For more than 30 years, the Capital City Club has been perfecting the art of quick, classy dining for fast track dealmakers.
General Manager Patrick Skelton and Executive Chef Michael Schwartz oversee their domain.
Photos by David Bundy
The Capital City Club, in Montgomery, has its own definition of fast food, with an adventurous menu that puts the pow in power lunch. Located on Dexter Avenue in downtown Montgomery, the club is a popular noontime gathering place for area attorneys, accountants, banking executives and government officials who want a quality meal to go along with their business deal, but don’t have time to linger over a leisurely lunch.
“We have some people who come here who don’t enjoy a leisurely anything,” joked Phyllis Fenn, the Capital City Club’s membership director.
Despite the emphasis on producing a speedy meal, executive chef Michael Schwartz is still able to conjure up a menu with such offerings as buttermilk fried quail, Conecuh sausage and shrimp, Baja fish tacos and a soft-shell crab club sandwich. He does so by having his lunch crew arrive at 7 a.m. to begin preparing the meals.
“A lot of business people who come here are under time constraints,” says Schwartz, a native of Binghamton, N.Y., who has been at the Capital City Club since 2005. “So what we try to do is deliver that upscale feel in a timely element. Most people are trying to get in and out in about 40 or 45 minutes. Our menus are geared to deliver that experience quickly.
“So a lot of our foods are heavily prepped. They require marinating and grilling. There are a lot of sauces involved in it. You don’t achieve flavor in 20 or 30 minutes. So we spend a lot of time putting those ingredients together. We try to have everything in place and ready by 11:00. That’s go time.”
At the Capital City Club, “go time” can mean a variety of things at lunch. Depending upon how the rooms are organized, the club offers between eight and 13 dining areas, from quiet one-table enclaves to a sprawling upstairs ballroom that can hold approximately 300 people. All told, the club can accommodate between 600 and 700 diners at one time.
This can create an interesting dynamic at lunch. It is not unusual for an organization with several hundred members to meet in the upstairs ballroom, while a smaller group of 20 or 30 gathers in one of the downstairs dining areas, and a crucial business negotiation involving half a dozen executives takes place in one of the private rooms. They all arrive and leave at approximately the same time, and they all are expecting a quick and quality meal.
The key to making it work smoothly, according to Capital City Club General Manager Patrick Skelton, is intense organization and preparation.
“We have a function sheet as thick as a phonebook detailing every single lunch event,” says Skelton, a Montgomery native who joined the club two years ago. “So we plan everything out to the T. At the beginning of each week, we have a food and beverage meeting with all the senior staff where we get together and plan out the entire week. We believe in attention to detail and being properly prepared for all the parties.”
That is an important ingredient for the power lunch. When executives gather at the club to negotiate a crucial contract, they do not need the distraction of poor service or a substandard meal — because sometimes even the slightest negative impression during negotiations can end up killing a potential deal.
“In recruiting businesses, you never know what wins it for you and what loses it for you. But you know you’re probably going to lose it if you have a terrible experience in a meal setting,” says Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange, who, when he was chairman of the Montgomery County Commission, took executives from Hyundai to the Capital City Club on one of the auto manufacturer’s site selection visits.
“You always want to have a company in town for a meal, so they get an opportunity to really experience your city. To have this type of atmosphere really speaks volumes for what Montgomery has to offer. You know it will be first class, and you know they will do it right.”
Cameron Martindale, the senior vice president for community development at the Montgomery Area Chamber of Commerce and a former president at Troy University-Montgomery, says she feels the same way about the Capital City Club. In her roles at the Chamber and at Troy-Montgomery, she says she often uses the club whenever prospective business partners come to town.
“Anytime I want to impress people who I do business with, this is where I will come. Because I know the food is always going to be wonderful,” Martindale says. “You are selling the city when you come to lunch at the Capital City Club. The menu is wonderful, and it’s absolutely beautifully served.”
The aesthetics of the Capital City Club is another element that makes it so popular. Located on the 21st floor of the RSA Tower, the club offers some of the best views in the city. And Schwartz literally is an artist who has several pieces of his artwork hanging throughout the club, a visual treat he attempts to duplicate on the dining plate.
“He tries to involve all senses, like an artist would,” Skelton says. “So he tries to make each plate a piece of art. That’s one of the things that keeps people coming back here for their business lunch.”
The club, which opened in 1977 and has been at its current location since 1997, is a private organization with more than 2,000 members. But Skelton says the club is open to any group or business that wishes to pay a room fee in order to use the facility. In addition, he says Schwartz and his staff can produce most any type meal, so diners are not confined to what is on the menu.
“One thing that is good about a club is we’re not a restaurant, so we’re not married to a certain style or genre of food,” Skelton says. “We can do pretty much anything on a day’s notice. Anything from sushi to some kind of Mongolian stirfry — whatever you want, our people can do it. We want to be known as a place where businesspeople meet, network and grow their business, and have a great meal while they’re doing it.”
Cary Estes is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. He lives in Birmingham.