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December 2019

Find Your Inner Foodie

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Unique F&B Partnerships Draw Non-Golfers, Pump up Profits

By David Gould

Scouting locations for a tavern restaurant he planned to open, Barry Bonner settled on the chalet-style clubhouse at Hillcrest Golf & Country Club in Graettinger, Iowa, population 800. Five years later, Bonner operates a profitable enterprise called Birdie’s Burgers and Brews. It draws diners from a 20-mile radius and actually serves more non-golfers than golfers. Looking to open a second Birdie’s, he is negotiating with yet another public golf facility.

“The plan was to get word-of-mouth advertising working for us in both directions,” says Bonner. “Golfers would tell diners about the restaurant and diners would tell their golfing friends what a nice course Hillcrest is – and that’s exactly how it’s gone.”

As Bonner tells it, golf memberships are up, the facility is packed on weekends and his eatery is self-sustaining for 12 months a year.

A comparable synergy can be found at the Red River Kitchen in Edina, Minnesota, run by Marques Miller in the friendly confines of Braemar Golf Course. In this case a big corporate player is involved, Elior North America via its Lancer Catering subsidiary, which employs Miller and selectively chooses golf facilities as its landlords.

The city of Edina, owner of the award-winning course, wanted a food and beverage operation strong enough to complement its golf amenity. Lancer, which serves meals in the grillroom, caters off-site and does banquets in the Braemar clubhouse, saw strength meeting strength. 
“It was obvious we’d need non-golfers to make the numbers work here,” says Miller. “But the public golf environment is attractive, as long as you make non-golfers feel welcome, which we do.” 

Beck’s Prime, a beloved burgers-and-shakes emporium at Memorial Park Golf Course in Houston, is another example of this arrangement. So is Noonan’s Sports Bar & Grill, located at the Golf Course at Heather Ridge in Aurora, Colorado. Noonan’s is an event-happy hangout where comedy nights, karaoke, trivia and UFC fight-night parties play to a packed house.

To some people the model for win-wins of this type is Eddelmon’s barbeque at Prairie Lakes Golf Course in the Metroplex city of Grand Prairie, Texas. The smoked-meat artistry of Johnny and Joe Eddlemon was known far and wide when Grand Prairie enticed the brothers to relocate to the course some dozen years ago.

“The city even hired a master bricklayer from the island of Tongo to build us a smoker,” recalls Johnny Eddlemon, who fuels his mythical smoker exclusively with pecan wood and sells his famous BBQ brisket sandwich to golfers – at the turn or in the grillroom – for just $5.50.

“We closed our restaurant in town and signed a non-compete with the city,” says Eddlemon, “but we’re able to cater off-site, which is about 60 percent of our business. We get customers coming to us from all over, even if they don’t play golf. We even get golfers from a course down the street coming here for lunch after they finish 18.”

There’s a significant moral to this story, concerning foot traffic onto golf properties and the invisible barrier that used to keep a course from making lunch and dinner revenue off people who don’t play. The scenarios described above clearly show that barrier breaking down. The sense that an actual green-grass golf facility isn’t someplace non-golfers should trespass has lost its edge. And the golf industry has become proactive about not walling itself off, through beginner instruction clinics and novelty events like movie nights, public concerts and Frisbee festivals on the driving range, using social media promotion to spread the word. 

At the same time, the “eatertainment” trend that’s so big these days in the restaurant industry shines quite a spotlight on golf. The obvious examples are Topgolf and DriveShack, but simulator-only venues like Dewey’s Indoor Golf & Sports Grill also prove the appeal of eat-plus-play experiences that are golf-themed. Datassential, a research firm covering the food industry, found nearly 60 percent of surveyed consumers expressing interest in visiting an “eatertainment” venue – 30 percent said they had done so already. About 40 percent of those surveyed said they were interested in visiting a so-called arcade bar or a bowling restaurant, while 26 percent said they wanted to visit a golf-format dining venue.

