By Nancy Wood
It all started with chicken on a vineyard. Those free-range feathered fowl pecking around Marc Taft and his wife Elizabeth while on a trip to California are what prompted them to start their own chicken-centric restaurant. Since it opened in 2011 in Cobb County, Chicken and the Egg has hatched a budding empire across Atlanta’s northern suburbs that shows no signs of stopping.
An Alabama native, Taft spent a number of years traveling the country before his job brought him to Atlanta in 2009, when he opened the Hotel Palomar and Pacci Restaurant for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.
When Chicken and the Egg opened, it was one of the few chef-driven restaurants in the suburbs committed to using local and sustainable product as much as possible. Thanks to the restaurant’s success, he opened Brine Seafood Shack this past April in Alpharetta’s Avalon development. And there’s two more concepts ready to come on board: FEED – Fried Chicken & Such opening this month at The Battery Atlanta, part of the Braves’s new home at SunTrust Park, and CO-OP Community Table + Bar, which will open next spring in Forsyth County’s HALCYON development.
To manage the growing empire of restaurants, he recently launched Southern Fried Hospitality Group, where he serves as president, COO and executive chef and which also plans to offer restaurant development, consulting and management services to others in the industry.
Taft has much experience in that department – he’s opened more than 40 restaurants across the country during the course of his career. He also currently serves as senior director of openings and transitions for New York-based The ONE Group, whose concepts include STK, Bagatelle and Asellina.
In 2014, he was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef. Selected by the Georgia Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association, the chefs serve as ambassadors for Georgia’s farmers and crops while increasing awareness about the availability of quality local products in the state’s restaurant scene.
He was also invited to participate in the third annual Georgia Grown dinner at the Beard House in New York City this past June. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Obviously that’s a bucket list thing for any chef.”
Restaurant Informer talked with Taft about what it’s like to open new restaurant concepts, why he feels it’s important to use sustainable products and how cultivating a solid workforce is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces today. Following are edited highlights from the conversation. – The Editors
RI: How did you first become a part of the restaurant industry?
MT: I was a teenager who needed a job. I worked in a Chick-fil-A when I was 15. Chick-fil-A was the greatest first experience in the hospitality business. The way they treat their people and the culture they have. It’s the first impression of what hospitality is supposed to be.
RI: Is that how you got involved with chicken?
MT: No – I got that from my grandmother in East Tennessee – just growing up and eating her fried chicken a lot. Growing up that was my favorite meal – fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.
What do you like best about Georgia?
RI: The products we can get. I’m a Georgia Grown Executive Chef representing the state. I just got done cooking at the Beard House [in New York City] with the Georgia Grown Chefs, and it’s just the amount of products we can get and use that’s so accessible.
RI: Why did you decide to open your restaurants outside the perimeter vs. intown Atlanta?
MT: I ran a very popular restaurant in Midtown – we were on Esquire’s Top 20 Best New Restaurants in U.S. list. AltoRex rooftop lounge was named the hottest bar in Atlanta, so we definitely had something in the city working with Kimpton and running the restaurant. But I lived in Marietta. Just living up there and seeing the void of chef-driven restaurants is probably what started it and why we opened Chicken and the Egg back in 2011. We were kind of trailblazers out there, because no one else had really gone outside the perimeter at the time.
Doug Turbush came in about five months after us in East Cobb, and now Ford Fry is doing something out there. The Indigo Road guys from Charleston are out there. I think it’s a market. As long as people are working inside the city and they live outside – trying to deliver that chef-driven quality without having to drive into the city to eat. That’s probably what started the whole thing.
RI: How did you come up with your concepts for Chicken and the Egg, Brine Seafood Shack and FEED – Fried Chicken & Such?
MT: Chicken and the Egg was probably not going to be the first restaurant I opened. It was way too much like my childhood, and it was probably something I was trying to avoid because as a chef, you don’t want to be known as just the guy who cooks southern comfort food. But I think it was the right concept for the space we had in Marietta and for the market that we were trying to serve.
