While the local small batch liquors and mixed drinks with interesting ingredients are just starting to gain steam here in Georgia, the state already has a robust craft beer and wine scene.
Diane Riffel, co-owner of Octane Coffee, a boutique coffee shop with three locations in Atlanta, says she does a brisk business in beers from Georgia breweries like Terrapin, SweetWater, Jailhouse, Monday Night and Red Brick.
“We almost always have a local beer on tap at one of our stores,” Riffel says. “A lot of it is being able to support our local breweries. We’ve got great beers in our region, and we’re really proud of that.”
Octane has even collaborated with some of these local brewers to create coffee-inspired beers.
Athens-based Terrapin Beer Co. created a chocolate stout using Octane’s coffee beans, and 5 Seasons Brewing worked with Octane to create an espresso stout to serve in their Atlanta restaurants.
“It’s been a lot of fun to work with some of the local breweries,” she says.
In addition to serving Georgia beers, Octane uses a variety of local ingredients in its other foods and beverages. All of the milk for Octane’s espresso-based drinks comes from a dairy called Sparkman’s Cream Valley in Moultrie, Ga.
“A big part of it was finding a great milk that worked with our drinks. It was just perfect htat there was one right here in Georgia,” she says. “Whenever we have questions about it or there’s different nuances about the milk that change from season to season, we can just call up our rep and talk to someone directly on the farm.”
She says the milk is an important part of their recipes, so they don’t like to use just any milk you could pick up at a supermarket.
“For us, because of the way we prepare our drinks and steam our milk, fat content is very important,” says Riffel, who adds that another reason she supports small, local companies is philosophical. “We’re a small business, too. It’s important to give as much support as we can to local producers around us. We like to tout that there’s a lot of great stuff going on in our city and our region.”
Octane has stores in Atlanta’s hip Grant Park and Westside neighborhoods, as well as a “pocketbar” in the Bank of America Plaza downtown. In February, its first store in Birmingham, Ala. opened. Octane chose the city for its newest location because of its relationship with coffee roasting company Primavera Coffee, which currently roasts all of Octane’s coffee beans. Over the summer, Octane merged with Primavera Coffee.
The new partnership means big things for Octane, including the new Birmingham location and plans for a roasting operation at the Grant Park store.
Riffel said she is looking forward to being able to roast coffee inside Octane’s stores. She says it will be a great opportunity to educate people on how their coffee goes from “bean to cup.”
Just as with their food, people are interested in where their coffee comes from.
“It will give them a little more insight into what’s involved,” Riffel says, “to be able to make that connection with the customer is an important part of the experience.”
As America shifts toward a greener culture where citizens and businesses recognize their responsibility to the environment, more and more restaurants are expanding their own environmental conscience — by implementing a wide variety of sustainable practices and encouraging their staffs, customers and fellow restaurateurs to go green, too.
Small Decisions, Big Results
Every restaurant, regardless of size, menu or clientele, can make conscious choices that have a positive impact on their communities as well as the environment. And sometimes, simply using common sense is the greenest choice of all, according to Frank Bragg, owner of Radial Café.
“Don’t let stuff go to waste, try to spend as little as possible and bring new life to something that was going to be destroyed or throw into the landfill,” he advises. “Every small decision we made also made sense from a sustainability standpoint.”
Those small decisions have earned Radial Café a three-star rating from the Green Restaurant Association, whose certification program helps restaurants achieve their maximum green potential. Radial Café is one of only 68 restaurants in the country to achieve the three-star certification.
Radial has implemented a number of green practices such as converting to products that can be recycled — all paper napkins, take-out boxes and straws are 100% compostable — repurposing old building materials during the restaurant’s recent renovation, and making all energy systems as efficient as possible.
“The lights aren’t on in our restrooms until someone walking in, and it’s the same thing in our office and cooler. Our thermostats are programed for the season, per day and per hour so that the HVAC isn’t running if it’s not absolutely necessary,” says Bragg. “Our water faucets and dishwasher have low flow features and restroom faucets are touchless. We also conserve water by using fresh foods instead of thawing frozen foods in the sink. And we don’t sell bottled water — we filter our own.”
The payoff from these decisions is multiple. By making the investment in upgraded systems, Radial Café has actually ended up saving money on water and electricity. The restaurant’s staff has embraced the changes, many of them putting green practices to work at home through recycling, gardening and composting. And being green is good marketing — many customers appreciate Radial’s sustainability efforts and have become regular patrons because of it.