Restaurants like Birdie’s, Red River and Eddlemon’s aren’t tricked out with arcade games and rock-climbing walls, but they do provide great views, a sports atmosphere and a built-in society of sociable people who have a strong fondness for the facility – the golfers.

As Miller put it simply, “The golf environment is attractive.” If you can add a simulator, an after-dinner putting contest or some other golf “touch,” then all the better.

According to one of the industry’s most respected multi-course operators, “you have to bring a brand and a personality to your f&b if you want to get the most out of it.” So says M.G. Orender, president of the Jacksonville, Florida-based golf management company, Hampton Golf. His company has a 25-facility portfolio split about half and half between public and private.

On the public-golf side of the ledger, according to Orender, branding and programming are particularly relevant. At various Hampton-run courses there are establishments known as Morgan’s Pub, Pete’s Place and the Blue Sky Grill. The latter, although it takes its name from the golf facility where it’s located, is nonetheless loaded with personality and enjoys a rabid following.

“That golf course could be completely closed for maintenance and the Blue Sky Grill would still be packed,” says Orender. Police, fire and USPS personnel, attracted by a discount just for them, are seen in abundance at the restaurant. His company recently added the Elizabethton (Tennessee) Golf Club to its roster, with plans to establish an upstairs eatery there.

“We opened it in September, branded as the Carver Tavern, with a logo that shows a big cutting board and a chef’s knife,” he adds. “Creating a brand and adding special event-type dining is a natural for public golf f&b operations.”

MANAGING THE BOTTOM LINE
O
n the path to profitability, creative branding and a lively atmosphere address the revenue side of the challenge. To augment these factors and nurture the bottom line through cost control, the Hampton Golf group has pursued an affiliation with the National Golf Course Restaurant Association (NGCRA). Founded in Stockholm, Sweden, the organization had a mission to save golf facilities money without compromising food-service quality. The organization has quietly gained a solid clientele among U.S. courses and clubs with a strong interest in making food and beverage a profit center that truly drives the rest of the business.

“The relationship has done good things for us,” says Orender, who describes NGCRA as “a partner rather than a vendor.” Among the benefits, he cites an introduction to the mid-sized food supplier Cheney Brothers, which has produced an overall food cost savings of about 3 percent plus an upgraded sustainability factor.
“They’ll go shopping for me,” says Orender, “and find a Styrofoam cup that is 90 percent biodegradable in four years, at a cost of just six cents each over what we paid for a cup that didn’t biodegrade. That matters to our company and it matters to our golfers.”

Through a connection with the Performance Food Group that NGCRA brokered, Hampton Golf can bring its chefs to education forums that drive important menu and preparation innovations.

“Our chefs are talented, but food is so trend-driven these days that you need somebody who’s doing the research all the time to keep you current,” says Orender.

You can’t rightly discuss food-industry trends without some mention of food trucks, which have begun to make their presence felt in golf. According to industry data source IBISWorld, the U.S. food truck industry’s total 2019 revenue will touch $1 billion, representing an annual growth rate of 6.8 percent since 2014.

This year there was a food-truck innovation in high-end private-community niche of golf. It’s the “Mountain Chef” food catering truck at 144-hole Desert Mountain in North Scottsdale, Arizona. Desert Mountain launched the truck as another way of creating fun, new experiences for members and homeowners. The truck is flashily decorated vehicle available for members to rent, and serves as the club’s chef on wheels, able to serve any item from the 10 restaurants and grills onsite.

The lesson from all this is to avoid anything that seems generic, same-old, out-of-step or that paints your food and beverage operation as a commodity, not something with a bit of spunk and personality. If your only means of doing that is to “outsource by importing,” then perhaps it’s time to put out feelers in the local restaurant market to attract potential concessionaires.

Of course, before you do that you could brainstorm, spitball, do some research and see about hatching something original on your own. There’s a whole world out there that might take a keen interest in what you come up with.

David Gould is a Massachusetts-based freelance writer and frequent contributor to Golf Business.

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