By Eileen Dallabrida
The University & Whist Club has roots dating back to 1766. But in recent years membership has withered, a trend reflected at many city clubs across the nation.
Today, new owners of the private club are in the midst of sweeping changes designed to shake off the dust off the financially troubled institution, attract new members and turn a profit—while preserving University & Whist’s unique traditions and the architectural presence of the Tilton Mansion, its longtime home base in Wilmington’s Cool Spring neighborhood.
A few weeks into the changing of the guard, a pergola is going up in a freshly landscaped garden with just-laid paths of interlocking pavers. Storage rooms on the third floor are being transformed into suites for brides and wedding parties. A state-of-the-art kitchen is being installed.
Already, membership is ticking up; the rolls now stand at 234.
“Old members are coming back and we are getting new members,” says Stacey Inglis, director of marketing.
The new owners are longtime members who operate car dealerships. John Hynansky is founder of the Winner Group and a major importer of vehicles in Ukraine. Thomas Hatzis owns Winner Ford in Cherry Hill, N.J., and Hollywood Grill in Fairfax.
They have brought on a new managing director, Jacques Macq, who recently closed Jacque’s Bistro in the city’s Little Italy section. Macq’s experience also includes seven years in food and beverage at Wilmington Country Club.
The Belgian-born restaurateur says members should expect major changes. There are plans to open the club on Sundays for the first time in years to attract brunch traffic. He has added a bakeshop and pastry room, where the club will eventually produce its own special occasion cakes. State-of-the-art video conferencing will attract lawyers, bankers and health care professionals who want to make presentations at business lunches and dinners.
Added services eyed
“We want to be the No. 1 club in the tri-state area,” Macq says.
For inspiration, the team has looked to such successful city clubs at the tony Union League in Philadelphia.
“We are looking at various services, such as massage therapy and shoe shine,” Inglis says. “There also are possibilities for a fitness center.”
The new owners also plan such additions as a four-season sunroom and other relaxed, less formal dining areas that will appeal to Millennial members. To that end, the club is embracing social media.
“Millennials have the money to join the club and come to dinner,” Macq says. “It’s our job to make the club attractive to them.”
Food remains focus
The bread and butter of University and Whist will continue to be food. Macq and his staff are currently analyzing the menu to determine which offerings resonate with members, and which should be replaced with seasonal and contemporary items.
Already, new place settings have been ordered for the dining rooms. A concierge has been brought in to help members make reservations and attend to other requests. Flowers are displayed at each table by the freshly hired in-house florist.
“Mr. Hynansky wanted fresh flowers on all the tables every day, not just special occasions,” Inglis says.