Go Local and Do It Yourself
Shipping and the pollution it creates are detrimental to the environment. But by ordering local and regional products, you can reduce the travel time it takes to get these products to your restaurant, thereby reducing pollution from the shipping process, says Paul Hymel, general manager of Lure, a Fifth Group restaurant.
“For example, we used to order those ‘fancy’ sparkling waters from overseas. But when we thought about the harm we were doing through the shipping process, we switched to products that are bottled locally and regionally,” he says.
Additionally, Lure has started carbonating its water in-house and packages it in reusable bottles.
“These things help us reduce our carbon footprint,” says Hymel. “And once you figure out how to incorporate a new practice into daily use, it becomes a habit…and it becomes easy.”
Nicolas Quinones, co-owner of Woodfire Grill, says that purchasing from local and small vendors has a dual role in his restaurant’s green practices.
“Food, of course, dominates our purchasing. So we choose to purchase all of our produce from local organic growers and our proteins from sustainable-practicing fisheries, ranches and farms,” he states. “This fits in with our goal of being as green and sustainable as possible, while also supporting our local farmers and businesses.”
Beverages can also be the focus of sustainability on a restaurant’s menu.
At Woodfire Grill, having a sustainable wine and beer list has proved beneficial in more than one way. The majority of the restaurant’s wine list comes from vineyards that practice biodynamic agriculture, a method of organic farming that integrates treatment of animals, crops, and soil as a single ecosystem, and beers are purchased from small breweries.
“Three quarters of the wines we pour by the glass are from sustainable vineyards. We feel they just taste better,” explains Quinones. “The same is true of our beers. We like to support people who are hand-crafting beer in small batches, and the tastes of these beers are very unique.”
If It’s Free, Reuse It
Rainwater is a free resource that only requires a little bit of effort to harness. Lure has begun collecting rainwater and condensation from its HVAC system — known as “gray” water — to use for other purposes, such as flushing toilets and watering all the shrubbery and plants on the patio.
The gray water is collected and stored in the restaurant’s basement in a “rain pillow,” which Hymel likens to a 30,000-gallon waterbed.
“Whenever it rains and as we collect condensation from our HVAC system, the water runs down and feeds into the pillow. Whatever it can’t absorb will run off,” he explains.
And if the pillow runs dry, the restaurant has a mechanism to switch over to using city water as needed.
A Greater Good
Hymel says that conservation and sustainability practices can bring communities together for a common and greater good.
“Regardless of where you fall on the side of the global warming debate, we can all agree that we can reduce the amount of garbage we produce and we can conserve our natural resources,” he says. “And we can do it because we love our community and our earth and we want to give back. We want to leave it a better place than when we arrived.”
Bragg agrees, and encourages fellow restaurants to make small decisions that bring larger rewards for both the environment and their local communities.
“It’s not that expensive and I think it will be second nature for more and more restaurants to go green as time goes on,” he says. “Ultimately, it’s just the right thing to do.”
Staplehouse began in 2009 as an underground supper club in the Grant Park home of Chef Ryan Hidinger and his wife, Jen. Hosting 10 guests every Sunday for dinner allowed the couple to talk with guests and hear their thoughts on food, the city and all the possibilities for both. Over the last four years, many strong and lasting relationships have formed. This was the prelude to Staplehouse.
Earlier this year, Chef Ryan was diagnosed with Stage IV gallbladder cancer. The Hidingers’ friends and family, along with the Ryan’s Cancer Treatment Center team and the Atlanta community, have surrounded the couple with a tidal wave of love and support that has forever changed their perspective on life. As a result, their dream restaurant has been re-purposed to tell a story of hope and will give back to those who stepped up in their time of need.
With help of several friends, the Hidingers founded a non-profit called The Giving Kitchen, an initiative that will assist the metro Atlanta restaurant community by lending a helping hand to industry members impacted by medical or other unanticipated hardship. Staplehouse will be the flagship and backbone of The Giving Kitchen, a casual fine dining experience with a purpose. The restaurant will dedicate all (after tax) proceeds to The Giving Kitchen Iniitative.
The operation will be managed by seven partners, including Chef Ryan and Jen Hidinger along with Chef Ryan Smith and Kara Hidinger (Ryan’s sister). The business will be supported by well known restaurateurs Ryan Turner, Chris Hall and Todd Mussman, and managed by the Unsukay back-of-house systems called Basecamp.
