Cog Hill At a Glance:
•Average Annual F&B Revenues: $3 million
How does Cog Hill Golf Club shatter the myth that daily-fee courses and F&B don’t mix? The story starts with simple commitment to employees, golfers, non-golfers and, most important, delicious food-and ends with $3 million in annual F&B sales.
Interesting layouts and well-conditioned courses have attracted golfers to Cog Hill Golf & Country Club in Lemont, Ill. (30 miles southwest of Chicago) for over 80 years. Long ranked as a top public golf venue, with four 18-hole regulation golf courses that include the famous “Dubsdread” (site of several major championships, including the Western Open for 16 years and now the BMW Championships of 2007, 2009 2010 and 2011), Cog Hill has more to offer than just great golf.
Four years after a major kitchen renovation, Cog Hill is also a well-established dining destination, for golfers and non-golfers alike. Ask General Manager Nick Mokelke why, and he’ll tell you it’s all about maintaining consistency within change. The trick, he explains, is to be regular without being repetitive, stay aware of industry trends, and resist becoming stale.
Mokelke and his team of chefs are constantly freshening up the selection by introducing new specials, sourcing better quality foods, and recycling old favorites. But the magic, Mokelke explains, is in never losing touch with customers and the goal of providing each with personalized service.
‘Fighter Pilot’ Mentality
Just as with golf, Cog Hill has built its club’s dining reputation on quality and service. This privately owned complex, founded in 1927 by Chicago golf patriarch Joe Jemsek and run by his family after his death in 2002, now offers four foodservice sites (the main Clubhouse, two halfway houses, and The Two/Four Café). All of the outlets stand as testament to Jemsek’s pioneering vision: to bring private club conditions and amenities to a public-golf setting.
The largest amount of dining, by far, takes place at the main clubhouse. But the other outlets, which serve grab-and-go-type foods, also do their fair share.
“The halfway houses are well-positioned,” Mokelke notes. “One building services the 4th and the 14th holes of both courses #1 and #3. Courses #2 and #4 pass another halfway house at holes #13 and #8, respectively.”
With three different outdoor dining options, as well as the main dining room (which features a 30-foot ceiling with massive wood beams, leaded glass windows, and a working stone fireplace—see photo, pg. 28), Cog Hill’s inherently flexible spaces makes it possible to be all things to all people.
Two Chefs are Better than One
Cog Hill’s Co-Chefs, Jose Alcantar and Ricardo Marquez, have been with the club for 29 and 27 years, respectively. In addition to job title and duties, they share a like-minded respect for each other, Mokelke, the Jemseks and Cog Hill’s long-standing legacy.
“The F&B component completes the Cog Hill picture and reflects nicely on the rest of the business,” says Mokelke, “and the chefs have been instrumental in that success.” A big part of this achievement, he adds, comes from how Alcantar and Marquez share the top-chef title, and workload.
“Jose [Alcantar] and I were promoted at the same time,” recalls Marquez. “We had both been working as sous chefs for a few years, learning the ropes. Then Nick asked if we wanted to take on the role of executive co-chefs; we decided to give it a shot.”
“Nick [Mokelke] said we had the talent and the experience,” adds Alcantar. “He pledged to support us and help in whatever way he could, and promised to be behind us one hundred percent. The Jemseks agreed with Nick and also pledged their support. So we stepped up to the plate.”
That was more than 15 years ago—and the co-chef team has batted a thousand ever since. Over the years, Marquez and Alcantar have refined their process and now operate as a savvy two-headed, four-handed executive chef.
When one is in the kitchen, the other is taking inventory. When one is ordering, the other is scheduling. When one is on vacation, the other is at the club.
Each part of the duo also has complete autonomy in making up daily specials and procuring the ingredients to prepare them (well, almost complete autonomy—after all, the customers have to like what they make). That gives each chef the luxury to still indulge his own culinary imagination and experiment with ingredients in a way even many commercial restaurateurs might envy.
Of course, the lives of the co-chefs and their staff are not all delicious specials and team spirit. Long workdays are normal, and the pressure to design and prepare daily menus five days a week, 52 weeks a year, in addition to 340 annual catered events, is intense. The daily dishes must provide sufficient variety to satisfy a widely diverse customer base day after day. And the menus for catered events run the gamut—anything from an outdoor barbecue under the club’s semi-permanent tent (see photo, pg. 37) to an upscale wedding in the “old world” clubhouse that offers three unique dining rooms and can be opened up to form a 280-seat venue.
