F&B is back in business at The Country Club of the South, with a newly renovated Clubroom, streamlined kitchen operation, structured service protocols and exciting menu options.
Coconut cream pie. Casual dining. Flat-screen TVs. Craft cocktails. Wii tournaments. Kitchen protocols. Service standards. Tapas menus. Wine dinners. Fixed food-cost percentages. Buying power. A stone patio. Quality ingredients. Motivated staff members. A good steak.
These are just some of the intriguing ingredients of the food-and-beverage rebirth in progress at The Country Club of the South, just outside of Atlanta in Johns Creek, Ga.
The CC of the South is rising again after a challenging period when the member-owned club went into foreclosure, was sold to a bank and was ultimately acquired by Dallas-based ClubCorp in 2010.
“We’ve come a long way in the past two years,” says Mike Selk, Director of Food & Beverage for ClubCorp’s Southeast Region (he offices out of The CC of the South and oversees 11 additional properties in his region). “It’s been a lot of hard work, but we’ve increased membership from 564 members in 2010 to our current roster of 700.”
|The Country Club of the South
Location: Johns Creek, Ga.
While F&B can’t take all the credit for the membership spike, with average weekly a la carte revenues of $35,000 it’s certainly been one of the major pillars contributing to the club’s renewed and continued success.
The club’s food-and-beverage operation has also reduced its attachment to off-the-cuff operations and is now flexing the buying power of its parent company to keep food costs in line while improving quality at the same time. Staff members, both new and tenured, are motivated and passionate about making their club a success as they implement new menus and operational standards. And multimillion-dollar upgrades to the club’s facilities, including a complete overhaul of the casual dining room, have helped to reestablish The CC of the South as one of the foremost private clubs in Atlanta.
You Can Win for Losing
Eight months ago, Paul Agnelli experienced the “best worst” event of his professional life. In the midst of a successful career in the restaurant industry, including time spent as Executive Chef of The Capital Grille in Atlanta, Agnelli was gearing up to open his own restaurant. He had the financing, the building, the staff and even the menu lined up. But in the eleventh hour, it all fell apart.
Soon after those plans shattered, Agnelli got a call from ClubCorp. They wanted him to step into the role of Executive Chef at The CC of the South.
“I got really lucky,” says Agnelli. “The CC of the South had been on my radar for years. I was always interested in the club industry because of the endless opportunities for creativity. And this is a spectacular property. With my experience opening restaurants, working in corporate kitchens, and developing training and staff manuals, it couldn’t have been a better fit.”
From day one, the members embraced Agnelli, often referring to him as “our chef”—a personal touch Agnelli hadn’t expected, but appreciates.
“ClubCorp stresses making members feel like part of the family, but what’s really cool is how members pay it forward to employees, making us feel like we’re part of the fabric of this place,” says Agnelli.
Having grown up as a golfer and as a member of various clubs around the country, Agnelli approaches The CC of the South’s F&B operation with the mindset of “what would I want in my club?” He also emphasizes playing by the rules.
“I’ve worked in kitchens where there are no manuals or recipes or training systems,” he says. “For some places, that works. But I stress procedure and so does ClubCorp—and when you have an operation as big as this, those things are even more critical.”
Growing Up Together
With a tightly knit staff already in place, some of whom had been at the club for over a decade, Agnelli thought that the best way to get buy-in for the new concepts he wanted to introduce would be to jump on the line and work elbow-to-elbow with others, sharing ideas and including them in the menu-development process.
“At first, there was some push-back on ordering, recipe development and other things,” says Agnelli. “But I’m not the type of chef to make a mandate unless I have no other choice. So I work the line. I showed my staff how to properly order. I asked my sous how he made certain things. Then I would offer suggestions on ways to improve a dish. We have done countless side-by-side comparisons.
“As we developed the new menu, I asked my cooks to taste the different dishes, give feedback and offer ideas and suggestions,” Agnelli continues. This not only helped to foster a more productive team environment, he says, it proved to the staff that Agnelli could cook and that he was capable of elevating the operation to a status it had never seen before.
“It’s a process and we’re far from done, but we’ve come a long way and we’re better for it,” he says.
A New Dining Experience
Just before Agnelli came on board, The CC of the South began a $750,000 renovation to its Clubroom, as part of a multimillion-dollar capital improvement program that transformed the property into a more casual, family-friendly venue. An 80-inch flat-screen television, flanked by two 60-inch screens where the club now holds monthly Wii tournaments, was added. More varied seating, a banquette, a community table and a new bar area with a stone backsplash were incorporated into the design, along with a large stone patio with a fireplace and outdoor dining area.
“They wanted to reopen the Clubroom at the same time that I launched the new menu,” says Agnelli. “This gave me adequate time to choose china and flatware that would best suit the new space and to plan the menu.”
Up until this point, the club had dozens of menus. And with so many potential dishes in its repertoire, ordering was a nightmarish process. So, as part of his goal to streamline the operation, Agnelli cut the number of menus down substantially, creating one all-day menu as well as a dinner, dessert and Sunday supper menu.