An historic two-story brick building (formerly a residence) located in the heart of the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood of Atlanta will house Staplehouse. Downstairs, a cozy 50-seat restaurant will present sustainable, local flavors and cocktails. The second floor will house The Giving Kitchen offices and a Foundation Function Room, where guests can share dinner privately. Square Feet Studio in Atlanta has graciously donated the design for Staplehouse.
If you go to Arianne Fielder’s bar and order a sour apple martini, she’ll probably try to change your mind. Instead of a Day-Glo green concoction, she might suggest a cocktail made with a natural apple-infused craft spirit instead.
Fielder, “head mixtress” and beverage manager at Seven Lamps in Atlanta, is the kind of culinary bartender who believes that beverages, as much as food, should be wholesome, well-crafted and, of course, tasty.
Gone are the days of pre-made sour mix, artificial flavors and mass-produced liquors. Just as chefs have embraced the farm-to-table dogma that prizes carefully produced local foods, bartenders, brewers and baristas are getting in on the trend.
“That’s the direction this bar program is in and I think most bar programs are turning in,” Fielder says. “People don’t know the difference it makes to use fresh juice, fresh ingredients and fresh distillates.”
Fielder says she uses as many local ingredients as possible and makes the juices and syrups for her cocktails in-house.
“It’s refreshing that, as much as people have started to care about where what they’re eating [comes] from, they are starting to have that crossover to care about what they drink,” she says.
Seven Lamps opened Dec. 20 in a cozy nook near Atlanta’s Lenox Square. Fielder and chef Drew Van Leuvan, both well known in Atlanta’s restaurant scene, have found a market for their craft food and drinks in Buckhead.
“If they’re coming in, they’re not walk-ins. They’re coming in for my drinks and Drew’s food. We’re both very fortunate,” says Fielder, who’s helped open three other craft bars in Atlanta. “This is the first bar program I’ve had where the majority of the drinks I sell are off the cocktail menu. Here, we don’t get many call drinks at all. People are excited about the techniques we use and the ingredients we use.”
Fielder says she’s happy to see the enthusiasm around craft cocktails — something that wasn’t as common just a few years ago.
Virginia Miller, a spokeswoman for The American Distilling Institute, says there has been exponential growth in the number of craft distilleries opening each year, not just in Georgia, but across the United States.
“Over the last decade or so, it has really taken off all over the country,” Miller says.
When the organization was founded in 2003, there were only 69 licensed craft distilleries. The Institute projects there will be between 400 to 450 licensed distilleries by the end of 2015.
Here in Georgia, there weren’t any legal distilleries even five years ago. Now, three distilleries are producing small batch spirits using local ingredients, and more are on the horizon. As customers clamor for produce and protein – and drinks – from local sources, chefs are searching for more local options.
Miller says it’s typically artisan bars that want to focus on local or unusual beverages that will be drawn to craft spirits.
“The more savvy and more creative they want to be, the more they’re going to want to use small-batch spirits,” she says.
The Evolution of Bartending
This new energy around craft cocktails has its roots in the early 20th century, notes Fielder, before Prohibition made the sale of alcohol illegal in the U.S. The craft of bartending faded as bartenders moved abroad or changed professions, and the quality of spirits decreased as people made them illegally, using additives and sugar to make them palatable. But even after Prohibition was lifted, the quality of American spirits stayed low. Still, Miller says, after Prohibition, some of the first craft distilleries opened up in California in the 1970s and 1980s, fueled in part by the “cocktail renaissance” that was starting to take shape in New York in the ’80s.
“We are 92 years since prohibition went into effect,” Fielder says. “It’s incredible that American distilling, American bartending, is just getting back on track with the rest of the world.”
Fielder says she likes to use craft spirits from across the country, including whiskey from Thirteenth Colony Distilleries in Americus, Ga. She loves that they use ingredients grown in Georgia. But what’s important to her is that the products come from “small batch, passionate distillers.”
She adds that the best bourbon is made in the South, where the climate allows the barrels to properly expand. The best rum is made in Puerto Rico, where the climate is right for growing sugar cane.
“I think spirits need to be true to where they’re from,” she says.
Miller says one of the reasons people are drawn to small-batch distilleries is that they are easy to relate to. Often craft distilleries are small family businesses. Other times, they are owned by people with a passion for spirits who opened a distillery as a second career.
