New strategies plus old-style service are a winning combination for Hershey Country Club’s revamped F&B program.
When Michael Collier was growing up in Bethlehem, Pa., the country club was at the center of his family’s social and leisure activities. Now, Collier’s experiencing club life from the other side of the table, as Executive Chef for Hershey Country Club in south-central Pennsylvania, 15 minutes from the state capital of Harrisburg.
• Club Name/Location: Hershey Country Club, Hershey, Pa.
Collier knows that today’s world, defined by hyper-busy schedules and increased dining and recreational options, is much different then the one in which his parents and their friends met up regularly at their club to dine and relax. That means he and his team must work harder and smarter to keep long-time members happy and attract new ones.
Hershey CC’s General Manager, Maarten Van Wijk, agrees. “The club industry as a whole is in a time of change, and that change is being fueled by the recession,” says Van Wijk, who has a 15-year history with Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, plus experience with other luxury hotels and private clubs. “We must give people real value for their membership and their money.”
To achieve that mission, Collier and Van Wijk have reevaluated every aspect of the club’s food and beverage program. They held focus groups to find out what members wanted, implemented some innovative ideas, and revived a few tried-and-true practices to ensure that dining, meetings and special events at the club are on a par with its famed golf courses.
Hershey CC was established in 1930 by Milton S. Hershey, founder of the chocolate empire. As a for-profit entity owned by Hershey Entertainment & Resorts, the club has grown to include 63 holes across it’s East and West courses, plus the public courses Spring Creek (the first course in the U.S. designed for players under age 18), and the recently acquired Hershey Links.
The original clubhouse occupied the first floor of Milton S. Hershey’s manor house, High Point, until 1970, when it was moved to a specially built facility nearby. That structure was then leveled and replaced on the same site in 2006 by a handsome, 43,000-sq. ft., two-story building, as part of an $18 million renovation project that included a swimming pool, improved tennis facilities, and the addition of a four-season banquet pavilion. Traditions Dining Room and Lounge (see photo, pg. 32) is on the second floor of the new clubhouse, adjacent to a ballroom that can hold up to 250, and the more casual Hogan Grill occupies space on the ground level.
Collier joined the company in 2003 to work at The Hotel Hershey. Since coming to the club, he has overseen both clubhouse kitchens. He’s also responsible for poolside service at Splashes, catering operations, and a new restaurant at the Hershey Links public course, called The Highlands Grill, that just opened in mid-June.
Losing the Attitude
“The new clubhouse was my 92nd facility opening,” says Collier. “I’ve done corporate restaurants, many for Disney and the Cheesecake Factory, and independent, entrepreneurial ventures on both coasts. But country clubs are unique environments. There was definitely a learning curve. It took three menus before I got it right.”
The first things that had to go, says the chef, were his big-city attitude and über-sophisticated dishes. “People were unfamiliar and uncomfortable with many of the ingredients and techniques I was using; many members just wanted their veal scaloppini and meatballs,” he says. So Collier stepped back, solicited guests’ input, and found better ways to embrace their palates. “I went back to my roots and a meat-and-potatoes style,” he admits.
Van Wijk commends Collier, who won this year’s “Best Chef in Pennsylvania” competition at the State Farm Show, for his willingness to prepare grilled cheese sandwiches and Cobb salads right alongside his own more creative dishes.
“I focus on nutrition, regional products, unique flavor combinations, and creative presentations,” Collier says. “Ultimately, the development of flavors and textures will make the guest experience more exciting, and make members want to eat here more often.”
Collier shares his passions with members through the club’s recently introduced cooking classes. “They’re a great way to introduce different things that people can also try making at home,” he says. “The classes have been an effective back-door approach to bring members into my culinary world.”
In May, a new menu and expanded wine list—it went from 25 selections to 100, all sold with minimal mark-up—were rolled out with a grand tasting event. “We did the dishes tapas-style,” says Van Wijk, “and offered pairings. Members paid just $20. We had 100 people attend.”
Staying true to his philosophies, Collier has also revamped the club’s entire sourcing procedure. There is no more bulk ordering, with food now arriving daily and never being held longer than three days. This reduces waste and also solves the problem of insufficient storage space in the kitchen.
Collier buys from local farmers and purveyors whenever possible. “We upped the quality but not the cost, by focusing on freshness and being very particular,” he explains. “Our suppliers have learned that we’re sticklers and that we’ll check every box, so they bring us the best stuff.”
|With Michael Collier at the helm, Hershey CC has improved the quality of its ingredients but not the cost, by focusing on freshness and being very particular when it comes to ordering and menuing.|
The Right Atmospheres
When Hershey CC’s new clubhouse opened in 2006, the plan was that Traditions (see photo, this page) would be the main dining facility. But the big, formal room was consistently underutilized. Patrons made it clear they preferred the less formal, pub-like setting downstairs at the Hogan Grill—and that atmosphere, not cost, was driving their choice.
So management adapted. Now, the Hogan Grill serves three meals a day, and Traditions is used only for private gatherings, holidays, a monthly Sunday brunch, and special dinners held two Saturdays a month. These dinners feature the fancy, classic tableside preparations of the past, such as Caesar salad, flaming Steak Diane, carved-to-order Chateaubriand, and Bananas Foster.
“Nobody does this kind of thing anymore,” explains Van Wijk. “People love it. Even our younger members are excited about these evenings.”
Pizza and Pasta Nights, very popular with families, have also become food-driven events that spark a consistently good turnout—and, Collier notes, cost him only pennies on the dollar.
The annual, all-you-can-eat August Crabfest is a winner, too. “It’s a break- even proposition, not a money-maker,” says Collier, “But it’s worth doing, because everyone likes the concept. Three hundred and fifty people came to the last one.” Building on this success, plans for a lobsterfest and pig roast are now also in the works.
Whenever they show up and wherever they dine, Van Wijk wants members to get the royal treatment. “Thirty-five percent of our members come multiple times per week,” he notes. “It’s important to know our regulars by name, greet them, and remember their preferences. These are fundamentals of fine service and nothing new, but they’re not always put into practice. We’re emphasizing these basics.”
|Extra Perks for Everyone
HERSHEY CC members are entitled to discounted rooms at The Hotel Hershey and Hershey Lodge, the gift shop, food and beverage purchases at both properties, spa treatments, and season passes to Hershey Resorts’ two theme parks. Resort guests are welcome to play the club’s East and West Courses.
Hershey CC’s servers and bartenders are also being encouraged to take a name-recognition class and other training opportunities offered by the parent company. “Members should be able to ask for ‘the usual’ and get their martinis with three blue-cheese stuffed olives, or a hamburger, no bun, and a cup of fruit on the side,” says Van Wijk.
This extra pampering enhances the membership experience, as does the option to hold meetings, golf outings, weddings and birthday celebrations at the club for a discounted rate. But because it’s not a member-owned, non-profit property, Hershey CC can also aggressively market its banquet operations to outsiders. This side of the catering operation generates a significant revenue stream that, according to Collier, helps to keep daily dining affordable.
Overall, the club’s F&B program is now drawing people in with excellent food, service and price points that give it a distinct competitive advantage over area restaurants and have helped to re-energize club participation.
“It’s paying off,” says Van Wijk. “We’re starting to see an increase in traffic, spending, and activity here. This gives people increased opportunities to network and connect socially and professionally, and that’s really what club culture is all about.”