Part 3: Food and Partnership Are Keys to Success
For decades private club fare was mostly non-descript and treated as a loss leader by private club management. Occasionally, golf and country club members might get a memorable dining experience at their country clubs, but it certainly wasn’t known for being destination dining.
In the heyday of the old Milledgeville Country Club, some of Joni Smith’s fondest memories as a member of the central Georgia club was simply having a “good eating experience surrounded by friends.” In recent years, however, those once-memorable dining experiences began to steadily decline as the club struggled to survive and threatened to go out of business.
Three years ago, Joni Smith and her husband Ted Smith purchased the distressed asset in an effort to save a community institution that opened in 1957 and once thrived with 600 members. As Joni Smith likes to describe it, her family investment was predicated on being good business stewards to the greater Milledgeville-Baldwin County community that has blessed her family for decades.
When the Smiths acquired the club and immediately invested an estimated $5 million to transform the place, they had no expectation of making any money on their latest investment. Rather, they hoped the newly branded Club at Lake Sinclair would manage to do just well enough to pay its own bills. One thing Smith knew, however, was the future success and overall health of the club was going to hinge on having a “very good restaurant.”
With the strategic help of longtime club industry veteran, Mike Kelly, a new approach was hatched to incorporate the idea of destination dining. The club’s answer was local restaurateur Jason Medders and his hugely successful downtown Milledgeville restaurant, Aubri Lane’s, a place the Smiths liked to frequent.
So, the two parties struck up a partnership and created a newly branded dining experience now called Aubri Lane’s at the Club.
As it turns out, not only did Lake Sinclair manage to “pay the bills” with this unique food-and-beverage concept, the club operated in the black in its first year of operations after closing for a year and getting completely reimagined under the guidance of Kelly and his years of experience at nearby Reynolds Lake Oconee . Not a bad start for the Smiths, considering Kelly advised them to expect a couple years of likely operating at a loss after completely renovating the clubhouse with expanded dining and banquet venues and building a resort-style pool complex with separate family-friendly and adult sections.
It is a remarkable success story for a club that was on the brink of financial ruin. Kelly, who handed over the club reins to general manager Jeffery Allbright in June 2018 after the club exceeded its membership goals of 350 by 2021, credits the club’s turnaround to not only the Smith’s capital commitment, but their vision to reposition the club into a multi-functional family-friendly setting that matches the formula at numerous other successfully recapitalized private clubs throughout America.
And one of the trends within this greater trend is the innovative marketing being put into branded private club food-and-beverage operations.
Medders, who operated the highly popular Aubri Lane’s restaurant for 10-plus years in a more intimate downtown Milledgeville location, also is exceeding his wildest expectations under the same signature brand named after his daughter and son, respectively.
For instance, in the first two years of operations at the club, Medders, who also controls all catered club events to members and non-members, is close to almost doubling his business after evolving from a fine-dining experience to one that is now described as “casual elegance” where patrons can come several times a week and not feel like they’re “breaking the bank,” as Joni Smith describes it.
“We always wanted to grow our business and we felt like we had maximized our location downtown because it was such a small footprint,” says Medders, who moved back to Milledgeville with his family in 2008 after working in Atlanta’s restaurant scene. “When Ted and Joni purchased the club and approached us with the idea about moving, this was the larger footprint we’d been looking for and a good opportunity to expand our business. We also loved it being on the lake.”
Medders also enjoys the “larger more diverse group of people” he now gets to serve, not to mention a much larger food-and-beverage footprint that encompasses: 140-seat signature restaurant; main bar with four large-screen televisions; member’s only lounge; private dining room called The Wine Room; outdoor covered porch, and of course, a ballroom with capacity for 250 guests.
All of the unique hospitality spaces come with sweeping scenic views of Lake Sinclair and the 18-hole course, and future plans are in the works for a “tiki style, cabana pool bar/kitchen situation” at the pool, which Medders says should further enhance the member experience in a positive way.
“When I first came up with the concept of Aubri Lane’s, something to offer people the type of food and atmosphere Atlanta restaurants provide, it was a restaurant I always wanted to be on the lake,” Medders adds. “So being able to be out here on the water and maximize business out here in the summertime was something we were always looking for.”
Apparently, it also was something nearly 400 other Milledgeville-Baldwin County resident members were looking for in a new place they now call their new private club home.