“People want to know where their food or drink is coming from, who made it,” Miller says. “Those stories are a lot more accessible than the big brands. They can get a personal story and know where it comes from.”
Patrick Albrecht of Great Food Group Inc. is a self- confessed “technology geek.” And it shows in the efficiencies of the company’s restaurants – comprised of Paul’s, The Vinings Fish Company, Dos Amigos Cantina and Social Vinings – which have gone almost completely paperless by virtue of using wireless technology.
Great Food Group’s restaurants use the iPhone and iPad to handle a variety of tasks, from bookkeeping to security. The company’s culture of willingness to test and implement new technologies has garnered respect from software manufacturers and even corporate giant Apple, which features Great Food Group’s use of the iPhone and apps on its website.
Albrecht notes that Great Food Group has been assisting with the development of TouchBistro, a POS (point-of-sale) app, by using it in its restaurants and giving feedback. He gives the technology high marks.
“TouchBistro runs on the iPad, so there’s no wiring necessary. Since there’s no keyboard and no mouse involved, you can walk around your restaurant with it. It’s seamless,” he explains. “Also, it’s one-fifth to one-tenth the cost of a traditional POS. You see improvement in everything … ordering, inventory and accounting. And on top of that, you own your own data with TouchBistro – you can still access your information securely even when the power goes out or your Internet connection goes down.”
In addition to the iPad, Great Food’s restaurants use the iPhone to manage tasks that would normally be done manually. “We can run all of our electronics from the iPhone,” says Albrecht. “That includes controlling the lighting, music, thermostat, televisions and even surveillance.”
Albrecht recently spoke at a technology conference sponsored by Evernote, manufacturer of software applications that coordinate tasks such as notetaking and archiving of information. He discussed the future of the hospitality industry and its move toward integrated technologies that increase operating efficiencies, reduce cumbersome paper trails and improve the bottom line.
“We’ve changed our entire bookkeeping and accounting system by using wireless technology. Great Food Group is now virtually paperless,” he says. “We have a scanner at each restaurant – any paperwork, including receipts, is scanned and put into the digital filing cabinet. Then, the information is auto-synced with all of our other devices and our accountant, and the papers are shredded and go into the trash. There is no more archiving of paperwork.”
The idea of going paperless has a tendency to make some restaurant owners nervous, but Albrecht says there is no need to worry about record-keeping with today’s technologies that offer the ability to store and access information securely.
“Once scanned, all of your documents are backed up on the ‘cloud,’ and you can easily retrieve them,” he explains. “Plus, I have a search function on my iPhone that allows me to immediately locate an item out of the 10,000 or so documents I have stored.”
Granted, Albrecht’s love of technology (he has a degree in computer science as well as a culinary degree) makes him the ideal candidate to “guinea pig” the new devices and applications. But he enthusiastically encourages all restaurant owners to discover the benefits of the wireless wave.
“It’s made things so easy,” he says. “It’s revolutionized what we do here at Great Food Group.”
For more information about TouchBistro, visit TouchBistro. For more information about Great Food Group’s use of Evernote and Apple products and links to their corporate websites, go to Great Food Group and select the “Press” button.
At his restaurant 4th & Swift in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Jay Swift cooks up tantalizing dishes featuring seasonal and daily-changing market ingredients, such as a wood-grilled Niman Ranch steak with Caciocavallo Aligot cheese, braised mustard greens, french horn mushrooms and bell pepper-lime jus.
He began his career in 1976 in his native Baltimore, working at a seafood carry-out restaurant in high school. After paying his way through college with restaurant work, he decided to enroll in the American Culinary Federation Apprenticeship Program – he graduated first in his class. After working in Washington, D.C., Boston and New York City, he moved to Atlanta to head up South City Kitchen. He opened 4th & Swift in 2008.
He knows first-hand how integral restaurants are to the fabric of a community, and why they are a key economic driver for the state.
“The restaurant industry is important to Georgia because good restaurants add character and diversity to the community,” he says. “Restaurants also create great jobs for young people who need to work nights while attending classes during the day or who seek part-time employment to increase their flow of income. Restaurants improve the social fabric of a community by supplying a fun meeting place, while also attracting new visitors. Most of all, restaurants supply good food – and everyone loves good food.”
