The Hamburg, N.Y. club will look back at 2020 with more fondness than frustration as it nears its 125th anniversary, having seen a surge in recognition for its golf course as well as in membership, after a $2.5 million clubhouse renovation and pool upgrade.
WHEN THE GOLF WORLD FINALLY GOT TO ENJOY its first major tournament this year—the delayed PGA Championship that was rescheduled for the first week of August at San Francisco’s 95-year-old TPC Harding Park course—a global spotlight was shined on the often-underappreciated course design talents of William Watson (more often referred to as Willie, although the educated Scotsman never used what was viewed as a working-class nickname himself).
That attention gave other clubs across the U.S. a chance to also bask in and benefit from the new attention paid to Watson designs, including Wanakah Country Club in Hamburg, N.Y., just south of Buffalo.
Watson also designed Wanakah’s course in 1925, and the favorable reviews of Harding Park for how it showed during the PGA broadcast and put a premium on making even the most skilled players think through every shot and angle generated new interest for what he had also created in the same year on the property 2,600 miles away, along the shores of Lake Erie.
But the PGA spotlight only added to momentum and recognition for the Wanakah course that had already been generated first by a $1.2 million renovation—the first major course project since Watson’s original layout—that was carried out from 2016-18 to greatly improve drainage while also opening up sweeping views of not only the downtown Buffalo skyline, but also clear across the lake to Canada.
And the connection to Watson and championship golf wasn’t the only thing prompting both existing and prospective new members to look at 121-year-old Wanakah in a bright new light this year. Earlier in 2020, the club also unveiled the results of a $2.5 million clubhouse renovation and pool upgrade that included the creation of a popular new Grille Room (see photo, pg. 18). The old grill room was used to create a new indoor golf simulator space that also became an immedate “huge hit,” according to General Manager/Chief Operating Officer Mike Karnath, CCM.
The golf course renovation spurred an initial surge in adding new members for Wanakah as it was completed between 2016-2018, and the combination of an incentive initiative that ran through 2019, plus the appeal of the clubhouse and pool improvements that began to be made at the end of last year, brought another influx. “From September  to September , we added close to 60 new members,” says Karnath. “We’re now officially at our golf cap  for the first time in 20-plus years, and have started a wait list.”
(Wanakah’s membership gains have also been given a boost by shifts in the Buffalo-area private-club market, most recently the announcement that the 61-year-old Brierwood Country Club, also in Hamburg, plans to abandon its membership model and open to the public in 2021. Westwood Country Club in Amherst, N.Y., closed in 2014 and has since been at the center of discussions about what its private owners should do with the property.)
The numbers at Wanakah haven’t just piled up on the membership rolls, though. As the club finally began to wind down for the year [its proximity to the lake, and its narrow, uphill driveway pose accessibility challenges once the Buffalo area’s infamous winters start to set in, making for a short season], Karnath ticked off these additional figures: golf rounds up 33%; member dining up 72%, despite a near total loss of banquet business; and beverage sales, primarily traced to a major uptick in the sale of bottles from a new wine room (see photo, opposite page) up 40%.
“With people not traveling, they’re really spending more on wine,” Karnath says. “We now regularly sell 10 to 15 bottles a night in the high-end, $70 to $200 range.”
All of the additional golf rounds have brought accompanying demand for lessons, swing analyses, clubfittings and new equipment, says Head Golf Professional Marc Rosa, PGA. “We offered free assessments and a lot of people took advantage of them,” Rosa says. “Many had never had lessons before, but after they did, they decided to upgrade their equipment. And so far we’ve been able to manage all of this increased play and activity with the same staff.”
Inside the new Grille Room (and out on the equally popular patio), the culinary team led by Executive Chef Jeff Kolbas, and the front-of-house staff under Events Director Kevin Hoffman and Assistant Manager Tyler Winkowski, have also found a variety of new ways to match members’ newfound enthusiasm for using the club. Kolbas (who inspires the kitchen staff with a Notre Dame-themed “Cook Like a Champion Today” sign, and keeps things loose by posting a photo of the actor on the “Christopher Walken” cooler) says the addition of the wine room and its expanded higher-end list has prompted a parallel upscaling of the club’s menu.
