Executive Chef Manfred Braüer is leading, learning and achieving remarkable F&B success at The Vintage Club.
Manfred Bräuer, Executive Chef of The Vintage Club (Indian Wells, Calif.), is the kind of leader people want to follow. He has a clear and compelling vision for the club’s food-and-beverage program. And he is relentless in his pursuit of excellence.
In the four years he’s been with The Vintage Club, Bräuer’s impact on F&B has been profound. In 2014, before he came on board, the club served 17,000 dining covers. In 2018, under his leadership, the cover count nearly doubled, to 30,000. Today, Vintage does a little more than $4 million in annual F&B—an increase of $1 million since 2014.
Despite that impressive growth and a career filled with successes—or perhaps because of it—Braüer is a remarkably humble chef. He uses his skills, experience and knowledge to attract and inspire.
“I’ve worked with dozens of chefs over the course of my career,” says Steve Cenicola, General Manager/Chief Executive Officer, who came to The Vintage Club about six months after Bräuer. “He is more passionate and more dedicated than any chef I’ve ever seen. He cares about the details as much as he cares about the big picture.
“And he is so good to his people,” Cenicola adds. “He has a heart of gold.”
The Vintage Club
Location: Indian Wells, Calif.
Born for This
Austrian-born, Bräuer is a highly skilled culinarian. He has trained in kitchens across the globe, including a handful of 3-star Michelin restaurants. He has lived and worked in Vienna, France, Switzerland, Brazil, Madera (Portugal), Japan, Uruguay, Las Vegas, Naples (Fla.) and Hollywood. He is fluent in five languages, which allows him to liaise with nearly anyone who crosses his path.
“I’m from a very small village of only about 800 people, and I was the second youngest of seven children,” says Braüer. “My mother was a great cook and had a garden filled with dozens of different kinds of vegetables. She enlisted my help from an early age.
“My childhood was essentially a lesson in what ingredients are supposed to taste like, and how to prepare them correctly,” he adds.
That lesson lives on at Vintage, where Braüer is redefining the club’s quality standards. “Good food starts with fresh, high-quality ingredients grown and produced with integrity,” he says. Not surprisingly, Vintage operates a nearly scratch kitchen, where shortcuts are not accepted.
Variety is also an important part of Vintage’s success. Menus are overhauled seasonally, with specials changing daily. Small plates, vegan options and health-conscious cuisine are also popular.
“Our members dine all over the world,” says Braüer. “They come to Vintage instead of hopping on their plane and flying to Las Vegas, because we go out of our way to make sure each member is satisfied.
“I don’t say no,” he adds. “It’s hard to manage, and it does get complicated when we’re busy. But our only purpose is to serve our members.”
Braüer engages directly with members during service, walking the dining-room floor to ask about their meals and dining experience. During this time, he’ll subtly influence member behavior and encourage their participation in upcoming events.
“I know our members well,” says Braüer. “I notice when they don’t attend events at the club. So when I see them after an event they were unable to attend, I’ll tell them how much I missed them and wished they were there. I’ll then personally invite them to our next event and share some details about it.”
In response, members are doubling down on participation.
Rebranding Palm Court
Vintage has two main dining spaces, plus a retail outlet.
The LakeView Grille, Vintage’s more formal dining room, offers both indoor and al fresco dining with captivating lake and mountain views (see photo, pg. 18). Menus are upscale and feature seasonal specials, sushi, steaks and seafood.
The Palm Court restaurant, located near the pool, offers a more relaxed vibe. Its menus center around casual and comfort cuisine—but that hasn’t always been the case.
“About five years ago, Palm Court wasn’t sustaining itself,” says Cenicola, who spent the bulk of his career with the Marriott organization before coming to Vintage.
“The same menu from LakeView was being served in Palm Court,” he explains. “But the atmosphere is much different. Palm Court needed its own identity.”
Cenicola and Braüer redefined the style of cuisine served in each outlet. LakeView went upscale while Palm Court, located near most of the club’s recreational amenities, skewed casual. Now, fresh fish, roasted chicken, salads and other more approachable dishes are finding favor with members.