Swift recently celebrated his fourth year of 4th& Swift, which is often included on the list of best restaurants in the city. He is the chef co-chair for The Flavors of Atlanta, a culinary event that benefits the Georgia Chapter of the American Liver Foundation. He also supports Share Our Strength and has been invited to cook twice at the renowned James Beard House in New York.
“I am motivated by a desire to see my guests leave the restaurant happy every single night,” Swift says, “and to see my staff grow and succeed in their own careers.”
Why the GRA is important to our industry:
The GRA supports independent restaurateurs — like myself — by being an advocate in all the“big picture” areas where our power is limited. Political, agricultural and food safety issues are just a few of the areas addressed by the GRA more effectively than individual restaurant owners could on their own. The GRA also helps with networking, successfully communicates best practices and builds valuable relationships.
Major industry trends in 2013:
Healthier and more environmentally sound foods. I have noticed a trend toward smaller protein portions and larger servings of vegetables. I think people are demanding higher-quality ingredients, in addition to higher-quality preparations.
Most pressing industry challenges:
I anticipate the most pressing industry challenges to be meeting this growing need for higher quality, healthier and environmentally sound foods while also being able to balance cost and price effectively and at a profit. Sourcing and value perception will become increasingly important.
The other big challenge is the increasing burdens put on small businesses by the government. Through local, state and federal taxes, regulations and red tape, I believe the government creates several obstacles for anyone starting or working to maintain a small business. These issues need to be addressed for small operators to survive.
Soon the curtain will lift on 2013 and a new year of food will play out. During the last several months, the Culinary Team of Sterling-Rice Group has talked to celebrity chefs, school food reformers, product developers, and even the U.S. Culinary Ambassador to see what this will look like. Here are the results:
1. Sour Gets Its Day
Finally, the American dining scene will move beyond sweet, salty, and fatty. Next year we’ll have a plethora of tart, acidic, and bitter flavors to choose from, as menus and grocery stores feature flavors like fermented cherry juice, varietal vinegars, and even sour beer. Awesome!
With DIY pickling and brining, you will see more sauerkrauts, pickles, and tart flavors at restaurants. The old shrub drinks from colonial times as well as the vinegar drinks from Korea and Thailand will figure into the craft cocktails. —Jorge de la Torre, Dean of Culinary Education, Johnson & Wales University, College of Culinary Arts, Denver
2. Chefs Watch Your Weight
Butter, bacon, and cream have been chefs’ best friends since the beginning of time. But in 2013, chefs will be working quietly behind the scenes to make your dishes
better for you with ingredients like brown rice, high-fiber grains, and vitamin-rich veggie broths.
A big health change for restaurants is vegetable stock. Traditional vegetable stock is simple, plain, and mostly based on mirepoix. At my restaurant, Black Bear, we use grilled portobello and roasted beets, which we reduce into very strong and delicious bases, without all the fat and with tons of vitamins. —Victor Matthews, Chef/Owner, Black Bear Restaurant; American Culinary Ambassador
3. Asian Influences Infiltrate American Comfort Food
The fresh, spice-forward flavors of Thailand, Vietnam, and Korea will work their way into our menu. Expect to walk into a classic American diner and see options like Vietnamese chicken sandwiches, Sriracha mayo, or Korean-glazed pork ribs.
Korean-marinated short ribs cooked on an infrared or Robata grill is new, and pardon the pun, HOT! In California recently, I had pork baby back ribs with Korean chili glaze, made of scallions, Thai chili, and lime. It’s the perfect blending of cultures. —Ina Pinkney, Chef/Owner, Ina’s
4. Veggies Take Over the Plate
Forget resigning veggies to your salad plate. In 2013, you’ll find garden-grown foods as entrées (cauliflower steaks), starches (squash noodles), and even delicious beverages (celery juice cocktails).
The more we learn about the state of our oceans and the state of our commercial agribusinesses’ mistreatment of animals, a lot of people are turning to vegetables as their main course. In addition to that, we now have more farmers’ markets, more produce selections at the stores, and more information than ever before about the health benefits. —Hosea Rosenberg, Winner, Top Chef Season 5; Owner, Blackbelly Catering and Farm
5. Kids’ Menus Grow Up
In 2013, we’ll see less hot dogs, mac ’n cheese, and grilled cheese on our little ones’ plates. Instead, more fruits, a variety of veggies, protein-rich grains, and authentic Asian flavors will push kids’ menus into the realm of adult dining.
