Executive Chef Sriram Hariharan.” Credit: USDA.

July 9, 2018; Houston Business Journal

Over the years, a debate has raged about whether or not there are people in the nonprofit sector who are paid too much. The argument ranges from wanting to put a cap on executive salaries at nonprofits receiving government funds, to clarion calls that something is wrong because execs are being paid more than the average, to questions about wage disparity within the sector. In general, however, it is hard to believe that anyone would argue against a policy in which nonprofit workers are paid a good salary on par with or higher than what they would receive in other sectors.

This brings us to an interesting story at the Houston Business Journal, which identifies one profession which might be more lucrative in a nonprofit organization than anywhere else. It turns out that executive chefs at nonprofit country clubs are paid a relatively high salary—considerably more than the average for a chef or head cook in Houston. One executive chef at one of the wealthiest country clubs in the area earns a base salary of more than $272,000. Jen Para, author of the Business Journal article, ran the numbers on 11 of the wealthiest country clubs, and the salary of the lowest-paid executive chef is more than triple the average for a chef or head cook in Houston, which is about $45,500.

Is this an anomaly in Houston, or is it something to be found throughout the sector? Zippia lists what it considers to be the best areas for an executive chef to find work. That website indicates that the average salary across the country is generally not much more than $50,000. The highest average seems to be New Jersey at slightly more than $58,000, which is still far less than any of the salaries in Houston.

Platinum Clubs of America lists the 150 top country clubs across the country. The top five include four nonprofit organizations that have their 990s posted on GuideStar. Here are some selected numbers from 2017 filings:

  • Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Maryland is listed as the top country club. With annual revenue of more than $32 million, the executive chef is listed at a base salary of $223,317 with additional package adding up to $22,836. The average for a head chef in Maryland is $52,000.
  • Boca West Country Club, Boca Raton, Florida with an annual income of almost $50 million lists the executive chef total compensation package at more than $360,000. The average for a head chef in Florida is $54,000.
  • Cherokee Town and Country Club in Atlanta, Georgia lists annual revenue at almost $33 million and the chef earns a total package of more than $262,000. The average for a head chef in Georgia is almost $34,000.
  • Vintage Club in Indian Wells, California lists fine dining experiences as the number 1 service provided to their members in their mission statement. With revenue of more than $24 million, the chef is paid a total package of slightly more than $220,000. The average for a head chef in California is almost $46,000.

At the bottom of the list, number 150, is Bethesda Club, in the same location as the top club on the list. This club had revenue of more than $13 million and paid the executive chef a total package of slightly more than $183,000.

The salaries we looked at are at the country clubs considered to be the best in the country and are very elite. One report suggests that in this profession, country club chefs are paid the highest in the country (at an average of about $91,000) while head chefs at stand-alone restaurants earn the least (an average of about $71,000).

This brings us back to the question of whether some people in the sector are paid too much. The IRS recommends that executive salaries should fall in line with the norm for the role, based on some research of evidence from peer organizations. Using that rubric, it would certainly seem that these elite nonprofit country clubs are paying the going rate for an executive chef. On the other hand, it is really unusual to find a profession that pays so much better in a subsector of the nonprofit world than seemingly anywhere else.—Rob Meiksins