Friday, December 14, 2007

The Media Club

The Media Club was situated on the top floors of the Laclede Gas building in Downtown St. Louis. Kind of a rustic place, older, a dwindling membership due to the exodus of some businesses in the area in the late 80's. Unfortunately there had also been a tax law change that put a clamp down on the three martini lunch from the 70's and 80's. City Clubs were on the decline and there were plenty in the area. Right down the street sat the Missouri Athletic Club. The Noonday Club and Kemol's restaurant were across the street in what was then the new Met Life building. "The one that blocked the view of the arch" said many a member of the Media Club. There was also the Lawyers Club in the Mercantile Building to the north and many other upscale cash operations nearby. It was a tough time, I was challenged with the task of building the business in a bad climate. Regardless, the Media Club was still a prestigious gem in 1991, when I took the job as Maitre D' Hotel, or in western terms, Food and Beverage Director.

The Media Club's founder, Robert Hyland, of KMOX fame, (whom I never met), would later prove to be one of those interesting "six degree of separation" things that would lead to my employment at (then) Lindenwood College. Hyland was the former chairmen of the Board of Directors at the College that later became my home. The first new building was named after him, the Robert F. Hyland Performance Arena. I suppose dropping Hylands name didn't hurt in my interview with Dennis Spellmann, president of Lindenwood at the time. I interviewed with him for my job as Cafeteria Manager in 1993 and have been connected to the University ever since. I suppose it didn't hurt that I had worked at the Media Club and was influenced by the culture there. Maybe Dennis had eaten there? Maybe that was the connection that got me in? I remember him bragging to someone that I had done my time there, Hyland being the founder. He wanted some of that Media Club stuff from me. I knew virtually nothing about cafeterias.

The Club was very disciplined. The staff took an enormous amount of pride in the style of service that it provided, that which was the standard and tradition of the club for years. I was familiar due to the fact that I had also worked at the St. Louis Club in Clayton as a Chef's Apprentice and later as a Chef D Range, a touring chef in a formal European dining room. For a couple years while in school at Forest Park Community College and during the years before I married, I learned the business of "fine point" service. It was a craft. There was an art to the process, balance and symmetry. Yes, the Euros wrote the book on "fine point" service; a hierarchy, a chain of command process that is pretty stuffy and only found in the finest restaurants and private clubs in the world. The food is produced and orchestrated by the Executive Chef to the dining rooms. The wine and service conducted by the Maitre D' Hotel. Both of these prestigious positions have a journeyman's stable, those responsible for carrying out tasks "on cue" that eventually come together for quite an upscale experience.

I studied this tradition and made it mine. I faked it when I had to and rose to the occasion. Being the new guy at the club was a bit intimidating. The prior Maitre D' had been very well liked and a familiar face to the members for years. It would be my job to remember each of their names, their food likes and dislikes, their favorite tables, wines, idiosyncrasies. My job was to replace the dwindling staff with those employees of my own. My job was to conduct the artists before me as they lined up, napkins over-arm, ready for instructions.

As far as attire, during the day I would wear a blue blazer and grey pants, black belt and black loafers. My shirt was a blue oxford single point long sleeve, with a red or yellow tie. At night I would wear a Tuxedo, as would all of my staff. We were crisp and disciplined. This was the culture. I hadn't put it there, it was there from years of iron fisted management from veteran Maitre D', John Stackle. He rose through the ranks of Club Corporation of America to Regional Manager. They were the company that operated the fledgling club. They were also the ones who were draining the membership dollar. He was a tough guy whom I didn't care for much. Most of the tough guys in my life have had a positive influence however, and John was one of them. He was cert and mean to his staff, but new his guests well. He gave me my priorities in a meeting of the minds, a delivery that I couldn't help but understand.

This was the beginning of my career really. Even though I had worked in the corporate chains in the 80's, and achieved an understanding of their procedures, nothing really seemed to compare to the protocol of this type of service and standard. It was detailed and expensive to purvey. It was dying a slow death too. I realized quickly that I didn't really have the toolkit, only prior experiences, a dusting of this and that which would prove enough to be dangerous. I would have to adapt quickly, take on an enormous amount of responsibility and make it mine.

My only leg up would come from a server named Diane Grossenheider, and a catering manager whose name I have forgotten. There was a reason for such retentiveness on their part when it came to service and I wanted some of that. I would emulate them in order to get results. Likely the best thing I could have done. The guests had yet to influence me, as it was only my first day.

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