I’ve been seeing this all over the country. Burgers on pretzel rolls on kids’ menus, REAL fish and chips using tilapia with more interesting herbed bread crumb coatings, fried calamari, foods on skewers, and Asian items like potstickers and noodle bowls. —Gale Gand, Founding Partner, Tru; Food Network Personality of Sweet Dreams; Cookbook Author and Creator/Owner of Gale’s Root Beer
6. American Artisans Save You a Trip to Europe
For years, budding food artisans have sprung up in the U.S., crafting everything from booze to charcuterie. And as their craze becomes a lifestyle, you can count on every major American city to proudly sport local, artisan foodie destinations in 2013.
Lots of chefs are going local lately whether it’s the honey they use, the fruit and vegetables they buy, or the wine and cheese they offer. And it makes sense. It tastes better, has less food miles on it, shows support for our country, and makes good copy on the menu! —Gale Gand, Founding Partner, Tru, Food Network Personality of Sweet Dreams, Cookbook Author and Creator/Owner of Gale’s Root Beer
7. Small Plates for Me Only
As American dining evolves from tapas, next year, sharing will go by the wayside. With menus offering small, singular servings of meat, veggies, and starches, we’ll be able to enjoy a perfectly sized meal of whatever it is we’re craving. On our own.
From Portland to Boston, I’ve seen diners make customized meals from small plates. If they are hungry for comfort food, they might start with burrata, then order a small flatbread, and finish with a bit of fried chicken. Or if they want something lighter, they might have a small serving of watermelon salad followed by albacore. This kind of ordering promises flexibility and flavor! —Kazia Jankowski, Associate Culinary Director, Sterling-Rice Group
8. Fruit ≠ Sweet
In 2013, chefs will be far less interested in highlighting the sugary, honey tastes of melons, peaches, and the like. Instead, they will lace fruit with savory flavors, bringing naturally refreshing and sweet touches to appetizers, soups, veggie sides, and even meaty entrées.
Chefs are fermenting, pickling, drying, dehydrating, salting, grilling, frying, baking, and generally manipulating fruit much more to get new flavors out of what we are used to eating raw. —Hosea Rosenberg, Winner Top Chef Season 5 & Owner, Blackbelly Catering and Farm
9. No Diner Left Behind
To accommodate vegetarians, vegans, gluten-freers, wheat-freers, kiddos, and eco-conscious diners, restaurants will offer all-inclusive menus and service. So don’t be surprised when your server asks for your allergy list the next time you order.
Gone are the days when chefs can ignore dietary requests. They are just too pervasive in our society to ignore. Chefs who are on the cutting edge realize this and are planning ahead in the kitchen to have the flexibility to meet the varied requests. —Kazia Jankowski, Associate Culinary Director, Sterling-Rice Group
10. Popcorn is the Snack of 2013
Light, crispy, and equally delicious with sweet or savory flavors, this popped whole grain is addictive, not to mention low in fat and calories. Which is why next year, expect popcorn to explode (no pun intended) as a bar snack, crouton, ice cream, and more.
I just had a snout-to-tail pig experience in California, and fennel powder-dusted popcorn was a garnish. —Mike Shethar, Owner, Missing Piece Cookery School and Teaspoon Willie’s Everything Sauce; Chef Instructor, LiveWell Colorado and Cook for America
Sterling-Rice Group is a firm specializing in integrated brand strategy, innovation, and creativity.
In the food service industry, a restaurant that has been around for 88 years can be said to have stood the test of time. But it takes ingenuity and hard work to make it that far. That’s just what Johnny Harris’ restaurant in Savannah has accomplished.
In 1924, at the corner of Bee Street and Victory Drive, Johnny Harris opened a barbeque restaurant. It grew out of humble beginnings – just a small building with sawdust floors. Three years after it opened, Harris hired Kermit “Red” Donaldson, who soon became indispensable to the business.
As the demand for the restaurant’s barbeque and fried chicken grew, Harris knew a bigger location was needed. So in 1936, a new restaurant was built just a block away on Savannah’s Victory Drive, where it still remains today. According to President Bernard “B.J.” Lowenthal, it’s the oldest, continuously operated restaurant in Savannah.
