In just over three months, Maplewood CC dramatically transformed 3,000 sq. ft. into a “three-for-one” dining venue—and made up for years of lost time.
Three thousand square feet is a fair amount of space for offering some variety—if you’re running a convenience store. But when that space is adjacent to locker rooms on the lower level of a century-old clubhouse, you can often expect to find it being used for a pretty typical —and unexciting—bar-and-grille setup.
That was certainly the case at Maplewood (N.J.) Country Club, where for years the bottom floor of its venerable brick clubhouse was dominated by one big expanse of low-ceilinged, striped-wallpapered, drab-carpeted, standard-furnishings dullness. The look and feel of the basement area wasn’t even changed by a $4 million renovation, conducted in the mid-’90s, that gutted much of the rest of the building.
“We ran out of money before we got to the basement, and it wasn’t part of the master plan anyway,” says Maplewood’s General Manager, Michael Lusk, who had only become GM a couple of years before that renovation began. “[The lower level] was always [the building’s] red-headed stepchild.”
Club: Maplewood Country Club
January of this year, however, marked the dawning of a new era at Maplewood, in more ways than one. As soon as the club began its 100th year, transformation of its lower level began at a furious pace. And after just a little more than three months of round-the-clock renovation work, Maplewood reopened the lower level of its clubhouse to its 350 members—who all reopened their mouths to express amazement at the change they saw.
“One member walked in and said, ‘This looks like a restaurant now!’ ” Lusk says. “And that was exactly what we were after. We didn’t just want to redo our basement; we wanted to turn it into the feeling of a restaurant that was divided up into three informal dining areas.
“The goal was to give everyone who came in the door a choice, based on who they were with at that time, and what they might feel like having,” Lusk adds. “If they’re with their kids, they can turn one way, to go the area with our new brick oven, where we’re now making pizzas plus a lot of other popular items. If they want to join friends, they can go to the new lounge area in the back, where we now have a by-the-glass wine system and a special bar menu featuring great items like lobster sliders. If they want a quieter sit-down dinner, there’s the member dining section in front, with the regular a la carte menu.
“We actually ended up making a better connection [between the space and] our outside patio, too, because we had to make new windows to get the pizza oven in,” Lusk adds.
“So when the weather’s nice, that’s become another [dining] option for the people who come down [to the lower level]. I don’t know of too many country clubs where you can offer that many different choices in such a small area—and especially on the bottom floor.”
Money In the Bank
Maplewood CC also showed some notable resourcefulness and creativity in how it went about funding its new-look lower level. The club has always had a strong catering operation, earning regional “Best Wedding Venue” recognition from The Knot (a bridal website/publication) and also doing brisk business in Bar/Bat Mitvahs and other outings. In total, some 140 events a year have helped the club build up a 70-30 F&B percentage breakdown in favor of the more profitable catering side, versus a la carte.
With this kind of steady earning power at hand, Lusk and Darlene Lowman, the club’s Controller/CFO, have made it a long-standing practice to put set-asides from each catering job into a designated “refurbishing” account for F&B-related projects. This made it possible to use money that was already in the bank for much of the $1.1 million needed to upgrade the lower level, and also to avoid having to impose any major capital assessments on members for the project.
With ample cash in hand, the renovation was set in motion in May 2010, with an initial design meeting with Jefferson Group Architects and Judd Brown Designs of Pawtucket, R.I. A design plan was approved by October, and construction got on the fast track as soon as the new year began.
“The general contractor [A. Pigna & Sons of Scotch Plains, N.J.] was great—they got done in three-and-a-half months what we’d planned would take five,” Lusk says. “We gave them a key to the building and they worked seven days a week, pretty much ‘round the clock; I remember one time when they were in here on a weekend to start some sheet-rocking at 10 PM, just as a Bar Mitzvah was ending.”
Wayne Jacques, AIA, President of Jefferson Group Architects, says Lusk’s firm direction of the team also contributed to the impressive production pace. “Michael recognized that the changes that were being made were likely to have a positive impact right away at the club, and he made it clear he wanted to miss as little of the [coming] season as possible,” says Jacques.
