High-End Goes Small Town – Fine Dining Finds Success Outside the Big City
by Jaymi Curley
Small towns persist in the American imagination as sleepy wayside places, consisting of one stop light and few options for a good meal beyond the country kitchen, barbeque shack or the ever proliferating fast-food chain.Â But in light of a recent trend toward the revitalization of rural, historic downtown areas, the restaurant industry in many small towns is getting a major upgrade, and in turn is doing a lot to boost the fortunes of the surrounding community.
Across the nation, rural communities are committing local funds and using federal grants to accomplish large-scale downtown revitalization projects. These improvements are being targeted to expand shopping and socializing opportunities in small town centers, while also adding jobs to the community and restoring and making use of historic buildings that have often been boarded up and standing empty for years. Attracting new and interesting players in the local restaurant scene is a large part of being able to sustain the progress created by the downtown projects.
Emmitt Nolan, Main Street Manager for the City of Brunswick, has noted the positive changes that are happening as a result of his cityâ€™s Main Street revitalization. â€œPeople finally have started returning to the area.Â We started programs like First Fridays where the retail shops, art galleries antique stores stay open a little later. We have kind of made it a destination, a shopping area, and so the restaurants are following.â€
Some counties are experiencing population booms and are looking for restaurants to serve the appetites of the community.Â John A. Henry J.D., CEO of Effingham County IDA, says â€œEffingham County has been working to attract restaurants to the Savannah bedroom community in the wake of a population boom. The community has grown nearly 43% in the past decade alone.â€
Many Georgia chefs are seeing new opportunities by choosing to open up outside of the major metropolitan areas, and setting down roots in smaller communities around the state.Â When Chef Jayson Ridinger, owner of Cargoâ€™s Portside Grill in Brunswick, bought out the restaurant in early 2009, he saw the same charm and potential of the community that Cargoâ€™s original owner had.
â€œThereâ€™s a family-oriented feel to this place,â€ he says of the city of Brunswick. â€œThere is a micro-community here where all the businesses and the vendors, we all take care of each other. Iâ€™ve lived in Phoenix, Wyoming, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh. Iâ€™ve traveled all over, and you just donâ€™t find this kind of atmosphere anywhere else. I love it.â€
Chef Scott Dixon, owner of Scottâ€™s On The Square in Gainesville, spent six years away from the restaurant business, but when he decided to open his own fine-dining establishment, it wasnâ€™t Atlanta or one of the surrounding metros that attracted him.
â€œWe had moved up to the Gainesville area about four or five years prior, and we loved the area,â€ says Dixon, â€œbut thought it kind of lacked the variety of high-end restaurants that we had had in Alpharetta or Buckhead. And we always said if we were going to open a restaurant, this would be a great place to do it.â€
Dixon says that opening his restaurant in a smaller community like Gainesville afforded him the opportunity to stand out and do something different. â€œWhat I didnâ€™t want,â€ says Dixon, â€œis to be a kind of â€˜me-tooâ€™ to the chains and casual type places that there are a lot of here. And in Atlanta, you have so many high-end places to eat, you just fade into the crowd.â€ With the market for high-end dining being relatively untapped in more rural communities, Dixon was able to make a niche for himself. â€œI think there is a very strong market open for [fine dining]. So many people who have moved up the lake and around that area were still going down to Atlanta to eat, or would want something of that quality and caliber.â€
The fact that the fine-dining experience is offered by a locally owned business is definitely an advantage in a community that, while growing, still prides itself on having a hometown feel and an unyielding support for its homegrown businesses. â€œMost of our fine-dining restaurants downtown are mom-and-pop places. We know who is in the kitchen. We see them around town. But they are just updating our image. They are just an upgraded experience from the diners and such,â€ says Nolan.