The Johnny Harris brand continued to evolve as the restaurant began to bottle and sell its signature barbeque sauce. At first, loyal customers purchased sauce poured into old soda bottles by Red himself. By 1960, Red’s son and current CEO Phillip Donaldson took the sauce far beyond Savannah’s historic streets, making it into a business unto itself – the Johnny Harris Famous Bar-B-Cue Sauce Company. Empty soda bottles were replaced with standard bottles and the sauce was distributed at a rate of 400 cases every two weeks.
Today, the Johnny Harris brand continues to grow in a competitive market because the management team listens to their customers and answers the demand, increasing profits in every segment of their business. Just as the restaurant expanded in 1936 to handle demand and the sauce business followed in 1960, the Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue business expanded to cater at its banquet facility and other nearby venues.
With three dining options, including a bar, a casual dining area referred to as the “kitchen” and a large, 1930s-style ballroom, there were continued requests from customers for more dining options.
“People were asking us all the time if they could book our ballroom for a private party, and of course we couldn’t do that to our regular guests,” says Lowenthal, who is Phillip Donaldson’s son-in-law. “Then the opportunity came to buy the building next door, and we did. We turned that into a banquet center that can hold up to 200 people.”
The banquet center was created, says Lowenthal, to increase business without building a new restaurant. He says the banquet center has been a good move and has performed very well.
“In addition to lunch and dinner, we can also offer breakfast in the banquet facility,” says Lowenthal. “This is a profitable area of our business as we have bookings nearly every day. Some are recurring groups, and some are special events.”
Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue has also realized success in catering at other venues. With the capability to cater groups up to 3,000, Lowenthal says the company made a concerted effort last year to build up their off-premise catering.
“We actually branded that catering program, ‘Your Place or Mine’,” Lowenthal says. “We can host an event in the banquet center or go to a requested location. We set up and serve and sometimes set up, cook and serve.”
Recent efforts to increase the visibility of their take-out business and grow awareness among tourists have helped increase profits. “We made a bold move and put a reader board on our restaurant,” says Lowenthal.
The restaurant is located on a direct route to Tybee Island, a popular beach retreat, so the restaurant began to advertise buckets of friend chicken to capitalize on weekend traffic to the beach.
“People didn’t really know we did buckets of chicken,” he says. “They do now. We’re trying everything we can think of to increase business outside of just our four walls.”
The reader board is flexible, so the company changes the message as the market dictates. “We’re being a little more proactive in reaching out to customers instead of just riding our legacy and thinking customers will just come see us because we’ve been around a long time,” he says. “There are a lot of people fighting for dining business.”
With such a long legacy in Savannah, the restaurant is well known to locals, but it has struggled to get tourist business due to its midtown location.
“At the time Johnny Harris was built, it was on the edge of town,” Lowenthal says. “Now we’re in the middle of town. Without being in the heart of the historic district, we have to be clever to get the tourists.”
So Lowenthal went after tour companies. At the beginning of 2012, Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue was added to Savannah’s Foodie Tour, which brings tourist straight to their door.
“We see a lot of business from the Foodie Tour(s),” he says. The tour introduces groups of tourists to seven different restaurants in the city and is arranged through Savannah Tours.
It’s In the Sauce
Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue sauce is produced in a bottling warehouse facility across the street from the restaurant in Savannah and is shipped to specialty distributors in the Southeast and Midwest. It’s also in major grocery store chains.
A recent change to the size of the bottles and the addition of new flavors has helped increase profits. Changing the size of the bottles from a 13-ounce net weight to an 18-ounce net weight helped the brand get more retail space.
“When we sold the sauce to distributors, it used to be in a 12 pack, and now it’s in a 6 pack,” says Bernard “B.J.” Lowenthal, president of Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue. “Twelve was too many for the grocery store shelf, and the stores would put the additional bottles in the back of the grocery store where it would get lost. The product would then be returned for credit. A six-pack fits nicely on the shelf, and we see less sauce returned for credit.”
A host of new flavors helped get more retail presence on the grocery store shelves and more people to try the brand. The original flavor was created when the restaurant began, and a hickory flavor was introduced in 1970. Today, Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue sauce comes in flavors including Georgia Peach, Hot Wing and Spicy Honey. These new sauces, says Lowenthal, are the original recipe infused with new flavors.
Distribution has also increased in recent years, in part due to a change in distributors. Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue sauce was previously distributed by Tree of Life, the first nationwide distributor of natural and organic products. KeHE Distributors, LLC, which supports retailers across multiple channels in North, South and Central America and the Caribbean, purchased Tree of Life in 2010. With KeHE providing a larger distributor reach for the Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue sauce, Lowenthal says the company has discovered a lot of potential for distribution growth.
