Tell us about your background.
Colin Burns: I grew up in New Jersey and both my father and grandfather were in the restaurant business. We ran the Burns Country Inn. People still talk about it today. My father had his fingerprints on everything. He signed everything, “Your host, Harry Burns.” That’s a big imprint on my own style, my ownership responsibility. I’ve only had two jobs besides working for my parents. I went to the Plandome Country Club in Manhasset and after 4 ½ years was hired as the GM at 28. I helped Plandome get settled and organized. We went on a real campaign to drive business. Then I was offered an opportunity to come to Winged Foot.
Rhy Waddington: I grew up on an 850-acre farm in a small town in Australia. I did an apprenticeship, traveling the East Coast of Australia, and met my wife, then started a restaurant in 2003 with my wife and parents. In 2006 I was offered the position of executive chef at Bondi Bar and Kitchen in downtown San Diego.
As you each look at your responsibilities, what are your priorities every day?
Colin: Fortunately the size of the operation is such that my role is probably less food and beverage than other club managers because of the general manager structure here. My job really is to liaison with the board and be the support staff for the senior department heads. However, when I need to collect my thoughts, I’m either in the kitchen or in the walk-in box. Sometimes I’m there just to think, but every time I go into the walk-in box, I can’t help but recall the smells of my childhood, when I was 10, 12 years old, cleaning lettuce and cocktail shrimp and doing all those things we did for all those years.
Rhy, when you took the job, what did you think it was going to be? What has it turned out to look like in actuality?
I’ve never worked in a private club setting before, I’ve always been in restaurants. But with my background of farm-to-table, one of the things we want to do is give our membership as many options as possible. We change our dinner menu every single week and it’s a big operation so that in itself is a huge job, managing that, and making sure we’re meeting all our budgets. By changing the menu every week, you have the opportunity to not only get the best produce but get the best prices on products. You tailor your menu to meet the budget. And just give it as much variety for members as possible. What was a little bit of a shock to me was the private club setting, where you have the same members coming back all the time. You have to build a strong relationship with them, spend a lot of face time with the membership and just be really flexible. We have some members coming here 50, 60 years and they want a certain item, they want what they want and we just have to be flexible with that. It’s not always from a calendar standpoint what we would want to do but at the end of the day, we’re a private club and we’re there for them.
Do you think local restaurants have changed the types of palates that your membership has?
Rhy: Definitely. People are a lot more knowledgeable now, with cooking shows on TV. We have a lot of young members as well, who are sophisticated. They’ll try a lot of things. They’ve gone to some of the best restaurants in New York. We have to cater to them as well.
There’s been a resurgence in cocktails and craft beer. What’s the beverage side of the business like?
Colin: What you see when you look over the top of the bar is the diversity of the dark liquors, the Irish whiskeys, the Scotch whiskeys. We bring in a bottle of Pappy and we sell it out in two weeks at a fairly hefty price. That ties back to the food as well. Twenty-five years ago, if we were selling 2 ounces of some Scotch at $20-$25, they would have thrown me out on my head.
Rhy: In regards to beer, we have local breweries, and it’s become a regular on the menu.
Colin: This winter we’re expanding our tap line by 2 or 4 additional lines to accommodate the requests of our guests.
A number of club kitchens are somewhat dated. If you were going to rebuild the kitchen at Winged Foot, tell me about how you’d approach it.
Rhy: We’ve been lobbying to get the kitchen done for 4 years and now it’s happening! It looks like an archeological dig site, it’s completely gutted, but we’re in the midst of it and it’s very exciting. In terms of the design of the kitchen, one of the biggest problems was the flow part and the actual design of the equipment. We’re a little limited with the footprint of the actual building so we’ve been able to use the basement space by putting in an internal lift, instead of having the guy go up the stairs. And we opened up the whole bottom space for the prep and pastry kitchen. It wasn’t that the equipment we had didn’t work, it was a flow issue. When you’re doing 250 people in the dining room for a wedding, we still want to be able to do 150 out in the grill room or on the terrace, so we can still serve our membership.
I assume the #1 priority is, how do we do a la carte and still be in the event and banquet business?
Rhy: We’re putting in a custom-made island suite that everyone can work around and on the backside of the island suite will also be the banquet pick-up area. It’s still a tight space but it will work a lot better. The last area we had for the pick-up for banquets was in the aisle where all the waiters were bringing in dirty dishes. It was just a nightmare to try to work in that space! This is isolated; it will just be kitchen guys working around it, in and out, to go to the banquet room, to the dining room. As for dishwashers, we disliked that as soon as you open the door, the first thing you see is the dish drop-off. So we’ve moved that into a back room, knocked a hole in the wall where the upstairs cooler used to be so they’re in their own area now, out of sight of the members coming in. It’s just a nicer, cleaner area.
You mentioned putting in a pastry kitchen. Have you always done on-premise baking?
Rhy: We’ve had a pastry kitchen for the last 4 ½ years and it was an open area in the basement. Now we’ve enclosed it and it has air conditioning – a much better work environment for the chocolate work. Most of the equipment in the pastry kitchen is new anyway. They love the ovens, they say, let’s not get new ones.
Your golf course is one of the world’s truly legendary courses. What goes into the care and nurturing of a treasure like that?
Colin: There has to be such a substantial commitment by the board to understand and commit the funds to maintaining the brand. It doesn’t just happen. The gentlemen who formed the Winged Foot in 1921 clearly built an unbelievable product, two great golf courses. But they have to be maintained and this board, with the help and direction of management, has committed $31 million to renovate both golf courses, to building an employee house, caddy center, new storage facility and a multi-building bath house complex. While we recognize we have a great brand, we also recognize that it requires work, effort, and dedication.
We’ve put our money where our mouths are. We brought in Olympic golf course designer Gil Hanse, who renovated the East golf course and the 100th anniversary of the Met Open was held here. We’re hosting the 2016 Four Ball Championship. For an old-line golf course, we’re very progressive in our thinking. We want to be prepared for 2021, our 100th anniversary. We want the golf course to be in great shape here. It’s a singular commitment to maintaining the gift we were given by those gentlemen who formed the club almost 100 years ago. We’re in really great shape, much better than 25 years ago.
Colin: As an overall club, we’re in better shape because we made balanced commitments to both the clubhouse and golf courses. We spent $4.3 million on a restoration. Some build courses for less money. We did every bunker. Every green was rebuilt to USJ specs. You’re looking at a truly modern golf course, in terms of how it functions. To really drill down deep, why does a course need to function better? Remember when the 100-year storm was every 100 years? Now it’s every 2-3 years. What’s one thing that puts you out of business? Not being able to recover from torrential rainfalls. We’re recognizing and preparing for these environmental changes. After a very heavy rain, it’s playable.
Where is golf today as a sport? People don’t play as much but the tour you’re involved with seems healthier than ever. Will golf always be what it has been?
Rhy: The biggest issue is the time it takes to play. With golf courses lengthening, it’s a big commitment out of your day. We’re not a country club; we’re a golf club. Our membership is here to play golf. We’re not the norm for other country clubs where they have other activities. If you want to be a member of our club, you want to be a member to play golf.