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Archive for March, 2008

ACF Annual Golf Tournament

Monday, March 31st, 2008

March 31, 2008 at Sunset Hills Country Club. For more information, visit www.acfatlantachefs.org.

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Junior League of Atlanta Tour of Kitchens

Saturday, March 29th, 2008

March 29 – 30, 2008. For more information, visit www.jlatlanta.org/tok.

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In Search of Mushrooms

Friday, March 28th, 2008

March 2008

By Laura C. Martin

Writing on behalf of Georgia Organics (www.georgiaorganics.org), Laura Martin is the author of 24 books on food, crafts and gardening.

mushroom.jpgThe cry is loud and clear – Georgia chefs need locally grown mushrooms. Unfortunately, for chefs and patrons alike, demand far surpasses supply. There are a growing number of people willing, and throughout the state organic farmers are extending the growing season and diversifying inventory by including mushrooms in their product offerings. “I can’t begin to grow enough to meet the demand,” says Daniel Parson of Decatur’s Gaia Gardens, who has been growing shiitakes for several years. “I sell at the Morningside Organic Farmer’s market and if I don’t bring mushrooms, my customers are asking for them!”

It’s not surprising that Parson doesn’t always have a surplus of mushrooms. The process of growing mushrooms involves art and science coupled with time and patience. However, the Georgia mushroom business has not always been in such short supply. Ask almost anyone and they’ll tell you Farrow Beachum was the mushroom man in the state. He was a full time grower and supplied chefs with top quality mushrooms. Linton Hopkins of Restaurant Eugene states, “he grew wonderful oyster mushrooms. No other mushroom grower matched his exceptional quality.” Mr. Beachum unfortunately passed away in 2004.

Georgia chefs in years past also took advantage of the unusual – but delicious – pecan truffles (Tuber lyonii) which is kin to the revered white and black truffle. These grow on the roots of pecan trees in a few southern states, including Texas, Florida and Georgia. Magnolia Plantation, near Albany, at one time sold these to various restaurants, including , Elizabeth’s on 37th Street in Savannah. “Unfortunately, Magnolia Plantation sold the pecan grove and we haven’t been able to get the pecan truffles for a couple of years,” laments Morgen Schaff, manager at Elizabeth’s.

Cultivating the Next Generation
In hopes of helping resurge mushroom growing in the state, Daniel Parson has been teaching a mushroom growing workshop for Georgia Organics for the past several years. He teaches that they need patience, a vigorous strain of mushrooms suitable for their growing region, something for the mushrooms to attach to, a moist spot in the shade, and an abundance of water and / or a change in temperature at the right time.

Mushrooms, such as shiitakes, begin as spores which are released from the gills underneath the cap. When they land in a favorable environment, they quickly develop into mycelium, a network of fibers that penetrate and cling to a substrate. Young mycelium are called spawn. Parson explains shiitakes grow on logs that have been inoculated with spawn. The logs must be freshly cut hardwood and are generally 3 – 6 inches in diameter and about 36 – 40 inches tall. Unfortunately, fallen logs are generally riddled with spores of all kinds of fungus, making it difficult to grow a good crop of shiitakes on them. “You can’t weed out the other fungus,” Parson says, “you really have to start with freshly cut logs.”

Spawn is plugged into newly drilled holes, and each hole is covered with paraffin or wax to help maintain the right humidity in the interior of the log. Fortunately for mushroom neophytes, inoculated logs can be purchased from a variety of sources, including Gaia Gardens. Inoculated logs sit for 6 – 18 months before they begin to fruit (a mushroom is actually the fruiting part of the fungus) and can be harvested for the first time. About 8 weeks after the initial harvest (and every 8 – 10 weeks after that), they can be “shocked” into fruiting again. This process is a combination of change in moisture (putting them into a soaking tank) and temperature, and giving them a resounding knock on the top or bottom of the log with a hammer, simulating thunder and lightning, which Parson swears, is an important part of the process. “I recently started growing oyster mushroom in straw in plastic bags,” said Parson. “It’s a bit of an experiment but I may go into production in the spring. There are some significant advantages to growing oysters over shiitakes, mainly that you get mushrooms in 6 – 8 weeks instead of 8 months.”

For those with a passion, mushroom growing can be both fascinating and lucrative. Brady Bala of Double B Farm in Conyers is one of the state’s more enthusiastic growers. After taking one of Daniel Parson’s workshops, Bala embraced the mushroom world and now has about 900 logs going.