The restaurant business has always been a tough one, but it’s become even more so since the economic downturn in 2007. While some restaurants closed amid the financial crisis, others got creative and came up with other ways to extend their revenues and not just survive, but thrive.
Whether it’s bottling a signature sauce, expanding restaurant space to cater to large private parties, joining a local “foodie tour” or launching a food truck, if you’re considering expanding your revenues, the options are as many as the number of restaurants in Georgia.
Trucking Into Profits
Since the early days of the ice cream truck and hot dog stands, tasty treats from a truck has always held a certain appeal, not to mention a big convenience factor.
Willy’s Mexican Grill is just one Georgia restaurant that has extended its business through a food truck. The Atlanta-based fresh Mex restaurant, which was founded in 1995 and is best known for its award-winning signature burritos, already had 21 restaurants in Atlanta, Athens and Gainesville, Fla., when it launched its food truck.
Willy Bitter, president of Willy’s, says the Willy’s food truck started rolling in the fall of 2010. Before he got going, though, Bitter took a trip to Los Angeles, which he calls the “land of the food trucks,” to check out how the trucks operated.
The truck is used primarily for catering and special events, but it has also been parked at key locations in Atlanta during the lunch hour.
“The response has been great, and people love hosting a food truck at their party or event,” Bitter says. “It’s fun and makes the experience unique.”
The catering side of the business was started in 2000, just five years after the restaurant debuted, and Bitters says it is a very profitable part of his business.“In our case, the Willy’s Food Truck is another part of our catering department, rather than a separate entity,” he says.“We saw the addition of the truck as an opportunity to offer our customers the food truck experience at their home or office.”
If you are considering launching a food truck, however, Bitter recommends you find a way to stand out from the pack without losing your concept identity.
“Don’t get caught up in the hype,” he says.“There are a lot of trucks out there now, and in order to be successful, you need to come up with an original concept. Make sure it works for your menu and offers something better than what is out there.”
How to Get Rolling
Thinking of starting a food truck business, but don’t know where, how to start, or how much capital you’ll need? The Atlanta Street Food Guidebook is a valuable source of information tackling subjects including start-up costs, rules and regulations and daily operations. The e-book is by Greg Smith and Maggie Rentz Smith, founding members of the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, a group of restaurateurs, small business owners and citizens whose mission is to campaign for safe, affordable and legal access to street food in Atlanta and the surrounding metropolitan area.
Among the guidebook’s many helpful topics is the section devoted to start-up costs, which includes everything from the truck or trailer to staffing, to permits. The guidebook states that a conservative target for the average required capital is around $100,000. The list below provides all areas of start-up costs along with cost ranges.
Truck or Trailer ………………………………$10,000 – $125,000
Kitchen ………………………………….. Up to $30,000 or more
Operating Expenses (3 months):
Cost of Goods ……………………………………$6,000-$60,000
Staffing ………………………………………….$5000 – $20,000
The wide range for the truck or trailer depends quite literally on whether a truck or a trailer is used for vending. Per the guidebook, “trailers are extremely affordable; you can spend as little as $10,000 (or less!) on a fully-outfitted trailer.” A drawback in using a trailer, according to the guidebook, is that the trailer will limit the number of locations that can be reached in one day because of the additional set-up and break-down time to park the trailer at the vending location. Ultimately, the additional time and limited vending opportunities per day can lead to increased labor costs.
The guidebook also lists ways to decrease the cost of purchasing a food truck, which in the current market can cost anywhere between $65,000 and $125,000. Alternative cost-saving methods to purchasing a food truck is to lease one, a practice that is not common in the Atlanta market, or to build your own. When building your own food truck, the authors recommend planning at least three months from concept to completion.
Greg and Maggie Smith are both attorneys with The Smith Group, LLC, an Atlanta law firm. Greg is recognized as an authority in food and beverage service and production law and food service licensing and permitting issues. The Smiths are co-owners of the Westside Creamery food truck. Their guidebook is available for purchase for $30 through the Atlanta Street Food Coalition website at www.atlantastreetfood.com.
The Atlanta Street Food Coalition website provides information on current food truck vendors, a monthly calendar highlighting dates and times of food truck vending events and an opportunity to join the coalition.
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.”