“I’m matching up a lot of the bottles with pairings like 30-day dry-aged cowboy ribeye and duck a l’orange,” Kolbas says. “We’re also promoting and selling a lot more seafood, including fresh lobsters and sometimes 100 oysters a night.”
At the same time, longtime club classics like Wanakah meatloaf and an open-faced tenderloin sandwich continue to be strong sellers, both in the club and through a takeout/curbside pickup program that was developed while the club’s operation was restricted at the start of the coronavirus outbreak, and still remains in demand.
The food-and-beverage and events teams have also enhanced connections with the membership through virtual programming, not only for cooking and wine seminars, but also kids’ activities and trivia contests. A “Keto Upgrade” YouTube video series (https://www.youtube.com/ketoupgrade), developed by Sous Chef Alycia Distefano, has drawn loyal viewership for her demos on everything from how to make cheese danish, or homemade sauce from the garden, or even a peanut butter cup ice cream pie, all while following the guidelines of that popular dietary discipline.
Kevin Hoffman, who has been at Wanakah for 35 years, doesn’t mince words in describing how dramatic the transformation of the club has been, especially in the last half-decade. “This was your classic old-money, cigars-and-scotch country club,” he says. “It was not really a place for families, or even women, who at one time couldn’t be in the grill after 5 p.m.
“But now we have a ‘Women of Wanakah’ group that has a full list of social and athletic activities of their own, and we also have a constant schedule of junior activities, when you used to only see a handful of kids here maybe for a couple of months,” Hoffman says. “It’s become a younger club and truly a family-focused club, and that’s given us a much more viable future.”
TAKING THE LONG VIEW
The future is now seen as viable enough, in fact, that the club’s leadership plans to revisit its operating traditions—and maybe also look for new ways to overcome the challenges posed by winter weather and the driveway—as the new energy that’s pulsed throughout the property this year propels Wanakah towards its 125th anniversary in 2024.
“After the summer and early fall, we’ve always sort of operated based on demand and how bad the winter turns out to be and how soon real spring comes about,” says Karnath, who took his position at Wanakah in 2014. “We’ve tried to always stay open with at least a limited schedule before typically closing for a week or two in February or March.
“But I think there is reason now to look at whether we should close at all, or at least for just a shorter time,” Karnath says. “With all we’ve done to improve the club and what members have here, we want to try to do all we can to let them enjoy its full value for as much of the 12 months of the year as they can.
“And besides,” he adds, “maybe this will be a good thing to come out of global warming, if it makes the winters here a little easier to deal with. That seems to have been the trend for the last couple of years at least, anyway.”
But certainly, after all that the Wanakah staff has dealt with, and accomplished, in its 121st year, gearing up to take on whatever Old Man Winter might still want to bring in the years to come shouldn’t seem too daunting.
“It’s been a wild ride,” Karnath says about the hoops that he and his staff have had to jump through during the pandemic while also dealing with the completion of constrction and all of the increased member activity. “But when you have a club that’s been around since 1899, it actually makes it a bit easier to deal with the concerns that [COVID-19] brought, after you realize [Wanakah] has made it through two World Wars and taken a lot of other hits over the years.
“And it also feels better to know that the investments we’ve made have put us in a position to build and grow,” he adds, ”because it’s clear you can’t cut your way to survival.”
At a Glance:
Wanakah Country Club
Location: Hamburg, N.Y.
Golf Course Design: Willie Watson, 1925 (Chris Wilczynski, 2018)
Annual Golf Rounds: 14,000
Main Clubhouse Size: 23,280 sq. ft.
General Manager/Chief Operating Officer: Mike Karnath, CCM
Head Golf Professional: Marc Rosa, PGA
Golf Course Superintendent: Richard Gladhill
Executive Chef: Jeff Kolbas
Events Director: Kevin Hoffman
Assistant Manager: Tyler Winkowski
Business Manager: Jim Giangrosso
Facilities Manager: Mike Van Wie
Tennis Professional: Caroline Diaz-Canton
Pool Director: Lindsey Ardus
Administrative Assistant: Jacqueline Weber