Q, Grad Clubs Merging; A New Power Lunch Era

Paul Bass PhotoA week after New Haven’s two venerable hospitals became one, two more century-plus-old institutions announced a merger of their own—and vowed to bring the downtown private eating club into a new century.

The merger, announced Thursday, will turn the Quinnipiack Club and the Graduate Club, traditionally two of New Haven’s top power-breakfast and lunch spots, into one entity.

Officials said the merger would begin in October with details—like final dues and club rules—gradually taking shape over the year. As with last week’s takeover of the Hospital of St. Raphael by Yale-New Haven Hospital, the plan is to keep two locations under one name and one management.

And as with the hospital takeover, the merger aims to keep alive and modernize an institution that was bleeding money amid challenging, changing times.

In this case, that means in part changing an exclusive image to comport to less elite times. Gone are the days when anyone entering the Q Club’s doors for lunch will have a huge, formless sports coat draped on his back in order to be permitted into the Centennial Room.

Might jeans even be on the horizon? (The Grad Club now allows “business casual,” including dress jeans.)

“It’s a transition to the clubs of tomorrow. “It’s not a good old boys’ club anymore,” Sandra Gervais said during an interview Thursday at the Grad Club, which was founded in 1892 and has occupied its current Federalist home across from the Green at 155 Elm St. since 1901. Gervais has run the Grad Club for the past 25 years. She will serve as general manager for the combined entity; the Grad Club’s executive chef, Bill Fleischner, will oversee both kitchens. Carla Cruzoni will continue as the top person on-site at the Q, reporting to Gervais.

“You’ve got to make people feel comfortable” rather than “give them a smelly old jacket” to gain entrance, Gervais said.

The Q Club, founded in 1871, traditionally has marketed itself as the more exclusive of the two clubs; it has counted leading corporate execs as its key members. As out-of-state corporations gobbled up New Haven’s banks and utilities and major employers, the exclusive local corporate ranks dwindled. Memberships has fallen from around 800 in the 1980s to about 300 today, with members paying around $2,400 a year in dues. (A duck pin bowling league remains active at the club’s lanes.) To stanch six-figure annual losses and finance renovations, the club sold its five-story Georgian-style clubhouse at 221 Church St. for $1.94 million in 2010 to a limited-liability corporation owned by one of its members, Charles Noble. It listed a $541,997 loss the year before. (Click here to read the club’s most recent federal From 990 tax statement.)

The Grad Club has done better, though it did report a $76,136 loss in its most recent tax report. It brought in $529,542 in room rentals in the most recent reported fiscal year (compared to the Q Club’s $290,000). Open to anyone with a college degree, the club has about 200 members paying around $2,000 a year in dues. It hosts a whopping 90 to 100 events a month hosted by not-for-profits, trade associations, informal networking groups, and others, according to Gervais. She’d like the members to consider to broaden membership beyond college grads. “Even without a college degree, you can be very successful,” she reasoned. “I don’t believe you should close the doors to those people.”

Rather than close one of the buildings, the plan is to trim some costs, then grow all parts of the business, from membership to banquets to a la carte dining, Gervais said. She said most of the clubs’ combined 58 employees would stay employed, though maybe in different jobs.

The clubs’ travails mirror a regional and national decline in membership in country clubs and city-based private clubs.

“The amount of business money that gets spent at lunch tables and clubs is way down, and the Q Club was a classic downtown business club that at one time made really good sense and no longer does,” observed Yale management and political science professor Douglas Rae. Rae has worked on reviving New Haven’s Lawn Club and Yale’s Mory’s private eating club; he wrote the book on the decline of New Haven’s “civic density” (called City: Urbanism and Its End).

“I had been waiting for the Q Club to collapse for five years,” Rae said. “I kept hearing their financials and taking debt and I thought, ‘They’ve got a big problem.’ This solution sounds very intelligent. The question is how much they can reduce their operating expenses by merging. They’d better reduce them by quite a lot.” (Full discloure: I co-authored a book with Rae.)

New Haven State Rep. Pat Dillon called the merger “an end of an era.” In the early 1980s Dillon, then a city alderwoman, led a successful charge to force the Q Club to begin admitting more women and allow them full access to the rooms where deals got made.

“Both are historic buildings,” Dillon observed Thursday about the two clubs. “It’s good to have gathering places in New Haven so it’s a loss.”

The Gibson Special

Those changing times were on display inside the Q’s three second-floor dining rooms at lunch hour Thursday.

It was shortly before 1 p.m. The grand lunch room, the Centennial, was empty. One of nine tables in the Carriage Room was occupied, with two diners. In the Lounge, a pair left one of the four tables. Two tables had been empty. Veteran members Paul McCraven (at left in photo), a vice-president at First Niagara Bank, sat two seats away from Marshal Gibson (at right) as the pair shared a friendly meal at the fourth table.

Gibson, a tax lawyer eating his standard tuna salad and fruit salad plate (known as “The Gibson Special” to waitress Sharon Small), blamed a 1986 change in the federal tax law for the disappearing lunch crowd.

Companies used to be able to deduct their executives’ memberships at the Q. That changed in 1986. Since then the execs have gradually let memberships lapse rather than pay out of their own pockets, he said.

“We used to fill three rooms for lunch,” Gibson recalled.

“You used to have to have reservations to get in at lunch,” added fellow club member Jeff Reilley, a realtor who ordered a turkey club on white toast and settled into another chair to join the pair. “If you didn’t have a tie and jacket, you’d get one at the front door.”

Reilly, too, blamed the tax bill of 1986 for the Q’s changing fortunes.

“The way all private clubs are going today, we need to do something,” Riley said, ticking off the woes at redoubts like the Woodbridge and Oak Lane country clubs.

“Clubs have to become more creative and find niches that work,” Gibson suggested. he said he hopes the consolidation with the Graduate Club can help to do that.

Rae suggested changing national mores may be at play, too, in the decline of clubs like the Q.

“Historically what was wrong with clubs was bigotry. But there are very few clubs that can afford bigotry any more,” Rae observed.

“I think part of it is the changing structure of families. There isn’t a family who’s home all the time and does club stuff. Thirty years ago there were a huge number of women who played tennis on weekdays at the Lawn Club; that crowd is gone. There is an unease about clubs and clubbishness that is greater now that it used to be. A pretty high fraction of my friends are one way or another anti-club. I think it’s about snobbishness. Not very long ago I was in conversation when somebody wanted to say something nasty about somebody and said, ‘He’s a clubbish sort of guy.’”

Other trends pose special challenges to the Grad and the Q clubs as they move forward as one. Some younger entrepreneurs who might have joined them in an earlier era have gravitated to thriving co-working spaces like the Grove and the Bourse. And New Haven has become a restaurant mecca: Power lunches galore take place at Zinc and a host of other spots.

Rae argued that private clubs are worth preserving as “third places,” “places to go that are neither family nor work.”

“I think that’s valuable,” he said. “I think it’s good for cities to have ways for people to connect, so you get connections across neighborhoods and ethnic groups. It’s even better if the clubs are very open.”

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posted by: robn on September 19, 2012  3:53pm

They should just sponsor a late night poker game in the basement like a certain hamburger place in town; thats certain to attract lots of members. I’m sorry…did I think that out loud?