Mark Kohler, General Manager at Sankaty Head Golf Club, Nantucket, Massachusetts, USA.
I was intrigued by the idea of visiting Sankaty Head Golf Club on Nantucket Island for many reasons. Maybe it was the opportunity to visit a real slice of American history, or maybe it was my curiosity to see how golf and food are served in such a prestigious and small island location.
It was a delight to speak to Mark Kohler who has brought some new ideas to Sankaty Head in his first three years as General Manager. ~ Diana DeLucia
GK: Tell us about life leading up to Sankaty Head.
During the summers when I was in college, I came to Nantucket with some friends. I worked at a restaurant (Captain Tobey’s Chowder House, now closed) downtown. I fell in love with the island. I’m from Columbus, Ohio, and moved to Boston after I finished college at the University of Dayton. When I was in Boston, I continued in the hospitality field working in the beverage industry. I was in and out of bars, restaurants, and events in downtown Boston; it was easy to come out to Nantucket Island on weekends.
When I was in my late twenties, my career moved from hospitality and breweries, into sales and I worked in the pharmaceutical and industrial sectors. One of my great passions was traveling; I enjoyed traveling for work and pleasure. Scott Cochran, who was a colleague of mine had informed me that he was opening up a hotel in Park City, Utah and the opportunity really spoke to me to return to the hospitality industry.
I went to Utah and helped them open the St. Regis Deer Valley which featured a Jean-Georges restaurant and ski-on / ski-off access. I was involved in everything with a focus on sales. Park City hosts the Sundance Film Festival each year, and I was booking celebrities rooms for the week and also other high-end clients throughout the peak winter season. It was fun working with such a beautiful luxury property. Our Head Butler used to work for the Queen of England, so we were able to create and execute some fantastic personalized guest experiences.
GK: What brought you back to Nantucket after St. Regis Deer Valley?
An old friend on the island reached out to me from the Nantucket Yacht Club. He explained to me how difficult it is finding seasonal summer help even though there are many perks and opportunities. It didn’t take too much to convince me to return to this special place. That was nine years ago. I ran the food and beverage operations at The Nantucket Yacht Club for six months and according to my title, I was the Assistant General Manager, but a better description would be Operations Manager. There were so many things involved in opening the club after the winter including assembling and training new staff and closing the club down for the season in the fall. In the winter I would either work in Park City, Utah or at the Yellowstone Club in Big Sky, Montana.
After a few years doing back-to-back peak seasons, the opportunity at Sankaty Head opened up for the General Manager position. The Board and membership wanted someone that knew the island and understood the seasonality and enjoyed the quirks of being here on this small island.
I went through a three-month interview process after the summer season at the Yacht Club. I waited for their decision and in the meantime, I returned to Montana for another ski season at the Yellowstone Club. During that busy Christmas week, I received a phone call from the Executive Search Committee at Sankaty Head, and I was offered the position as General Manager. After the busy festive week, I packed everything up and moved to Nantucket.
GK: How was the transition to Sankaty Head?
It’s very quiet here in the off-season, but there was a lot to do at the Club! Recruiting, hiring, seasonal maintenance, etc. I hired a Financial Controller, as Sankaty had a temporary one in place at the time with a recent resignation. We had some tremendous long-tenured employees, but the Club needed some organization and structure to help guide them through the peaks and valleys of the year here.
We needed to look at the market value of Nantucket salaries and find the right people for Sankaty Head. As much as history and tradition reign here on the island, each summer is different as you look to upgrade and improve the facilities, services, and staff to
fulfill the needs and wishes of the membership.
We needed a committed team of managers, and with the Board’s support, we have upgraded some of the positions here to offer career opportunities that great people find difficult to walk away from. I don’t believe that throwing money at a problem will be a solution, but you also need to pay someone market value for their seasonal time and invest in them. It has to be worth someone’s time to keep returning to the island each summer. Finding great staff that dedicates their entire summer to us each year is challenging as we request some flexibility on our staff’s part to execute an exceptional guest experience every summer season. 85-90% of staff live in staff housing, so we are trying to accommodate different levels ofstaff in that aspect as well.
GK: Tell us about the cuisine on the island.
It’s all about the fresh seafood! Striped bass, bluefish, oysters, clams and our famous Nantucket Bay scallops. These are the small, sweet scallops, not the big Diver scallops; they aren’t found with this quality or flavor anywhere else that I’ve experienced. You can eat them raw out of the shell in the fall harvest season.
The restaurant scene has gotten more aggressive and competitive here on the island. Commercial lease prices have gone up, and therefore more high-end establishments have moved in as they look to maximize profits in such a short season. The food scene in the last ten years has become more elevated, progressive and the expectations of diners have risen. Patrons understand that the cost of doing business here on the island is exponentially more expensive and that cost gets passed onto the consumer; staff salaries are costly as well as the rent, and the expense of shipping ingredients out here on the ferry is expensive. As a historical club, we strive to stay on pace with food trends and offer progressive and fresh choices, but we still have many traditional items on the menu that will be here forever.
