Resistance to Change Can Paralyze a Culinary Culture

by Chef Lawrence McFadden, CMC, COO, the Union Club of Cleveland

When I arrived at the 140-year-old Union Club of Cleveland, institutional traditions were front and center. Regardless of the new boss’ expertise — I’ve been in the culinary industry since 1982 and a CMC since 2002 — , there will always be a certain group asking, “Why now?” or “Why are you the orchestrator?” or saying “We don’t do it like that here,” or “That might have worked at The Ritz or Four Seasons.” These are the realities for anyone in a position of making changes and improvements. 

Our club had club food, but never a culinary culture like Duquesne, DAC, Bohemian, Cherokee, Everglades, The Country Club or endless other legendary locations. Our past Executive Chef may have viewed his position as a job, not a career — which is fine, but not what we needed.. Culinary technique needs to be the fabric of the chef’s DNA long before the Executive Chef title is assumed. We had to find someone new.

Of course, we knew change wouldn’t come without some push-back. In the words of Paul Prudhomme, “Food is a very powerful emotion,” and honestly, everyone has an opinion. More importantly, no one likes to change, and certainly not longtime members of a well-established club. But an experienced executive knows that excellence doesn’t come without movement, doesn’t exist without challenging the norm or venturing out of the comfort zone. 

Before we could change that culinary culture, we had to create support from various other departments including finance, human resources, membership and marketing. Some needed to be convinced, while all deserved to understand the plan — or else paranoia sets in. If you don’t have the departments on board, all the talent in the world will be wasted.

Any great chef needs tools to do his or her job: environment, technology and salary structure for a shared vision. For our club to become a place that would attract a high level of talent took two years of creating, lobbying, and strategically funding various channels to produce a healthy balance sheet with solid membership growth. Once that was established, we began a search for the next culinary leader with the desire to place the club on the gastronomic map. While some believe in the phase, “If you build it, they will come,” we certainly had to exercise patience.  

Our previous chef wasn’t known in the city, schools or community. How could the club brand be a model of culinary excellence if no one knew who was at the helm? Our city has a population of 200,000, yet most residents had never even heard of the club. While that was by design in the 1950s to 1990s, it can’t be part of the mission in the new millennium or membership is simply going to decline — which is what I inherited. Our club only has three key attributes; Food and Beverage, Fitness/Spa and Lodging, so it was important that culinary be visible so it could be used for awareness and member recruitment.

Our advertising has been organic. As with most private clubs, the public can’t enter so media channels are reluctant to write about us. We had to rely on word of mouth. In addition, management can get caught up in cost versus revenue generation but in reality, most members will pay for an experience and a unique story and our club needed the talent to create that dynamic.

We finally did find the right chef. Most members think we just hired a great technical cook. We really got leadership, persuasion, ego, emotional intelligence, mission and a long list of other skills that are propelling the Food and Beverage department and ultimately, the club forward.

We’re now eight months into our strategy. Slowly, ever so slowly, everyone is beginning to see that our changes were for the better. (It brings to mind the Stephen Covey statement, “I seek your greatest good, I mean you no harm.”) While they don’t say it, we hear it in their voices. Pictures are being taken at the tables, menus are opened to see the weekly specials and members are telling business colleagues, “You must try this.” Local restaurateurs are asking our members about the new Chef at the Union Club, creating pride, joy and value in their membership.

Four lessons in hiring a Master Chef can be taken from this story. One, he will not do it the way you would have done it. If you want to intervene, why hire him in the first place?

Two, talent is a challenge to manage but rewarding if you can allow yourself the confidence to support it when others waver.

Three, membership needs to be patient in the quality journey. Understanding a “change mentality” is important and members must trust that the new direction is the right direction.

Lastly, get out of their way. Don’t micromanage the small stuff.

In closing, change can only take place if membership, ownership (in some cases) and employees are all being considered. If one of these are disproportionate or out of balance, revisit the original value proposition, keeping in mind that it is easier said than done, especially when it comes to the daily requests of individual members. After all, members are the ultimate customer.