If you really look back at some of the first menus we had and some of the first things we did, they were probably a little more ‘cheffy’ than what they are now. It’s important that we listen to our guests and don’t get inside of our heads as chefs and be so arrogant that people will eat our food just because we cook it. Listen to what they want. Different markets want different things.
The concept itself came when my wife and I were visiting California. We were staying on a vineyard. We were sitting on the veranda, and I’m just looking around at these heritage free-range chickens walking around. We had just come off of 10 days eating the freshest food I’ve pretty much ever had. I looked at that chicken and thought about how sustainable that animal is, and that’s where the name Chicken and the Egg came from. It represents the cycle of life and sustainability and the impact we put on this planet.
We’ve won some awards with our fried chicken, and it’s very popular. So it was kind of a natural thing when the Braves approached me about doing a restaurant [FEED – Fried Chicken & Such] and wanting to do fried chicken. That was an easy decision to make, so we’re doing a fast-casual version of Chicken and the Egg with our fried chicken.
Brine Seafood Shack up in Avalon – they asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to show that I could do something outside of one genre of food, so we decided to do Brine Seafood Shack. I just spent some time, about a year in L.A., doing some work for a company, and my chef d’cuisine had spent three years in Maine, so we kind of meshed the two – New England and California, sort of Nantucket meets Santa Monica – and created Brine Seafood Shack.
RI: How’s it doing?
MT: Super busy. Avalon is a different location than obviously Marietta. After six years, we have a good finger on the pulse of what Marietta wants. What we’re trying to do with Brine Seafood Shack is we’re trying to offer a very approachable food experience but use the finest ingredients and bring in our fish following the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch [sustainable seafood program]. It’s initially a challenge. It’s an educational process – hey, this isn’t the shrimp you’re getting at that chain restaurant. This is shrimp that was caught yesterday in the Gulf and brought up to us. This is different – this is fresh like something you’re going to get eating at the beach. It’s going to cost a little bit more.
I think people love it at the end of day. Since we’ve opened, we’ve fed about 20,000 people. That’s the number of covers we’ve done since April 13. That’s a lot of people to feed.
RI: Tell me a little bit about your upcoming restaurant, CO-OP Community Table.
MT: We’re excited about expanding up on McFarland [Road] doing Co-Op Community Table in the Halcyon development in Forsyth County. And we’re going to have the opportunity to do a food hall version of our fried chicken, and we’re also going to do our first burger concept up there. I do not know the name of the burger concept, because I swore I would never do a burger concept. I’m only doing it because the developer really wanted a burger concept and asked if I would do both. Linton did it down in Ponce City – and I don’t try to put myself in the same shoes as Linton Hopkins, but I think we have the ability to be that outside-the-perimeter version and offer a really great burger product and an alternative to a lot of the burger chains in Forsyth County.
FEED, which is fast casual – obviously we’re going to do high volume here [at the Battery Atlanta]. We’re opening the FEED food hall version up in Halcyon, and in early 2018, we’ll be opening a FEED over in Peachtree Corners [in a] new food court development across from The Forum.
RI: Your restaurants use a lot of local, sustainable and organic produce, along with humanely raised animals. Why do you think these attributes are important for a restaurant to incorporate?
MT: People expect now when they go to a chef-driven restaurant and the chef is in the house sourcing – whether its farm-to-table or ocean-to-table – that’s part of the cost of doing business, of being a chef. People’s expectations that you are sourcing responsibly as a chef is there. The onus is on us to follow through with that.
You’re starting to see the days of having every single farm and every single place you source stuff from [listed on the menu] kind of over. Because that’s just the expectation. If you look at our website for Chicken and the Egg, we list links to our partners, but I don’t necessarily put everyone on our menu because it becomes very cliché and I shouldn’t have to do that for people to know that I source things responsibly.