Dixon agrees. â€œI have had a wonderful reception here in Gainesville, and Iâ€™m getting great feedback and encouragement from the people here.â€
â€œHonestly, if I closed my doors tomorrow,â€ says Ridinger, â€œI may pick a new concept, I might pick a new business, but Iâ€™d still pick a small downtown to open up again, and thatâ€™s a fact.â€
A chefâ€™s creativity in terms of menus doesnâ€™t suffer at all in the rural areas; the demand for high-quality and interesting ingredients prepared in diverse ways is just as strong in the small town square as it is in the heart of Buckhead in Atlanta. And the current trend toward locally sourced, fresh ingredients takes on an even greater significance.
â€œOn some levels, the localization aspect of the ingredients is even more important here,â€ Dixon says. â€œA lot of our clientele arenâ€™t that far removed from the farm. There are a lot of people that work in agriculture, and Gainesville is the chicken capital of the world. So much of what goes on here is centered around all things poultry. And there is so much great produce grown on farms, a stoneâ€™s throw away. We definitely try to embrace that.â€
With the proliferation of celebrity chef, food-centered programming and the internet, there are not many food trends that escape the notice of even the smallest corners of the state.
â€œI think we have just as savvy a consumer here as any larger city,â€ says Dixon. â€œMany people who consider themselves â€˜foodiesâ€™ and are looking for something â€“ I wonâ€™t say cutting edge, but something out of the ordinary in terms of preparation. We may not have as many of them here as we do in Atlanta, but the people in the community respond well to our menus. For example, I did an espresso-and-cocoa-rubbed rack of lamb, and we ended up serving it with a semi-sweet chocolate sauce, which is something kind of different and out there. But I told people who were skeptical, â€˜Hey, you donâ€™t like it, Iâ€™ll make you one without all the stuff on there.â€™Â I change my menus about every four months, and we had the dish on there the whole four-month period, and it became one of the most popular dishes.â€
â€œGood food is good food, and with me, flavor comes first,â€ says Ridinger. â€œMy goal is always to win the trust of my customer. Once I have done that, I can be comfortable maybe pushing the envelope a little, because I can count on them to go with me. One of the specials we had done recently was a rabbit alphabet soup, a really delicious rabbit soup with pasta letters and it was served with a rabbit leg tucked on the side. We also have had a blue cheese ice cream. It was a risk, but I can take a risk, because I am sure my customers are with me.Â People want to be excited about what they are eating. If you are not doing all you can to prop that up, you are not doing yourself justice.â€
By balancing his menu with traditional southern favorites, like Fried Green Tomatoes and Striped Bass, with more exotic elements like Thai Style Calamari and high-end comfort food mashups, like Lobster Mac-and Cheese, Ridinger aims to have a menu on which any customer can find a dish that will keep them coming back.
One of the major advantages of choosing small town life is the cost savings that can be recognized in some areas of overhead. The often high property values and rents in the Atlanta area can make opening a new restaurant there extremely difficult. Lower property costs in small cities can pave the way for a chef-owner to open a larger venue than might be possible in urban metro areas.
â€œIf I had opened my restaurant is Atlanta,â€ says Ridinger, â€œit would have cost $1 million plus. I actually opened my first restaurant in downtown Brunswick for just a little over $120,000. It was the same equipment, the same everything, itâ€™s just that everything costs so much more in Atlanta.â€
â€œMy profit margins are fairly close to the same,â€ Dixon agrees. â€œOur rent costs are definitely less than in Atlanta, and with the labor pool we have a slightly lower payroll cost than we would have otherwise.â€
In addition, the presence of historic buildings with space to let or purchase can mean that architectural details an owner might pay a premium for to have built into a space in a large city can be available for much less.
â€œA lot of these old building historic have the high ceilings, the exposed brick, and even the large glass storefronts,â€ says Nolan, â€œThey make excellent restaurant spaces. There are some good deals to be had as far as spaces for sale or rent. Also, there are grant monies out there at the state level that a lot of people arenâ€™t using. It is just a matter of spending the time to fill out all that paperwork, but there are ways to get help with costs.â€
â€œDowntown is gorgeous,â€ says Ridinger. â€œThere is a story that comes with every building. It just makes the whole experience richer.â€
While lower costs can make opening in smaller communities attractive, there are a number of challenges that come along with that decision. Dixon notes, for example, that since the entire pool of customers can be much smaller, it can be difficult to draw in the stable base of regular repeat customers that is the bedrock of a restaurantâ€™s success.