“I can sell all the shiitakes I don’t eat,” he said, then added, “but I eat as many as I possibly can. They are just delicious. I eat them on everything – from pizza to scrambled eggs. I’d like to be growing mushrooms full time, but it is very labor intensive so right now I use the mushrooms to supplement the other produce I sell.”

Although small growers, like Parson, Bala, and David Lent of Coleman River Farms in Clayton (another of Daniel Parson’s workshop graduates) keep between 100 – 1,000 logs going at any one time, commercial growers have ten to twenty thousand logs going simultaneously. A log is good for producing mushrooms for no more than 5 years, so new logs must be cut continuously to keep production going.

The aroma and the flavor of a fresh mushroom is so superior to one that has been on a shelf or in a refrigerated container for a week, Chefs are scrambling to snatch up as many locally produced mushrooms as they possible can.

To learn more, contact Daniel Parson at gaiagarden@mac.com or visit the Mushroom Club of Georgia’s website www.gamushroomclub.org. To learn more about the pecan truffle, visit http://interests.caes.uga.edu/pecantruffles/.

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Committed to Community: Linton & Gina Hopkins

Friday, March 28th, 2008

March 2008

By Hope S. Philbrick

Ask Linton and Gina Hopkins, owners of Restaurant Eugene, why they participate in the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction, and they’ll offer several reasons: it’s an opportunity to support art and culture; the Trade Tasting is an excellent training tool for their staff; it’s a way to meet winemakers; and it’s a chance to build relationships with diners. All these reasons underscore the Hopkins’ commitment to community.

dan_8550.thumbnail.jpg“Even though I’m from here, I hadn’t worked in the restaurant industry here,” says Linton, adding that community involvement has been a key to establishing himself as a restaurateur in Atlanta. “Building a restaurant is not an anonymous experience. You really have to be part of your community. The annual Wine Auction is one of those things that fits so naturally into what we care about.”

Since 1993 the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction has generated more than $12 million. It’s the largest fundraising event for the High, ranks as the top charity wine auction in the nation benefiting the arts, and attracts prominent winemakers from around the world.

The Hopkins have participated in the Wine Auction since launching Restaurant Eugene four years ago. This year they’ll partner with Joe Davis, owner and winemaker of Arcadian Winery, to co-host one of the Auction’s exclusive Winemaker Dinners. The Hopkins will also host Cork & Pork, a food and wine pairing seminar; pour wines at the Gala; provide food at the Vintners’ Reception before the Live Auction; and donate a pig roast to the live auction lots. Such generosity comes easily. “We love the High Museum,” says Gina. “It’s just part of who we are and our philosophy of community, art and culture. The Auction is one of our favorite events of the year.”

The feeling is definitely mutual. “For the past several years the Hopkins have been generous in their time, effort and culinary donations to Wine Auction events as well as special auction lots,” says Michael Shapiro, the Nancy & Holcombe T. Green, Jr. Director of the High Museum of Art. “Georgia restaurateurs’ participation in the Wine Auction has helped to bring prestigious national and international guests and awareness each March to Atlanta and to the High Museum of Art.”

In addition to partnering with the Hopkins to host a Winemaker Dinner, Davis, who has participated in the Wine Auction for 10 years and has used it as a platform to launch his Arcadian brand, is also teaming up with them to produce a wine exclusively for Restaurant Eugene. “Linton and Gina are a class act,” says Davis. “They sort of personify Southern Hospitality to an advanced level. They’re professional people who are humble, kind and extremely generous.”

The Hopkins are equally thrilled to work with Davis, who they have grown to consider a friend. Linton and Gina have fostered personal relationships with other purveyors, including Allen Benton, who Linton says makes the best country ham. Benton will supply the animal for the pig roast as well as ham for the Cork & Pork.

The various events that comprise the High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction provide multiple opportunities to connect people and build relationships. “It just creates another synergy of the professionals we like to spend time with,” says Linton, “so it’s not a reach for us in terms of charity. We get to talk about the things we love and be a part of the community that shares a similar philosophy and passion.”

The annual Wine Auction is just one forum the Hopkins utilize to put their philosophy into action. Typically their charity and volunteer efforts support farm to table initiatives and/or directly benefit children. Their goal is to help get Georgia-grown, farm fresh food on tables throughout the state. “And not just fine dining,” says Linton, “but schools, hospitals, the food bank and things like that.”