But from a seafood perspective, I learned about the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch a long time ago. They’ve done a great job globally in promoting sustainable fishery – beyond just the wildlife piece of it. They’re really into how the fleets are run, the amount of fuel that’s burned, the way the fishermen are treated – making sure they have a living wage. I think it’s a great program. They have an app that guests can download on their phone and look at fish and what they should be eating or buying themselves.
We follow their recommendations on what fish we should be buying at the time, and that’s always changing. Some of our fish is even geo-tagged – especially stuff coming from the Gulf. We literally can have a tag that tells us the exact coordinates of where it was caught, who the fisherman was, the captain of the boat, what the boat name is and all about the species. So it’s easy to track things back to its origin.
RI: What was behind your decision to form Southern Fried Hospitality and to include restaurant development services in your offerings?
MT: I think it was natural as we knew we were growing – we’ve got a pretty aggressive development plan. We knew we needed a management company to oversee our operations, so that’s where Southern Fried Hospitality was born. I do a lot of consulting work and a lot of F&B work both in lodging as well as in restaurants. It’s a natural progression that we do it as a company.
So we not only offer a management company to manage our own restaurants, but we can be a management company to help other operators that need someone to step in and help them become profitable. From a developmental side, I’m pushing 60 restaurant openings under my belt, so opening a restaurant is an art, following a critical path and making sure everything has its place and everything is taken care of when you open.
There are a lot of people who are consultants out there, but they’ve really never opened that many restaurants. So we thought a development service as part of our restaurants would be important for the future, whether we’re developing hotel F&B restaurants or we’re running them. That’s probably something we’ll look at in the future as we start slowing down our own buildout – we’ll start doing that a little more.
RI: Doesn’t that take you out of the kitchen?
MT: It does – but Atlanta’s pretty aggressive about expecting chefs to be around. We see a graveyard of chefs from other cities who have come in with big names, and their restaurants have all closed because Atlanta [diners] expect to be able to talk to that person.
No matter how many restaurants we have, you’ll see me in one of my kitchens. When I go to Brine, I’m around the kitchen. When I go to Chicken and the Egg, you’ll see me in the kitchen; I’m in the dining room talking to people, and I think that’s an important aspect.
As with any company growing, it’s important that I surround myself with very qualified people and talented chefs. I’ve got two up-and-coming chefs now – one is chef d’cuisine at Brine and one is chef d’cuisine at Chicken and the Egg. They’re going to be rock stars in the city. The goal is to continue to recruit and create a company that people want to work for, so I can continue that growth and still have those same expectations from guests that they can continue getting that same quality product from our kitchens.
RI: What’s the biggest difference between operating multiple restaurants in different parts of town vs. just focusing on one single restaurant concept?
MT: Some of our brands – like FEED – you’re going to see more than one of those. I’ve never been a big fan of having “Part Twos” of certain restaurants. Chicken and the Egg would have to find a very unique place for it to be as successful as the first one. It’s a way we can express our creativity as chefs to be able to do that.
I’ve got 33 years of hospitality experience at this point, so I don’t find it as challenging as I might have 20 years ago. It’s easy to multi-task. Once again, it’s about having a great team. My partner, Tom Foust, has been in the Atlanta area for 20 years; he has 35+ years in the business. My director of operations, Fran Kieffer, he’s got over 35 years experience in the business and he‘s been around Atlanta for quite some time. When I’m not in a restaurant they’re in a restaurant, so we’re able to keep our standards and continue to grow our culture as a company.
RI: Who is the most influential person to you in the restaurant industry?
MT: Probably two different people have been the most influential to me. One is Karim Lakhani [former executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Latham Hotel in Baltimore]. I got to experience him when he was a VP of F&B when I worked for AGI Hospitality. He’s probably the first person I worked with who really had a tremendous passion and demanded us to deliver. I’m very driven, but Karim was more driven and pushed me to push past my limits and do more than I could do. I will always be indebted to him to really make me see that I could always do better no matter what I’m doing. He’s probably one of the biggest influences I’ve had in my career.