“With fewer menus, we have more room to be creative with specials,” says Agnelli, who plans to change menus three times a year. “We are able to focus on quality and consistency.”
Each dish on The CC of the South’s new menus was chosen and crafted carefully. Especially the steak. “My GM, Reggie Kratzer, came to me when I first started and said we needed to have a couple of really great steaks on the menu,” says Agnelli, who spent much of his career working in steakhouses. “We came up with four dishes that have been really successful.”
They include a bone-in, 18-oz. porcini-rubbed ribeye, a 14-oz. New York strip, a 10-oz. filet served with blue cheese butter, and 4-oz. lamb porterhouses. “Each comes with two side choices,” says Agnelli. “It’s simple, but it’s high-quality meat. By choosing superior products, we let the simplicity of the ingredients’ flavors do the work.”
As a ClubCorp property, The CC of the South is part of a larger buying program that helps it get better prices on products it would otherwise pay top dollar to procure. “This was a point of contention with some of my staff, but I showed how working through ClubCorp’s vendor network would not just benefit us, but the corporate entity behind us,” says Agnelli.
The club has realized other benefits as a member of the ClubCorp family. “With eleven other sister properties in the area, we’re able to share equipment and other resources,” says Selk. “We are able to draw members from those properties who might want to dine here, too.”
Beyond the Atlanta region, The CC of the South also benefits from best practices and idea-sharing that takes place throughout the management firm’s network.
“One of the biggest advantages for me is being able to see what’s happening at other clubs and bring those ideas here,” says Selk. “For example, Coto de Caza Golf and Racquet Club in California had an event over the summer that actually inspired us to host our own Octoberfest, with different beer pairings as well as a scotch-tasting paired with cigars.”
Wine and Dine
A dish is only as good as the server who sells it, and so The CC of the South has also placed top priority on training front-of-the-house staff.
Specials and wines are sold using descriptive adjectives based on actual tastings. Meals are served quickly and with stunning precision. Tables are cleared promptly, and desserts are flying off the shelf faster than you can say coconut cream pie.
“It’s never ‘You’re Welcome’; it’s always, ‘My Pleasure,’ ” says Chad Barnicoat, The CC of the South’s Service Manager. Barnicoat has been with the club for nearly a year and a half, and has spent most of that time establishing service standards for the front of the house.
“There had been a lack of knowledge among the service staff and it was very impersonal,” he notes. “We were averaging eight to twelve negative comments a day.” To end that trend, Barnicoat taught staff the proper way to serve, how to speak to members, and how to most effectively sell wines.
“We do daily lineups to make sure everyone is on the same page,” he says. “Each week, we focus on a different topic, such as name recognition or consistent serving methods.”
As a result, The CC of the South has a much different front-of-the-house staff than it did previously, reducing negative comments by more than 90 percent. “Chad has done an outstanding job,” says Kratzer. “The wine dinners and tastings have added a new layer of enjoyment to our membership.”
Barnicoat has also helped to improve The CC of the South’s wine program, effectively doubling wine revenues since 2010.
“We have a corporate list of wines that we carry, and I’ve added a spectrum of wines from each varietal to that list,” he says. “I’ve found it to be very helpful to carry around a bottle of wine during dinner and offer to pour a tasting to members, to get their feedback about new wines we might want to bring in.”
This tactic has also increased member engagement with monthly wine dinners and even a wine club. “It helps having a chef who is equally passionate about wine,” notes Barnicoat.
The club has also introduced craft cocktails with an on-trend tapas menu in its adult lounge. “We want to offer members a dining experience to suit their mood,” says Selk. “If that means offering a quiet place to grab a drink and a bite to eat, we have that. If it means dining with your family, we have that, too.”
Most probably wouldn’t think of a dessert as being a club’s signature dish, but at The CC of the South, the coconut cream pie is just that.
“Our desserts were so poorly executed, we barely sold any,” says Agnelli. “But desserts are so simple and they make members genuinely happy, so I made it my mission to write a dessert menu that would complement our dinner service.”
He started by hosting dessert tastings with members. “If you want your members to fall in love with you, ask them to come and taste a few different desserts on the house,” jokes Agnelli.
Once he got a feel for what the members enjoyed, he crafted a simple, sweet menu that features key lime pie, vanilla crème brûlée with fresh berries, Krispy Kreme bread pudding with a Woodford Reserve caramel, a chocolate skillet cookie with oolong tea ice cream, and the now-famous coconut cream pie, as well as assorted ice creams and sorbets. “We don’t make our own ice creams yet, but that’s coming,” says Agnelli.
Since the dessert menu was launched, check averages have increased substantially, as have sales of after-dinner coffee and dessert wines. “The key to success with our menus has been using high-quality, simple ingredients that don’t require a lot of manipulation,” says Agnelli. “We let the ingredients do the talking, preparing them so the flavors shine through.”