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From Staff Turnover to the Obesity Epidemic, Every Restaurant Faces Challenges in Making a Profit

By Christy Simo

Staffing and turnover, fighting this country’s obesity epidemic and getting good local proteins. These are the challenges your kitchen is facing. As part of the Georgia Restaurant Association’s Annual Meeting in June, five of the state’s top chefs, along with a friendly face from Birmingham, sat down to talk with attendees about the challenges and successes they have faced over the past few years.

No matter the size of your restaurant, a high turnover can affect everything from the quality of the food prepared to how your customers enjoy their dining experience. These chefs are not exempt from this struggle, but they have found several ways
to combat a high turnover rate.

In fact, most of them see turnover because their kitchens are great resume builders.

“Staff comes and they’re eager, and they want to be there, but they want to be there for a year or two. We have incredible talent come through, and sometimes they leave,” says Anne Quatrano, chef/co-owner of Bacchanalia, Floataway Cafe, Star Provisions and Abattoir, all in the Atlanta area. “Times can be tough that way, but in the end someone’s going to rise up, and it will be a good person.”

Linton Hopkins, chef and owner of Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch, along with H&F Bottleshop and H&F Bread Co., agrees.

“One of the hardest things is hiring a sous chef who is not from within. In fact, I don’t ever hire a new sous chef [outside the kitchen]. It’s sort of like baseball. We use a farm system to train up through the ranks and offer opportunity. You’re able  to build trust,” he says. “Training from within has been one of the biggest things we’ve done.”

The challenge for everybody, no matter what kind of restaurant you own, is how to profit, especially in these times of rising food costs.

“To me, it’s how you do balance running the business you want to run and, idealistically, what you’ve always dreamed of, with the food you’ve always dreamed of and the people you’ve always dreamed of and giving them the opportunities, with how do I make money doing it?,” says Chris Hall, co-owner and chef at Local Three. “We’ve all made the decision that this is the quality I’m going to serve. We are going to do this by hand, we’re going to do it the right way with hospitality, and love, and service and care. If I’ve made my decision to operate at this kind of level, how do I make money?”

Despite rising food costs, it’s clear that the farm-to-table movement and public demand for local, seasonal food is here to stay.

“There is such a proliferation of farmers markets. A few years ago there were less than 10 in Georgia, and now there’s more than 200. It’s pretty amazing,” Hopkins says. “So no matter where you live and work in Georgia, you have access to quality local produce.”

He notes that last year, Peachtree Farmers Market in Atlanta made $4.5 million through its 60 vendors, generating a $12 million local economic impact. Farmers markets are clearly more than just a passing trend.

“I don’t think we’ve really seen the farm to table movement at its peak yet, far from it, from the public’s perspective,” says Ron Eyester, chef/owner of Rosebud and The Family Dog. “People finally understand cooking and eating within the seasons. They finally realize, ‘I should not eat a tomato in December, and I’m OK with that.’ I think cooking and eating with the seasons is going to continue to build momentum, and obviously that’s going to dictate more buying from local sources and a greater awareness of them.”

Perhaps one of the biggest challenges in the state of Georgia is about finding good local proteins.

“I just wish there was a way we could embrace the local proteins and still be able to stay in business,” says Quatrano.“That’s been a struggle for all of us. We’ve got great produce– somebody just brought me 150 pounds of blueberries on Saturday for $3 a pound that I put in our freezer. What we are really struggling with in this state is the local pasture-raised poultry, for lamb, for veal, even rabbits that are humanely raised.”

Todd Mussman of Muss & Turners, Local Three and Eleanor’s, agrees.

“One of my biggest issues is instead of finding local pork or local poultry, it’s finding the processors to do it right, the farmers to get it to us at a reasonable price,” he says. “If we had a centralized place where these farmers could bring their animals and just drop them, have them taken care of, delivered, butchered to the chef’s specs – it sounds like a fantasy, but I think it’s something that can be done.”

“In terms of the big tenets of food movement today, you look at the farm to table, it’s created a very important, probably the most important conversation in our generation about food supply. How do we create food supplies that are healthy and available to all? There’s been a tremendous amount of discussion about that,” says Chris Hastings, executive chef and owner of Hot & Hot Fish Club in Birmingham. “It’s good because we obviously have a lot of health issues in this country around food and our unhealthy relationship with food and processed foods.”

“Obesity is a huge issue in our world today, and it’s easy to turn and say fast food did that, but it’s all about what you put into your body,” Mussman says. “We have a responsibility as chefs to provide healthy food. We have to do the right thing and help people eat healthy.”

“How do we create food supplies that are healthier?” asks Hastings. “It starts one community at a time, one farmers market at a time, one CSA at a time.”

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