Beyond running a successful restaurant, the Hopkins are active participants in the GRA, Slow Food USA Atlanta Chapter, Georgia Organics, advisory members of the Atlanta Public Schools Wellness Committee and helped launch the Peachtree Road Farmers Market. Linton is also a board member of the Southern Foodways Alliance and the Southern Food & Beverage Museum. Gina is a member of Les Dames D’Escoffier and co-chairs that organization’s Green Tables Initiative.

Inspired by an elementary school garden that she saw while traveling, Gina approached Atlanta public schools with a plan to launch a similar program. Within a year the first garden was planted. Through Les Dames she’s also worked with Oakhurst Community Garden for the Boys & Girls Club of Atlanta. Farming is important to Gina, who says she grew up “surrounded by Jersey cows” and “always knew where my food came from.” Today’s children often don’t know food’s origins. “You’d be surprised the number of children that don’t know apple juice comes from apples,” says Gina. The Hopkins strive to change that.

After seeing what their children were served for school lunch, the Hopkins took action. “We saw frozen broccoli stems-which on menu read as fresh broccoli,” says Linton, “They were gray, sitting in a steam well. I wanted to provide something better.” He discovered online that every Atlanta school was supposed to create a wellness plan. Learning that this hadn’t been completed for his children’s school, he wrote it himself. He was soon connected with Dr. Marilyn Hughes, director of nutrition administration for Atlanta Schools, and asked to sit on the community partner board.

The Hopkins’ work with Atlanta Public Schools led to connections with Emory. Its sustainability initiative “is led by my former anthropology professor,” says Linton. Linton hopes Emory will lead more people into farming. “Now I find myself at meetings with Terry Coleman, deputy commissioner at the Georgia Department of Agriculture. He’s the one who has to change laws. We just had a GRA roundtable, which I co-chair with Julie Shaffer of Slow Foods USA, and now Terry’s going to show up at every meeting to make sustainability and ‘green’ part of the Department of Agriculture practices. So, again, everything is linked.”

The fact that so many organizations work together does make it easier for the Hopkins to be so involved.  “It’s been a lot of fun. We’re only four years into this as professionals in Atlanta and it’s such ripe ground here for being involved,” says Linton. Passion is clearly the driver: “The Southern Foodways Alliance has such meaning to me as a Southern man,” he says. “It’s being able to say, ‘This is Georgia cuisine.’ That’s a big part of the fun, protecting our roots here. Of course we should have collard greens on the menu, I don’t care if it’s fine dining or not. That’s what Southern food is. It’s not overcooked iconic food, it’s farm fresh, inherently seasonal and on par with any cuisine in the world. As a Southern man I have natural pride in my heritage and my region.”

This year the special guest chefs for the Wine Auction are also members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. This year’s special guest list includes Georgia chefs Gerry Klaskala and Kathryn King of Aria and Hugh Acheson of Five & Ten and The National in Athens, plus Mike Lata from FIG in Charleston, and Todd Richards from The Oak Room in Louisville, Kentucky.

For the Hopkins, building their business in Atlanta was a natural fit. “We’re in the neighborhood where Linton grew up,” says Gina. They live no more than two traffic lights away from things central to their lives: home, work, school, the grocery store and farmers market.

“I feel a familial obligation to my hometown,” says Linton, “a sense of civic duty. I must be involved; it’s not about choice or a strategy. You have to be part of your community in a real, honest way, a trusting way. It’s what it is to be a business leader in a city.”

The couple, who met in Washington D.C., had other reasons for choosing Linton’s hometown. “Washington D.C. is probably 25 years ahead of the Atlanta restaurant community,” says Gina. “That was a big part of our decision to come here. We wanted to come into a town that was coming into its own and we wanted to come up with it.”

“In D.C. we would have had to go through that process of distinguishing ourselves from where we’d worked,” says Linton. “It’s good to get a fresh start sometimes.”

The Hopkins wrote a 25-year business plan for Restaurant Eugene, named after Linton’s grandfather. It took nearly two years to find the right location. Because they wanted to live and work in one neighborhood, they were factoring school districts into the decision as much as dining room square footage. Other considerations included employee parking, guest safety and lease terms.

“It was not only finding the ideal location, but finding somebody who believed we were actually going to do what we said we were going to do,” says Gina. “We had to convince our landlord that we would be here for the long run.” Finding a landlord is a challenge for any restaurateur. There are “a lot of codes around restaurants,” says Linton. “We impact power facilities, rip up parking lots for grease traps, need trash cans-all these non-sexy things that restaurants require to live are tough on landlords and tough on smaller community commercial areas.” Their long search paid off; the couple considers the current location ideal.

