The Carolina Club has flourished by embracing the full flavor and spirit of the University of North Carolina community.
It may not yet have a shiny remodel to show off, but The Carolina Club, located at the University of North Carolina (UNC) in Chapel Hill, still has quite a story to tell. With no sports amenities, the club employs a unique operating model that Club Manager Jim Sutton describes as “part faculty club, part alumni club and part city club.”
Managed by ClubCorp since it opened in 1993, The Carolina Club serves lunch and dinner in between a busy private-event calendar, providing a home where the Chapel Hill community can meet in the spirit of fellowship, camaraderie and tradition.
With the built-in advantage of being located at one the country’s finest public universities, the club’s location provides unmatched accessibility to campus venues and tremendous resources for exclusive programming to its nearly 2,500 members. “Our themed functions before sporting events give us an edge,” says Kevin Moore, Food & Beverage Service Director. “Our Carolina Club Tailgate function before each home football game features the Tar Heel cheerleaders, Ramses [the school’s mascot], and the Tar Heel pep band. That’s a combination that can’t be found anywhere else.”
F&B, First and Foremost
Food and beverage is The Carolina Club’s primary amenity and largest revenue department. “The department operates first and foremost as a team,” says Sutton. “Everybody shares a common goal of delivering on our three steps of service: Warm welcomes, magic moments and fond farewells.”
The club houses two dining rooms: a more formal “Traditions” room, where reservations are encouraged and members find white tablecloth dining in traditional décor, and O’Herron’s, a casual walk-in, no-jacket-required grill. Menus are the same in both dining rooms, with more emphasis on small plates, sandwiches and salads in O’Herron’s.
“We carefully plan our menus to provide an upscale dining experience on par with other restaurants in the area,” says Executive Chef Oscar La Fuente. “When I create menus I look at the competition around us, and from there, I start brainstorming ideas and flavors.”
To please a variety of different palettes, La Fuente aims to use as much local product as possible. “This is our biggest challenge,” he says. ”I think clubs try to please so many people that sometimes we lose track of our goals and who we are supposed to be.” Remaining focused on an overall strategy, rather than changing the menu frequently at every suggestion of a member, is the key to maintaining quality and consistency, he feels.
The Carolina Club does not offer a la carte breakfast, but does make a complimentary Continental hospitality table available in the lobby. A “Steak & Eggs Brunch” is served one Sunday per month.
Lunch is served Monday through Friday from 11:30 AM-2:00 PM, with both an a la carte menu and a “Club Table” buffet service. In addition, O’Herron’s stays open for anytime dining, covering the midday period with a full lunch menu.
Dinner is served in O’Herron’s Tuesday through Saturday from 5:30-9:00 PM, and in Traditions on Thursday through Saturday during the same hours. Twice a month on Wednesdays, a themed “value night” dinner is offered.
Average covers for both venues varies widely, depending on campus happenings—many of which revolve around the Tar Heel athletic schedule. “We open for every men’s home basketball and home football game, no matter the day or time,” says Sutton. “We open at least 2 and a half hours before tipoff or kickoff, and stay open for a minimum of 30 minutes post-game. In fact, we opened for a home [basketball] game on New Year’s Day.”
“More than a Restaurant with Dues”
Of the $2.2 million in F&B revenues generated at The Carolina Club in 2011, almost $1.6 million came from private events. Two-thirds of those events were University-related, interspersed with weddings, receptions, holiday parties, graduations and tailgates.
“You have to be more than a restaurant with dues,” says Sutton. And with an increasing number of restaurants cropping up in Chapel Hill that can also offer outstanding food and service, Sutton and his staff have made it a priority to find new ways to attract and hold members’ attention, and loyalty.
“The answer is programming that keeps members connected and engaged,” says Sutton. “We probe to identify [members’] needs and uncover their passions, and devise programming to fill those boxes.” That approach has led to the creation of a variety of “clubs within a club,” including an investment club, a book club and an epicurean club, complete with cooking classes and tastings.
One of the most successful programs has been the “Business Builders” group, which hosts weekly networking meetings, a speaker series and other social gatherings. “Business Builders,” which more than doubled in size in the past year, has also resulted in several new memberships from guests who attended, free of charge, when brought by existing members. Sutton’s team has also developed a travel group that tours the country, with a club employee as a personal tour leader and concierge.
The “more than just a restaurant” concept has also led to inventive food-and-beverage concepts, including:
- A weekly “Table d’Hote” (a four-course meal for $30).
- Monthly value nights, like Prime Rib and Classic Movie Night, in addition to live jazz music every Friday and the once-a-month Sunday brunch.
- Children’s events, ranging from “Breakfast with Santa” to Halloween carnivals.
- A weekly “uncorked” night, where members can bring a bottle from their cellar with no corkage fee. “I don’t know anybody in town that offers that accommodation,” says Sutton.
In with the New
The drive to distinguish what The Carolina Club has to offer has also extended to its membership recruitment and retention efforts, with a special emphasis on demonstrating relevance to a younger generation of prospective members.
With more than one-third of the club’s current membership coming from founding members, and an average membership age that is still over 60, Sutton has made it a priority to explore how the next generation of club members will likely define membership value.
“We’re facing attrition with our senior membership that is not being outpaced with enrollment of younger members, resulting in a slow net decline of members from the historical high count of 3,600 in 1999,” he explains. “This is an unsustainable trend we’re working hard to reverse.”
While alumni status is not a requirement, all members must maintain a membership in UNC’s General Alumni Association to join the club, which offers ten categories of membership. One of the biggest appeals is the low cost; monthly dues average around $30, with no food minimum or assessment. Another attraction is the connection to ClubCorp and the travel benefits and upgraded membership options provided by that association (including complimentary dining and golf benefits, discounts and concierge services at more than 150 participating clubs in the network).
To boost interest among younger members, The Carolina Club has introduced a Young Professionals Club, which offers targeted programming, including informal tastings, cocktails for a cause, and other social and educational offerings. “We strive to make the club relevant,” says Membership Director Vandora Davis. Social media has been ramped up—including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn pages for the club as a whole, as well as for groups like “Business Builders”—and the club’s robust wi-fi service is actively promoted to those for whom “staying connected” is a social and business priority, and to establish an “office away from the office” environment.
At the same time, the club staff recognizes the importance of continuing to find the right ways to appeal and connect with all other member segments as well. For example, the club used to mail out a 16-page, color newsletter, but then decided to scrap it in favor of an e-newsletter. Unfortunately, less than 30 percent of members read the electronic version, and reservations decreased across the board.
So now, the printed newsletter has been brought back, streamlined to eight pages, as a complement to the electronic version and the club’s enhanced social media presence. “It’s an all-out marketing attack to drive usage and keep the club top of mind,” says Sutton. “There isn’t just a one-size-suits-all communication strategy any more.”
Amidst all of the change, Sutton and his staff strive to respect and preserve the culture and traditions that have served The Carolina Club well in its first 20 years. “Members enjoy consistency and the ability to have the same high-quality food and personal service each time they visit,” says Moore. To deliver in those areas, The Carolina Club team follows an old adage: Pick a few specialties, and be the best at them.
View recipes by Oscar A. La Fuente, Executive Chef, The Carolina Club, Chapel Hill, N.C.:
View menus from The Carolina Club