How one club used data to satisfy the menu preferences of (almost) all its members

by Chef Lawrence McFadden, CMC

When it comes to substitution and menu change requests, finding a balance between “yes,” “no” or “not available” can be tough. Young chefs can become frustrated when members deconstruct their dishes in the middle of a busy shift. Welcome to the menu problems of the private clubs throughout America.

In 2015 our club had a Food and Beverage committee with a mission to review menus on behalf of the clubs’ population. The group’s meetings were scheduled once a month, during which the chef would present several dishes while the sommelier poured wines. To include more members, we suggested doing a special quarterly “menu change tasting dinner” in place of those meetings.

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We invited 30 members to sample six to eight menu items free of charge. The guest lists consisted of Board or standing committees, members who dined in the Grille restaurant often or new members who needed culinary exposure. Banquet-style round tables created communal seating, so participants could share their thoughts.

Each place setting included a customized menu with a rating sheet and few lines for comments, generating data on member likes and dislikes. We followed up with an online survey to measure broader questions like overall enjoyment, which gave us additional data on menu engineering and, most importantly, the menu development process. From all this, we gained new perspective: individual member favorites are not to be confused with “club favorites.”

From the beginning it was a hit. After eight dinners, 200-plus members have participated, and a strong culinary voice emerged.

The Food and Beverage committee disbanded after about a year, moving on to other interests. Two years later, when we changed to our current Executive Chef, our quarterly taste panel dinners turned into a weekly Friday night community table. Now guests buy in to the table, eat with friends and dine on what our chef found in the market that week.

As a General Managers, our challenge is always providing what members want while balancing our chefs’ desire for creativity. Taste is legendarily subjective — without data it’s just an opinion. Making it happen is easier said than done in a member-owned establishment, but trying is safer than doing nothing.

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