They envisioned Restaurant Eugene as a traditional restaurant, not a “see-and-be-seen kind of place,” says Gina, “but a place where you could connect with your family and your friends, where you could talk and really we could be part of those memorable moments in people’s lives.”

Their mom and pop place has an intimate 55 seats. When the couple met at DC Coast, a 300-seat restaurant, Linton was chef de cuisine and had previously worked in New Orleans at Mr. B’s, a Brennan’s restaurant. Gina was a certified wine captain. Since moving to Atlanta, she has become a certified sommelier, mentoring with Master Sommelier Michael McNeill.

Though it wasn’t in the original plan, the Hopkins are currently expanding their business. Two new restaurants-Holeman & Finch Public House and H & F Bakery, both located steps away from Restaurant Eugene-are scheduled to open this March. “That came out of nowhere,” says Linton. “That happened because our landlord kept trying to sell me that space.”

Both restaurant concepts grew out of the Hopkins’ answer to the question, how can we augment what we do? “Holeman & Finch Public House gives us a lounge,” says Linton. “It lets us do what we do without seeming like it’s always so expensive. Organics from scratch shouldn’t be expensive. We can really do it as an offshoot of what we do and offer another service to our community.” Meanwhile, H & F Bakery will open at 6:30 a.m., serving coffee, bagels, breads and more. The bakery, which will boast a French bread oven, will also provide wholesale baked goods and support the two other restaurant properties.

“This business is funny,” says Linton. “But as an owner it gives you a lot of freedom if you want to just try something out. Already having one restaurant, you develop a reputation and that allows you more freedom to improve the quality of what you do. You can really do anything you want as long as you create the strategies and the systems around that. What you constantly should ask in the restaurant business is, how can I improve, keep it alive and exciting and fresh? So we do a lot of that reinvestment and reanalysis of what we’re doing as restaurateurs to improve. We’re always in race with ourselves. It’s a lifelong journey.”

“For us it’s just about being able to find the right things to bring to the table,” says Gina. “It’s not just that we have a better technique or better glass. We have an understanding of where things come from and we want to share that with everyone on every level, from bread at the bakery to the casual Public House to fine dining at Restaurant Eugene.”

“All this stuff we elevate with china, glassware and service is all dirt,” says Linton. “There’s a great grounding in that fact. What is fine dining, cuisine, the role of chefs and the interesting celebrity that goes on with our business? It’s really about earth, roots, tubers and vines.”

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J. Christopher’s Comes of Age

Friday, March 28th, 2008

March 2008

By Joni House

Twelve years ago, two Atlanta entrepreneurs introduced J. Christopher’s, a casual breakfast/lunch concept restaurant, with an upscale menu, reasonable prices, conversation-worthy art, and conversation-friendly acoustics.  The food, service, and atmosphere created a niche in the casual dining market. Now, for J. Christopher’s next phase, founding partners Jeff “J” McCann and Chris Brogdon have teamed with two notables from the Atlanta restaurant industry to form J. Christopher’s Restaurants LLC (JCR LLC) to grow the brand throughout the southeastern United States.

There are four partners in the new entity: founders Chris Brogdon and Jeff McCann, and Dick Holbrook and Sam Haddock.  Now Chief Operating Officer at JCR LLC, Haddock was previously a Moe’s franchisee and has broad experience in advancing restaurant concept growth and operations.  Holbrook retired as President and COO of AFC Enterprises, the parent of Popeye’s Chicken & Biscuits, and is now President of JCR LLC.  With the new structure in place, J. Christopher’s is ready to step into a controlled but aggressive expansion program. 

The new entity, JCR LLC, owns the brand, intellectual property and concept of J. Christopher’s, while the founders retain the rights to the original 14 units under the original J. Christopher’s corporation.  There’s an agreement in place, however, under which the 14 original stores will continue to upgrade to keep pace with the overall concept of J. Christopher’s as the brand evolves over time.

“What was so appealing about this opportunity,” says Haddock, “was that the brand had such a great track record. It was clearly not a turnaround.”  The opportunity was unique in that the existing concept, with the help and expertise of Holbrook and Haddock, was poised to grow into a much larger presence in a broader geographical market.

