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Muss & Turner’s-Where Everybody Knows Your Name

July/August 2009

By Shannon Wilder

Remember Cheers, the fictitious Boston watering hole where everybody knows your name? Those who seek to create such a place themselves – or just sample some of the finest food and drink around – might want to take a look at Muss & Turner’s.

Tucked into a posh development in Vinings that smacks more of Georgetown than suburban Atlanta, this Southern deli/gourmet comestibles shop/fine dining establishment makes it a point to learn your name. Order lunch from the well-stocked deli, and the cashier hands you a metal cardholder bearing a piece of paper with your name written on it to help the server find your table.

Gimmicky? Maybe, but it seems less so after you chat with the restaurant’s down-to-earth creators, Chef Todd Mussman and General Manager Ryan Turner, who also identifies himself as “business dude.” The two, who met while working for Atlanta’s Fifth Group Restaurants, began planning Muss & Turner’s in 2001 before opening it in 2005.

“We wanted to open a place like it was our house – like come in and enjoy the hospitality the same way as if you were invited to our home,” says Chef Mussman, a Boston area native whose family’s experience in the deli business spans two generations.

Turner, who hails from Maine, says it’s all about offering genuine food and genuine hospitality. “Is it just a pure money play – are you just trying to do a transaction so you can make a buck, or is there something more significant behind that transaction?”

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For these two, there’s definitely something more significant going on. Muss & Turner’s doesn’t just serve up great-tasting dishes; the owners are committed to using local, sustainably produced ingredients. Chef Mussman buys grass-fed beef from Riverview farms in north Georgia, for example, and from it he makes not only hamburgers, but also the roast beef that he preserves via Cryovac and saves in the restaurant’s cooler. It may not last as long as that purchased from a grocery store (often loaded with preservatives), but the taste, he says, is incomparable.

“It’s the right thing to do to support people of like passions-support the local economy,” Turner says.

The general rule of thumb, Chef Mussman says, is that if he can get a product from Georgia, he does. “That’s inherently our food philosophy: back to the basics, back to square one,” he says.

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It seems unfair to characterize a menu like this as basic. Lunch is loaded with one-of-a-kind sandwiches like the Closed On Sunday (buttermilk battered chicken), the Reason to Reuben and the Insult to Philly – so named because, Chef Mussman says, it features real beef and melted Swiss, as opposed to processed meat and cheese. The lunch menu, including sandwich names, was generated over a 12-pack of beer and, the partners say, reflects their tendency to be wise guys.

When the establishment opened, the emphasis was on convenience foods – meats, sandwiches, desserts, salads, artisanal cheeses, wine and assorted gourmet foodstuffs such as a handmade soy sauce imported from Japan that retails for $23. Dinner, in short, wasn’t on the menu. But less than a year into the venture, patrons began asking for more.

“Our customers were saying we love your food; we’d rather drink a glass of wine or beer here with you,” Turner says.

“We made a $50,000 gamble in the 11th month of our first year,” Turner says. Out came a significant portion of the retail space’s handsome blonde wood shelving units, in came more tables – made from wine crates – and a handcrafted bar.

Was it scary taking the leap from lunch and deli to full-on dinner service? Not really. “It was a relief,”Chef Mussman says.

“Our background actually is executing dinner and not retail,” Turner explains. “We started as a deli and that’s how we earned our reputation, but what’s kept us alive is that we did dinner. Todd and I had fun selling wine retail, but we can still sell it doing this, and this is more enjoyable; it’s more inspiring.”

The dinner menu, which changes every four weeks, is based on seasonal offerings. Late spring fare included game hen, salmon and pork chops. The culinary team, which includes Chef de Cuisine Ryan Hidinger, Sous Chef Gregg Baker and Saucier Ben Barth, has free reign when it comes to creating dishes, Chef Mussman says.

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The restaurant also caters and provides baskets for concerts. In keeping with Turner’s desire to offer gastronomic experiences diners can’t get anywhere else, Muss & Turner’s is hosting wine and beer tastings (Tuesdays and Thursdays, $15) as well as the occasional wine and beer dinner. These, Turner says, allow diners to experience wine and beer in its truest form: perfectly paired with food.

Pairings for a recent beer dinner were created by Baker, who, Chef Mussman says, doesn’t drink, but relies on the other chefs’ impression of the beer. It’s just another example of how Muss & Turners operates.

“You have to build a culture and you have to attract people who care who are as passionate about what you’re doing as you are, then teach them, delegate and trust,”Turner says. “Trust is the key ingredient to the great staff that we’ve cultured and it’s the key ingredient we have with our guests. It really has nothing to do with concept, it has nothing to do with location – it has to do with relationships.”

The Morel of the Story

In this day of Twittering and Facebooking, Ryan Turner doesn’t spend much time promoting Muss & Turner’s online. Sure, there’s a Facebook page with several hundred fans, which he uses to spread the word about special events such as wine and beer dinners. But he takes a different tack when it comes to communicating with the restaurant’s most ardent fans, a group the two refer to as “The Ambassadors.” “They’re our booster club,” Chef Todd Mussman says. “If we were a football team, they’d have our flag on their cars.”

Turner recounts a recent expedition Chef Mussman made to the woods to collect morel mushrooms. When his partner texted him to let him know he was returning with 8 pounds of the delicacy, Turner alerted the faithful via e-mail blast, offering a free plate of morels to the first six people seated at the bar at 5:30 that night. The result: A full house clamoring for morels, wine and dinner, free or not.

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