What’s perhaps most impressive is how Marquez, Alcantar and staff have to do all of this out of a cramped kitchen that’s better suited to flipping burgers and frying eggs.
When Small is Big
Cog Hill’s kitchen had been more or less the same since 1927. And after a complete renovation in the winter of 2004, the kitchen still occupies the same 2,100-sq.ft. footprint (including walk-ins). The difference now is greatly enhanced efficiency.
“Something that used to take us 20 to 25 minutes now only takes 10 to 12,” says Alcantar. “That’s a big difference for us—and the customers notice it in the quality of service.”
The consultant selected for the project showed the club how it would save on the cost of labor and materials by using as much of the same space as possible. It recommended that Cog Hill gut its kitchen completely and start fresh, using as much of the existing electrical, plumbing and ventilation systems as possible.
Within the working plan, the consultant also noted the importance of thinking logically about where equipment should be arranged, to boost efficiency and the flow of traffic in the kitchen.
Six days after demolition began, Cog Hill’s kitchen renovation was complete. A new epoxy floor was installed, and the salad refrigerator was moved from the middle of the floor to an outside wall, where it no longer restricts views. Also, drinks were moved to the end of the kitchen closets, to be closer to the dining areas. Finally, new, more efficient equipment—the brands of which were specified by Mokelke, Marquez and Alcantar—made a world of difference.
Since then, the club has continued to make equipment upgrades as needed. And with such a small kitchen, Mokelke and the chefs are constantly on the lookout for kitchen technology that can offer higher production in a smaller footprint.
The Main Event
Cog Hill’s commitment to service extends all the way to its menu, which features the kind of variety one would expect from a casual dining restaurant, not a daily-fee course.
The clubhouse’s robust breakfast menu offers a half-dozen egg-focused entrée choices, stacks (aka: pancakes), sourdough french toast, and fourteen different sides like crisp bacon or sausage, hash brown potatoes, bagel with cream cheese, toast and jam, and cold cereal or oatmeal.
For lunch—the club’s most popular and profitable daypart—guests can choose between cold sandwiches, hot sandwiches, heartier meals, lighter dishes, burgers, salads, wraps and house specialties like the famous “Almost as Good as Mama’s” meatloaf sandwich (see recipe below). In addition to the lunch menu, Marquez and Alcantar create daily specials with on-hand ingredients. With daily deliveries, the options are limitless, and there is no cycle or set schedule with the specials. The exotic, the traditional and the just-made-up often follow each other in a jumble of tempting meal choices.
“Many of the recipes are things I’ve developed over the years,” Alcantar explains. “Others are tried-and-true classics that you’d find at any casual dining restaurant in the country.”
He cites the “Dubsburger” (a lean, half-pound of ground beef topped with lettuce. tomato and sauteed onions on a kaiser roll with bacon, cheese or sauteed mushrooms) and the BBQ Pulled Pork Sandwich as customer favorites. “The salad bar is another one,” adds Marquez. “We have 28 different fruits, vegetables, toppings and dressings every day, and they eat it up like it’s the most novel item on the menu!”
When it comes to banquets, Cog Hill now publishes nine or ten different menus (for examples, see the online version of this article at clubandresortbusiness.com), with the inevitable option to customize, create and edit each. In all cases, the goal is to give the customer truly personalized service.
“We are very value-oriented,” says Dan Laurien, one of Cog Hill’s Special Events Managers. “We cost out our menus and we follow the cost of living to stay current. And we’ve been at it so long, we’ve streamlined the process and created different events and menus for the diversity of clients we serve.”
Laurien, a former Executive Chef at the Wrigley Building in downtown Chicago, can attest that Cog Hill’s F&B operation is truly top-notch. “From sanitation to culinary creativity, these guys have nailed it,” he says. “Plus the servers, the head waitress, the GM and the owner show how much they appreciate the work put into to each and every plate. It’s truly a rewarding place to work.”
“Everything we do here, we do because we care about the people who come to our club,” says Mokelke. “If people know they’re going to be taken care of, they’ll be more excited and enthusiastic about golfing—and dining—here.”