“Over half of Vintage’s covers come from Palm Court,” says Braüer.
Catering to Convenience
Near Palm Court—and sharing the same kitchen—is The Vintage Market, a retail-inspired outlet offering convenience items such as gallons of milk, personal items and paper goods, as well as wine, coffee drinks, fresh-squeezed juices, ice cream, grab-and-go sandwiches and salads. The Vintage Market is also home to the club’s newly added pizza oven.
“Members can stop at the Market and order pizza by the slice,” says Cenicola. “They can also call the Market and order pizza for delivery.”
Pizza isn’t the only delivery option at Vintage. When Braüer saw how eager members were to get the club’s food delivered to their homes, he created a to-go menu that is serviced out of the Palm Court kitchen.
“We have a to-go phone line for members to place their orders,” says Braüer. “We run two expeditor lines, and one is dedicated to to-go.” The club now does between 30 and 35 to-go orders every night (with a small delivery fee added).
Using Wine to Connect with Members
When Julien Delay, Food & Beverage Manager of The Vintage Club’s LakeView Grille, came to the club, he created a craft-cocktail list, thinking it would take off with members.
He was surprised when it didn’t.
“What I learned was that the goal of Vintage is to anticipate our members’ needs before they even realize they need something,” says Delay. “It is more important for us to know what they like to drink than to present them with a menu of trendy choices.”
Delay has since studied the club’s wine culture and learned what members like, lack and desire. In response, he has found a deeper desire for wine-by-the-glass variety.
“It’s not unusual for a member to sit down and want a glass of really high-end wine,” he says. “That same person might not want a $350 bottle, but they are happy with an $85 glass.”
In addition to expanding the club’s by-the-glass selection, Delay has also refined the service style within LakeView.
“We are paying attention to really granular details about our members’ preferences,” he says. “We know if Mr. Smith doesn’t like white napkins or Mrs. Jones prefers to have salt shakers on the table. That level of personalization is what makes us special and unique.”
As Palm Court’s new identity began to resonate with members, Braüer and Cenicola began cross-training staff.
“Employees are much happier,” reports Cenicola. “Some have even been able to double their wages by working in both restaurants and picking up banquets. They also get to know our members better, which furthers our mission to provide great service.”
Cross-training feeds into Braüer’s mentoring and coaching mentality. “I have a passion for people,” he says. “I want them to enjoy their work and care about our members. I try to lead by example.”
It’s commonplace at Vintage, in fact, to find Braüer working the line alongside his cooks. “I set the baseline,” he says. And by coaching his team and being a hands-on chef, he feels, he is able to set the club up for long-term success. “Clubs need leaders who are willing to roll up their sleeves and do the work,” he notes.
Cenicola is just as passionate about helping whenever needed and respecting each team member as a professional.
For example, during their morning meeting as they pass by the dishroom, Braüer and Cenicola will stop and shake hands with the dishwasher, thanking him for his hard work and dedication.
“This industry has a penchant for turning and burning workers,” says Cenicola. “We aren’t like that here. And that’s what has made us a success. Our retention rate is 97%. We take very good care of our employees, so they can take care of our members.”
At Vintage, when everyone is moving forward together, success takes care of itself.
“My greatest pleasure is in watching an employee start here at a minimum-wage position and grow within the club, taking on more responsibility and moving up the ranks,” says Cenicola. “That type of growth isn’t just good for our club and our members. It extends beyond these walls. When our staff members move on to other clubs, they become ambassadors for Vintage.
“Chef is especially amazing at mentoring young culinarians,” he continues. “He knows how to challenge them and inspire them.”
Over the past few years, Braüer has developed training programs with detailed manuals to better standardize his process. The program continues to evolve in step with the club’s growth.
“This is not a one-man show; we are a family,” says Braüer. “We have to be world-class at every touch point: from a la carte, banquets and wine dinners to private chef events, culinary classes, and retail.
“There are many moving parts to Vintage,” he continues. “The only way we will continue our success is to evolve our service, our standards and ourselves.”