Haddock also points out that the customers from the start were so passionate about the menu. He adds, “Breakfast is a lower food cost, and we think that eating breakfast away from home will grow. It’s got the most potential in the semi-casual/casual market.”   Holbrook concurs: “The eating out trend continues to grow, and breakfast will be the next major segment to show strong growth. It’s not nearly as well-penetrated in casual dining as some of the other segments.”

Holbrook explains how J. Christopher’s is positioned in this segment.  “J and Chris got out ahead of the curve twelve years ago with the J. Christopher’s concept. Chris is a very savvy, experienced business executive, and J’s experience helped form the foundation of the partnership.” Both Haddock and Holbrook agree that the four executive team members share a consistent value set, which is very important for a successful partnership. 

The executive team believes J. Christopher’s has advantages over its competitors in the segment, such as Raving Brands’ Flying Biscuit.  Holbrook explains how:  “Flying Biscuit does three day-parts, breakfast, lunch, and dinner. It’s more eclectic and with an unusual menu. That skews them away from us.” The executive team views J. Christopher’s as a more traditional high-end breakfast outlet.  “We like to think of ourselves in the top tier of this segment,” says Holbrook.  “The first tier includes Waffle House and Huddle House. In the second tier are IHOP and Denny’s.  J. Christopher’s is in the top tier; our closest competitor is First Watch out of Florida.”

The executive team’s vision for the J. Christopher’s franchise isn’t the typical cookie-cutter formula found in restaurant chains.  “It’s important that each location is unique and different,” says Haddock. J. Christopher’s hopes to achieve that effect by continuing the very present artwork in all locations, and by adding local favorites to the menu.  “The brand is strong,” Holbrook says, “and we’re striving for consistency especially in our quality standards from market to market.”  He emphasizes too the need for regionalization. “For example, we’ve been successful with a fresh bread program using a different bakery in Atlanta and another one in Nashville.” He points out, “we look for something to give the brand legs in each market.”

Another of J. Christopher’s strengths is its ability to attract and retain top-notch talent. Holbrook points out that the overall staff is affected in a positive way by the hours of operation (7AM – 2 PM).  “People can work a full day and still get home and actually spend time with their families in the evenings,” he points out.  That is unusual in the restaurant industry. The hours also give those who choose to do so, the opportunity to go to school or work a second job.

The first franchise restaurant has already opened in Nashville. The Macon franchise location is scheduled to open in 2008.  So what would success look like for J. Christopher’s in the next 12 to 18 months?  Sam is quick to point out that “short term quality growth is more important than the numbers.” “The numbers,” he says, “will take care of themselves.”   Nevertheless within the next year to year and a half, the partners hope to have 8 to 10 franchises up and running, with another 20 – 25 franchise locations in the pipeline.  The company-owned outlets will also be growing.  Within three years there will be five or six additional company-owned J.Christopher’s.

In the meantime, there’s a lot of work to do.  Dick points out that they have a team of 25 people assembled, with an abundance of deep industry experience.  For example, Bill Sparks is the Vice President of Operations, and manages issues related to restaurant infrastructure.  JCR has also engaged  Fitzgerald + CO for public relations,  retained training and development professionals, hired Focus on Food to help with the menu, engaged a real estate consultant, partnered with the Abovo Group for marketing expertise and brought onboard a franchise professional to help navigate the franchise offering documentation and process.

Everybody has a J. Christopher’s favorite.  Dick prefers the upscale Eggs Benedict offering.  Sam’s favorite is the Bubba for breakfast, with sausage gravy.  For lunch, Sam orders one of the new menu items Shrimp and Grits. With choices like these, the J. Christopher’s team isn’t worried about how to create grassroots buzz around the dining concept that is just starting to flex its muscle in the franchise world.  “The buzz creates itself,” says Sam. “It’s all about the food and the experience.”

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High Museum Atlanta Wine Auction

Thursday, March 27th, 2008

March 27 – 29, 2008 at various locations. For more information, visit www.atlanta-wineauction.org

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Slow Food Atlanta “Copper Chef” Competition

Wednesday, March 19th, 2008

March 19, 2008. For more information, visit www.slowfoodatlanta.org.

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US Foodservice Show

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

March 18, 2008 at the Cobb Galleria. For more information, call 404-774-8313.

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GRA Coastal Georgia Chapter Meeting

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

March 19, 2008. For more information, visit www.garestaurants.org.

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GRA Middle Georgia Chapter Meeting

Tuesday, March 18th, 2008

March 18, 2008. For more information, visit www.garestaurants.org.

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