From the design firm’s perspective, the challenges came primarily from the height constraints of the lower level, Jacques says. “The rooms are limited by the floor above, with ceilings that are only seven feet, eight inches high,” he notes. “It was definitely claustrophobic and pretty much a non-usable room with the bar positioned as it was, against the wall.
“We put an emphasis on using new materials and colors that would help to create an impression of space,” Jacques says. “The idea of breaking things up by creating the smaller areas within the space also helped; that way, when you do only have five people on that level, it’s not five people in one huge room.”
There for the Baking
The project’s emphasis on offering a wide variety of high-quality dining options in a casual setting reflects a transformation that Judd Brown, President of Judd Brown Designs, sees taking hold throughout the club industry, as clubs try to compete with the restaurants in their markets. But, he adds, Maplewood is the first club he’s seen go so far as to include a brick, wood-fired oven, like those that many restaurant operations have built a successful business around, as a central part of its new casual format.
From a design standpoint, Brown says, including the oven provided an added opportunity to bring “visual excitement” to the room, which he says is especially important for a lower level with windows on only one side. The oven is given further emphasis by $8,000 worth of specialty mosaic tile that encases it, in a color range that “suggests flames,” Brown notes.
But while that treatment is certainly eye-catching and adds an especially upscale look to the room, the stars of this part of the renovated lower level are still clearly the oven itself, and the taste treats that come out of it.
“We never call it a ‘pizza oven,’” Lusk makes clear. “It has push-button controls that can get it quickly fired up to 700°F. We can do a steak at 500°F in 10 minutes.”
And while pizza, including individual pies and breakfast varieties, has certainly been a major and popular part of the equipment’s output, patrons have also been drawn to the clams oreganata, Buffalo wings, salmon on a plank, calzones, chicken giambotta and many other tempting dishes that it has been producing successfully.
The draw of the oven, and the entire lower level, in fact, became evident almost immediately after it was reopened, with Friday nights in the early spring quickly yielding over 200 covers from a space that now offers maximum seating for 140 people, including all available barstools.
The “Perfect Storm”
“We’ve come a long way from what was just your typical ‘19th hole’ look, with a couple of TVs and some card tables,” Lusk says. “We knew we had a real challenge, because it’s hard to get people to eat in anything that seems like a basement. But [the project] is really part of a ‘perfect storm’ that came together for us this year, with our centennial and also some new membership promotions we’ve done that have brought in over 65 new members.
“[Maplewood] is getting younger very fast—a lot of those new members are young families, with parents around 40 or 45, and two or three young kids. We had to do things that would make them happy to come here—it can’t just be the husband’s club, the wife and children have to want to stay, too.
“Already, the reaction has been overwhelmingly in favor of what we’ve done,” Lusk says. “It’s clear that everyone at the club was ready for change. We thought that would be the case, but it’s been even better than we anticipated.”
Another timely contribution to the “perfect storm” of conditions, Lusk notes, was the decision of Maplewood’s Board of Governors to relax the club’s dress code to include more “appropriate-looking jeans.”
“They can’t be ripped, or worn with sneakers, and you must have a collared shirt,” Lusk adds. The change has spurred increased activity beyond Maplewood’s new lower level to also include its attractive patio seating areas that run along the golf course, as well as an upstairs reception and bar area that have also been given a much-needed facelift.
Overall, the renewed atmosphere of casual dining and dancing that now prevails throughout the club is “drawing more and more younger families and their friends to ‘hang out’ on the upper patio having drinks, and ordering off the bar menu and new pizza menu,” Lusk says. This has already been reflected in a 20% increase in covers, and 15% increase in overall business revenue, for the year.
Lusk doesn’t expect things to show any signs of slowing down as the summer season ends, either—he reports that “members are expressing their anticipation of future use of the new grill room in the winter months, with the fire burning as they enjoy pizza and other items from the oven menu, have drinks, and watch sports and other events on the TV.” Lusk also envisions using the oven to hold cooking classes for kids.
In fact, while the catering side is expected to continue at its high level (and in the process, keep making contributions to the club’s replenishment fund and pay back what was used for the lower-level project), Lusk feels that even stronger growth from a la carte, spurred by all of the new casual dining options now offered, could perhaps start to make that traditional 70-30 breakdown begin to close up a bit in Maplewood CC’s next 100 years.