Tradition gives way to reform: competition from upscale public restaurants forces private clubs to shed their stodgy image and increase responsiveness to their members’ gastronomic needs

Tradition gives way to reform: competition from upscale public restaurants forces private clubs to shed their stodgy image and increase responsiveness to their members’ gastronomic needs

Richard Martin


Long regarded as stuffy bastions of rigid tradition, private clubs are being forced to shed their stodgy ways in favor of democratic reforms and more contemporary cuisines.

Looming large among the factors driving the club evolution is the growing sophistication of high-end public restaurants. Club managers say those upscale alternatives pose new competitive challenges for many of the nation’s 14,000 private dining operations.

Still, operators of private clubs say the loyalty of their affluent members has intensified because of the improved responsiveness of clubs to gastronomic and dietary preferences.

“1988 was a good year for us, but it was a year in which our members demanded the very best,” says Antonio Luna, senior food and beverage vice president of Club Corp. of America, the Dallas-based operator whose 200 nationwide clubs generate annual food-service sales of about $150 million.

In addition to “healthy” options, culinary inventiveness, and uncompromising quality, the “very best” demanded by most club members now includes the avoidance of negative publicity that could result from discriminatory admissions policies.

Although protests and lawsuits stemming from clubs’ alleged race-sex biases have blemished the club industry’s image and retarded its appeal for many potential patrons, an estimated 90 percent of all private clubs scrupulously avoid such policies, Luna says.

He asserts that discrimination against minorities, religions, and women “is a thing of the past” among outfits that cater to the more youthful market of prosperous executives who are currently signing up for club memberships. Those well-heeled achievers, many of them in the 35-to-40 age bracket, “don’t think in that fashion any more,” Luna says.

However, most newer members of clubs are keenly appreciative of creative, contemporary cuisine and are likely to discriminate against the uninspired cooking still being served in older private establishments.

“These days you must have a creative chef-technician in the back of the house,” Luna advises. “And you’ve simply got to have personalized service if you’re going to succeed.”

Taking that perception to heart, new operations, such as the Buckhead Club in Atlanta and the City Club in San Francisco, made strong impressions on members by routinely soliciting their input on everything from bread recipes to quality and service standards.

Since the swank Regency Club in Los Angeles began competing with the local old-guard of private clubs seven years ago, it has turned its extravagant devotion to progressive gastronomy into a solid following of captains of industry and entertainment luminaries.

Meanwhile, the Cherry Valley Country Club in Garden City, N.Y., has seen its food-service sales grow from $300,000 annually to $1.75 million annually over the last five years because, management says, “the food got better” after the club hired a talented executive chef.

In Dallas the Club at San Simeon has lured a sizable share of banquet business away from prominent hotels by offering the locally renowned cuisine of San Simeon restaurant chef Richard Chamberlain to its tightly restricted membership.

Included among the many other clubs that are earning high marks for progressive food services are the Metropolitan Club in Chicago, the Hillcrest Country Club in Los Angeles, the Commerce Club in Atlanta, the New York Athletic Club, and the Dallas Country Club.

Private clubs succeeding on the strengths of their food services often share a distinct advantage with hotels — namely, high margins resulting from low-food-cost banquet trades.

However, lower total food-service margins are also a factor in most club operations, largely because of members’ demands for guest-to-server ratios that typically average 8-to-1, compared with about 15 guests to each server in many white-tablecloth restaurants.

Still, because of fees and dues, clubs’ overall bottom-line results are comparable to those of many public fine-dining operations, according to Luna. He says initiation fees in the club industry can range between $5,000 and $20,000, with monthly dues ranging between $80 and $175.

A typical club member may pay between $500 and $600 a year on his or her own club meals but may spend about $2,500 more a year on guests, Luna says.

Despite the prosperity reported by clubs that attain “cutting-edge” culinary reputations, certain private operations are falling victim to the fading cachet of old-fashioned snobbery.

Because hotel-based private dining operations may have a harder time carving out identities as trend-setters, they seem to be especially vulnerable. The Whitehall Club, which for 30 years operated as a private club in Chicago’s Whitehall Hotel, recently changed to a public format because of declining membership.

The Barclay, Drake, and Ritz-Carlton hotels in Chicago still host private dining clubs despite temptations to use valuable hotel space for higher-traffic dining concepts instead of ones that are exclusive and self-limiting.

Non-hotel clubs, for their part, must reckon with special civic and social needs in plotting their competitive game plans. “You’ve got to have leaders of the community participate in your club if it’s going to succeed,” Luna says.

“A club is very different from a restaurant, which often depends principally on location,” he explains. “If the need of the community is not there, the club will not happen.”

Of course, economics are crucial to club operators, who must accurately gauge not only the tastes of their prospective members but also the depths of their pockets.

“There are many different theories in our business,” Luna says. “Some clubs believe in running 32-percent food costs, but that means they charzge higher menu prices.”

Club Corp.’s 180 company-owned clubs and the 20 others it manages keep a 38-percent food-cost target because, Luna says, “we believe in delivering value. That’s the only way you’re going to keep your members.”

COPYRIGHT 1989 Reproduced with permission of the copyright holder. Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group