We offer a great atmosphere, we have extensive dining spaces to accommodate large numbers of members, and we have a rotational dining schedule that offers different menus each night. Mixing up the choices we have here keeps the members, and the staff captivated with the various offerings.
GK: What has made Nantucket Island such a favorite place for the jet set crowd?
This is a special place that is very timeless; a photo of Main Street today doesn’t look much different than decades ago. You can’t say say that about many places. Ten years ago access to the island became more accessible and visible to a higher end crowd. The unique thing about Nantucket is that there are no chain restaurants, no strip malls, and no department stores or stoplights. When you go downtown, you see a quaint, charming historic village and seaside amid a beautiful untouched piece of America that transports you back 100 years. People come for one visit and end up coming back year after year. We have great restaurants, a nightlife scene, events, beaches and beautiful places to bike. However, getting here is not easy. In the past ten years, the airport has scheduled more flights; JetBlue, Delta, and American are all flying here now which makes for easier access.
The traditional ferry to bring your car over takes two and a half hours, but now they have introduced two fast ferries that bring passengers here in one hour. There are days where the airport is fogged in, and private jets can’t land, so there is still this kind exclusivity here due to the location. People gather here with family and friends to have a classic beach vacation, and I’m happy to host them here at the Club for dinners, golf, tennis or just a day at the pool together.
GK: What was the culinary scene like here when you arrived at Sankaty Head?
Before my arrival, the club had just moved to the point of sale computer system for wait staff; it was on an all handwritten ticket system only a few years ago. We have two venues; our traditional Clubhouse and our casual Beach Club. We do three dinners at each location every week, so it’s fun to go back and forth between venues and mix up the food and setting for each meal. We do many buffets to serve and accommodate a large number of people in a short amount of time. We have expanded what we offer at the buffets to offer something for everyone. It’s entertaining to see our members proudly bring guests to dinner and show them the expansive spread of food stations that we have. The Chef and his team love to work the action stations on the buffets and interact with the members too.
We are aware that there are a limited number of restaurants on the island and therefore, it’s tough to get a good reservation. I’m happy to accommodate large parties of our members and host their annual family dinners – we have something for everyone on the buffets. Dessert is pretty simple here; ice cream is classic and a favorite. The ice cream bar at the end of dinner has everyone from all ages lined up.
GK: What else have you learned in your time here?
I’ve learned that Nantucket is a special place for our members, they’ve been coming here for many years, and no matter what happens in their life elsewhere, they want to come back to Nantucket. It’s their one happy place in memories from years past. Life may change elsewhere, but on this simple island, people don’t like change. It may be the one thing that stays the same in their lives, and it’s very comforting to return here each summer and reconnect with family and friends. I am proud to work with my staff to help facilitate these important days when people return to the island to be together in this beautiful setting.
It’s important to me that our venues and offerings are multigenerational. No matter what happens in the day, whether the kids go to the beach, the grandparents are playing golf, or the parents are playing tennis, eating a meal is the one thing where everyone can come together. We offer dining choices that appeal to everyone which makes staying at the club to dine the norm. I think a lot of the places on Nantucket are improving their food and there is competition. It takes a team and a strong relationship between the front and back of the house staff and managers to deliver a complete dining experience. I want to challenge my staff and give them some creativity, but we also look for consistency in everything we do.
GK: Tell us about some of the challenges being on the island.
The weather! You have to prepare for five to seven days before any events even if you think that the ferries will be canceled. If food and beverages can’t get here from the mainland, you don’t have many options. Planning ahead and utilizing storage wherever possible is key. Thankfully the weather is great for our peak season, and big storms don’t usually happen in the summer, but it’s happened to me in the fall, which is wedding season here.
GK: You can see the whales in the ocean from here. This used to be an old whaling town correct?
This year the whales have been visible from the shore which is rare. We haven’t seen that in decades. It’s great that the whale populations are returning. Sankaty Head was the epicenter of whaling and ships that traveled the world were based here. The whaling ships would go out, find and catch whales, process them and return to the island to sell the oil for lamps throughout the world.
Nantucket Island is not for everyone. It’s a romantic and beautiful place; however, it can get to be “small” some days. You’ve got rainy days in the spring and some tough weather in the winters. The beaches are amazing, but being in New England, it’s not always warm weather. We have a few small rinks, and an indoor pool. I play in an ice hockey league here. You have to figure out what makes this work for you.
One of the amusing things is how Nantucketers call the mainland America. “Are you going to America this week?” I like going over to the mainland and getting away, but I love coming back even more. I’m happy and proud to call this my home.
The clubhouse at Sankaty Head Golf Club, Nantucket Island, Massachusetts, USA.
Image courtesy Sankaty Head Golf Club