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Food & beverage: soul of a club

hamburgerBy Barry Morgan

If golf is the heart of a club’s operation, then food & beverage services are most certainly the soul.

Services provided at a golf facility reflect management’s philosophies and define the club’s standards of operation. F&B services permeate the golfers’ overall experience at the club, and players who have enjoyed an outstanding round on a first-class course will leave disenchanted if services in the 19th hole do not measure up. Players who have had a disappointing round, on the other hand, can lick their wounds and rekindle their enthusiasm for the game over a refreshing drink on a hot day in the relaxing comfort of an inviting clubhouse lounge.

Generally speaking, while the club’s F&B facilities and services may not be the major reason a golfer selects a course for the first time, the club’s level of service is likely one of the most important factors in the player’s decision to return. Golfers purchase a total experience each time they enter the club’s gates, and all facets of the club help contribute to the golfers’ first impressions. In the increasingly competitive world of golf, viable, professionally operated food & beverage amenities are critical components of the marketability of the game.

“There are three types of club operations,” says Jay Gazeley, chief operating officer at Cataraqui Golf and Country Club, Kingston, Ontario. “Those that lose money on food services and operate strictly as a service to the golfers, those that basically break even providing complimentary services, and those that depend on the success of food & beverage services to make a significant contribution to the bottom line.”

However, times are changing. Even in the realm of private and semi-private clubs, managers are increasingly under pressure to provide a positive end-of-the-day contribution through the F&B operations. Given current labour costs, insurance, taxes, and new legislation, which all contribute to increasing the clubs’ costs of operations, more and more golf operations are being forced to turn to the F&B services department of the operation for needed income, and as such, few clubs can afford to carry a subsidized food & beverage department.A WATHCHFUL EYE

Running a successful F&B service does not require a magic touch; but it does require a solid understanding of the market and the ability to make basic, practical decisions with an eye to extremely narrow margins.  In fact, the formula seems simple: club services are successful when the customers get what they want, when they want it, the way they want it, while at the same time costs are being kept under control.

If more services are provided than are needed (e.g. the club is open for breakfast on rainy weekdays), or if customers are offered products they do not want (as evidenced by lack of sales), the business does not succeed.  A more realistic focus will help define, with clarity, a golf facility’s food & beverage ‘market’ on any given day at any time.

For many golf courses, the dining clientele is often limited to the number of golfers the golf course can attract. For instance, a remote location sometimes makes it a challenge to draw in local community members for anything but golf, and many smaller clubs depend solely on daily players for survival. They are often unable to deliver little more than a convenience style operation that is limited to wrapped sandwiches and packaged snacks. If this is indeed all the market wants, aspiring to provide more may come at the expense of profitability.

Other facilities that have the ability cater to tournaments and larger groups in a banquet setting are able to broaden their offerings throughout the club. In almost all cases, however, clubs that view F&B services as a subsidized part of the golf operation rarely draw a very strong following.  The most successful of these operations function efficiently and effectively on their own.

Bring any group of club managers together to discuss common concerns and it is not long before the conversation turns to food service operation woes. These sorts of exchanges help in defining what to offer and how to offer it and they are a valuable an important part of the role of managing effectively.  But knowledge is only part of the battle to stay profitable. As Al Helmer of South Muskoka Golf and Curling Club points out, “Food services are a seven day a week operation and running even a seasonal operation requires lots of hours and a lot of commitment from the staff.”

With heightened awareness of safety considerations related to the service of food products and public concerns with communicable diseases and food borne illnesses, it is has become increasingly apparent in the post Walkerton era that when dealing with food and products of human consumption, it is important to have experienced people on the job and compensate them accordingly. Given the importance and difficulty of providing proper food services to a limited market, it is not surprising that some operators are glad to turn this part of the club over to a contract caterer who has a passion for the business.

Going out

Motivated by dependency on the success of his or her own efforts, a caterer is perhaps more likely to pay attention to the details and put in the hours necessary to see the operation through. To the caterer’s advantage, he or she does not need to be as concerned about other aspects of the club’s operation as might a harried manager with a host of other concerns. Therefore, they can focus their energies and talents where they belong and often to better result.

Contract catering can take many forms. Circled Pine Golf Club in Borden, Ontario, has had success in the past using a local caterer for larger tournament events. This allowed the club to accept events that it might not otherwise be able to handle. In house, the club was content to look after day-to-day activities and standard club events efficiently and economically with minimal staffing.

Clubs like Cataraqui Golf and Country Club in Kingston, Ontario, benefited from a fully catered food service operation for almost 30 years. At Granite Ridge Golf Club in Milton, Ontario, General Manager Jeff Davis is convinced that when you give someone an opportunity to make money providing an essential service, they will put in the time, effort, and the talent needed to succeed.

Compensation structures for these services vary as well. Some clubs pay the caterer on a per meal basis. In other instances, the caterers receive a percentage of the profits. In still other models of operation, the caterer merely pays the club a flat fee or lease for the space in which they can do their work.

F&B revenues sometimes include services beyond the walls of the club as well.  As the Chef begins to build relationships in the club community, demand for off-site catering may also play a role in the caterer’s success in addition to take out services if the club is located in a residential area.  At Essex Golf Club in Windsor Ontario, the executive chef found success and enhanced the club’s reputation by offering cooking classes in a suppliers test kitchen and strengthened the club’s brand as a premier provider in the community.

Staying in

The proverbial ‘heat in the kitchen’ has caused some operators to seek outside alternatives, but food service can also be a rewarding creative challenge. For many operators, it is very important to have complete control over this part of the operation. Run effectively, F&B services can make a significant contribution to the club’s bottom line. Consequently, it is much more common to find the club handling food services in house, in spite of the many associated concerns and issues that are inherent with this part of the operation.

Today’s technology makes it possible for clubs to provide outstanding culinary services almost “out of a box” and when real talent is combined with enthusiasm and a positive service attitude, great things are possible.

A golf facility’s food services establish the club’s reputation in the community and these services can be lucrative if the offerings compliment the rest of the operation. In the off season or on days when banquets will not interfere with golf, the club’s infrastructure, ostensibly put in place to serve tournaments and large groups of golfers can be utilized to generate additional profit for the club.

Banquet activity allows tight control of costs and can generate substantial income. Typically these “events” are also an outlet for creativity and a source of pride for those involved.  It is important to keep in mind, however, that all of these peripheral services will involve further efforts in marketing, hefty initial costs, and a new set of management skills for existing staff.

The tasteful choice

Kelly Myles of Caledon Country Club, Inc. offers sage advice. “The most important thing for an owner or manager or operator is don’t be afraid to learn the business,” she says. “Regardless of whether food services are contracted out or done in house, you need to understand the ins and outs of the industry… what the upside is and what the pitfalls are, etcetera.”

Jack Canfield and Mark Hansen, coauthors of the highly successful Chicken Soup for the Soul series, along with Les Hewitt one of North America’s top performance coaches, note in their book The Power of Focus:

“When you focus most of your time and energy doing things you are truly brilliant at, you eventually reap big rewards. In other words, do what you do well and leave things that you do not particularly enjoy to others. Foodservice is as much an art as it is a business and those who enjoy the greatest success have a passion for what they do and it shows.”


Barry Morgan is a Consulting Partner with National Private Club Practice and a former General Manager with experience at a number of outstanding private, semi-private, corporate and military clubs in Canada.  He is primarily responsible for developing the Canadian Club Management Information Service provided by National Private Club Practice for the private club industry in Canada.  He can be reached by email at

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