â€œWe are trying to be seen as something more than just a special occasion type place,â€ he says. â€œThere are definitely some challenges in that area.â€
Nolan also sees that economic impact in Brunswick. â€œThe economy being what it is now, and with the number of restaurants we have now, the challenge is going to be that the piece of the pie they are getting is smaller.â€
Chef Ridinger says that his difficulty is in luring the well-heeled â€œisland people,â€ inhabitants and visitors to nearby St. Simons and other Georgia sea islands who are reluctant to cross the bridge to spend their dining dollars in Brunswick.
One way in which Chef Dixon faces down this challenge is by identifying his restaurant as fine-dining but with a comfortable twist. â€œWe call ourselves â€˜casual fine-dining.â€™ It tends to make us more approachable,â€ says Dixon. â€œWe want to designate ourselves as fine dining, because we want them to think of us more as chef-crafted food with higher quality raw materials across the board. But we still want them to feel comfortable to walk in the front door with jeans on and have a meal or a drink. We could go the coat-and-tie route if we wanted to, but thatâ€™s not what I think people want now.â€
Ridigner relies on his offers of special wine dinners combined with excellent service to translate into word-of-mouth raves from his discerning customer base. â€œEverything we do, we have to always be on our game.Â Outstanding food and outstanding service â€” this is what I tell my staff all the time. We have to always be competing at a big-city level. Our food, our quality, our service has to always be at the highest standards.â€
The type and strength of the industry in the surrounding community can also make a big impact on the bottom line.
â€œWe still cater to the business customers, particularly the medical community, which we have a lot of up here. We have the top heart center here, and with the size of the medical community, it is a big help,â€ says Dixon.
In turn, the presence of a fine-dining option can be a big help to local business, particularly ones trying to lure top talent from larger, more cosmopolitan areas. â€œA doctor who was being recruited by one of the hospitals told me that my restaurant was one of the deciding factors that helped sway him to relocate here from New York,â€ says Dixon. â€œHeâ€™d come in for lunch with the doctors who were trying to get him to join the hospital. Then he came by to visit after he had made the move. He told me that heâ€™d felt good about the fact that thereâ€™d be at least one place to eat where things reminded him a little bit of New York, in a very different atmosphere.â€
There are also any number of quirks in small communities that an owner in a large city would never have to consider, but that can impact the business heavily. â€œWeâ€™d been open a few weeks,â€ recalls Chef Dixon, â€œand on every other Wednesday night we had been packed, but on this one, we were empty. So I asked my bartenderâ€”a local guyâ€”where was everybody? He just looked at me funny and said, â€œWell, people go to church on Wednesday.â€Â There are those kinds of dynamics you never think about. You really have to be plugged in to the community.â€
Strong community involvement can be a make or break proposition in a small town, especially for a chef who comes from outside the community. Ridinger says his restaurant donates numerous gift certificates to local charities and does appearances at local events to cement his brand firmly in the Brunswick area.
Dixon finds his business interests supported by his deep involvement with a number of local committees.
â€œThe most important thing for us here was really immersing myself in the community and getting involved.Â My involvement with the Chamber of Commerce and really getting into the local business community was invaluable to gaining acceptance here. Now I am on the board for the Chamber of Commerce, and I serve as the associate director for the downtown association.â€
Above all, a chef who takes a chance on a fine-dining establishment in a small town gives something back to an entire area. â€œThe fine-dining options add culture to our community,â€ says Nolan. â€œYouâ€™re in a small place like Gainesville, but you feel like you could be in Atlanta, maybe New York.â€