, as well as in sales and marketing for the Renaissance Chicago Hotel, Marriott International. He also held similar positions at two of Starwood Hotels & Resorts’ Chicago properties.
Serdar, who started in July, has an extensive restaurant background, both with corporate and independent concepts. He’s also worked in high-end hotels.
“When you hear that the chef has been there for 22 years, it’s a little intimidating,” says Serdar. “You assume he’s going to be somewhat stuck in his ways, but Chef is the exact opposite. He’s excited about new ideas and he’s open to trying new things whenever and wherever we can.”
Finding compatible personalities was a top priority in the search for Serdar—a process both Garbin and Tunney were involved with.
“We needed someone with a lot of high-end experience in both hotels and restaurants, but who was also a team player,” says Tunney. “Steve, Michael and I hit it off immediately.”
“We’re all working together to move the operation forward,” says Garbin.
Club and Hearth
Because Chicago is well-known for having some of the best restaurants in the world, ULCC has steep competition for its members’ dining dollars.
“In restaurants, if you don’t satisfy a customer, you generally don’t get a second chance,” says Serdar. “But members buy into the culture of what’s done here, so we have the chance to make it right. And when we do, we create a lasting relationship and an invaluable product that can’t be found elsewhere.”
ULCC strives to make dining with the club an easy choice.
“We want to be a destination,” says Tunney. “We know our members have choices and we know that we’re all competing for the same thing: time.”
To remain top-of-mind, the club is constantly looking at ways to refresh and reinvent itself.
In May, ULCC unveiled its newly renovated Rendezvous room on the fourth floor of its 23-story clubhouse. The new dining room offers fresh, quick and casual lunch and dinner choices in an café-style format.
The project, which cost roughly $2 million and took four months to complete, transformed the space from a dated dining room into an elegant eatery complete with a stunning new hearth oven, an expanded bar area, better lighting, and new furniture with more comfortable conversation spaces.
“Getting the hearth oven [see photo, above] into the design was a challenge, but the members recognized its value,” says Garbin, who has worked diligently to learn the oven’s nuances. “We change our menus every four to six weeks, with new specials daily, so we can feature what’s in season.”
Dishes from the hearth include everything from fish and flatbreads to pizza and small plates.
“The Rendezvous went from a 12-item menu to a 30-item menu,” says Garbin, who worked with Executive Sous Chef Mark Hayes to develop the new dishes. “We kept many of the favorites, but added a lot more options.”
The renovation also gave the club a chance to revisit its service standards.
“While the space itself is new, we want members to still feel at home in it,” says Tunney. “The uniforms are new, but the faces are the same. We’ve retrained and updated all of our servers on the menu and the style of service.”
Focusing on the Finer Points
The Rendezvous isn’t the only dining space within ULCC.
The Wigwam on the third floor brings the concept of fine dining to a new level for both breakfast and dinner. The Main Dining Room on the sixth floor offers lunch with both buffet and menu options. ULCC also offers in-room dining for its 180 guest rooms, along with casual poolside dining and over 30,000 sq. ft. of meeting space.
“The Rendezvous is now the place to hang out and dine at the club,” says Tunney, who confirms that plans are in place to reinvent the Wigwam next.
“We’re talking with designers and we just hired Doug D’Avico as the new Chef de Cuisine,” says Serdar. “We’re approaching this project thoughtfully. The role of fine dining has shifted, so we must shift with it. The food must be approachable but still high-end, with menus that change frequently.”
As part of its plan, ULCC hired a new sommelier, Agi Toth, to help retool its wine program.
“She’ll be hosting weekly wine tastings,” says Serdar. “She’ll also be available to help with pairings, which we hadn’t been doing much of up to this point.”
ULCC also recently introduced a web-based wine list that is presented to members on one of six new iPads purchased just for this program. It helps members navigate through the club’s cellar, dividing wines by vintage, maker, labels or pairings, and takes some of the pressure off both the servers and the decision-makers.
“It gives members an opportunity to explore wines they might not have otherwise known about,” says Serdar, who notes that the program also helps the club to track inventory.
Going forward, with ideas like these and others, ULCC plans to maintain a culture that surrounds the needs of its membership.
“With a staff that is encouraged and empowered, we will continue to provide a dining operation that is second to none,” says Garbin. “And because we are all working toward the same goal—to provide members with the opportunity to dine how they want, when they want, and to eat what they want—we will succeed.”