The second person who really influenced me in a leadership regard was John Inserra. He was the Senior VP of Restaurants for Kimpton Hotels. He brought me back to work with The ONE Group to manage their acquisitions and transitions. He took up where Karim left off and really pushed me to be even better later in my career when I had done a lot. It’s easy to sit back and say ‘here’s some success,’ and he’s the one that makes me everyday say “What’s next?” “What do I need to do better?” and “What am I doing now that’s not right?”
Besides my grandmother, those two people have probably had the most influence on me.
RI: Tell me about your grandmother.
MT: She lived in East Tennessee. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother the first few years of my life. I stayed with her while my mom went to school and went to work. Growing up, I remember looking forward to those trips – when we moved to Alabama, we went back once a month, and my time was all spent with her in the kitchen.
My grandfather wanted me out playing on his ham radio and doing electronic stuff, but I just wanted to be with my grandmother. She taught me a lot about cooking even if it was from observation – and as I got older, by me asking questions. They had a small farm as well, and she was always canning and preserving.
There’s probably a lot of chefs who say they were influenced by their grandmother, but she’s probably had one of the biggest impacts of anyone in my life on who I am. She was just a very loving and caring person. I think probably my passion for food and cooking started really early with her, and she’s probably responsible for a lot of things, especially Chicken and the Egg. A lot of my recipes started as her recipes.
RI: Where’s your favorite place to eat in Georgia besides your own restaurants?
MT: I enjoy eating at Jay Swift’s restaurant [Noble Fin]. I enjoy going to Colletta and Oak [Steakhouse] up at Avalon. The Indigo Road Group does a fantastic job when it comes to hospitality. I like Cooks and Soldiers a lot – the Castellucci Group. I really like some of Ford Fry’s restaurants – St. Cecilia’s and No. 246. Sometimes it’s just grabbing a burger at The Red Eyed Mule in Marietta. They have a great burger.
I eat simply. We don’t do a lot of upscale dining just because we save that for special occasions, and I can cook it at home, too. It’s really just going out to enjoy the company and have something that tastes good.
RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for the restaurant industry right now?
MT: Labor is a huge challenge for all of us. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of passion in the industry. Maybe not all the methods were appropriate, but there was a lot of passion and people would do anything in the kitchen to be successful and to learn.
That’s not the mentality in today’s workforce. You see a lot more people care more about their experiences out in the world instead of devoting time to work and trying to build for the future. We’ll see how that plays out 20 years from now.
The kids just come in, they don’t show up for interviews, they talk back to you when you’re trying to teach them something, they quit on a dime. If you say anything they do is wrong, they’re either in tears or they quit. They want off for a party, and you say “Sorry, you didn’t request in time,” they quit so they can go to a party. It’s not rational thinking to most of us adults.
The industry is hard as everyone in it knows – it’s grueling hours, it’s hard work, it’s hot. You’re taking care of guests who all have an opinion of what you should be doing. Somehow, we’re going to have to start younger and teach them – doing the school farming thing or talking to kids earlier – because at the end of the day, trades are important. Everyone can’t be a rocket scientist.
We have to be realistic with our kids. There are a lot of trades they can go into that they can be successful in, and there’s nothing wrong with cooking or being an electrician or a plumber or any of the things that require a learned skill.
So labor is the No. 1 thing we all have to face as well as fighting for a very small workforce.
RI: What are some of the trends you are seeing right now in the restaurant world?
MT: One of the biggest trends – and I think it will come back – is fine dining has been out for a while. It’s kind of a bad word. It’s almost like a splurge that’s hard to justify.
We’re finding more ways to open more casual restaurants that deliver a quality product, just in a different way. Casual dining is much more popular now, and you don’t see as many white tablecloths in any restaurant.
Chefs have to be approachable now because people are very knowledgeable about food – they watch a lot of TV and they read a lot of books. They expect the chef to be knowledgeable.
People care more about what they’re putting in their bodies than they used to. Being able to educate our guests on what we’re serving them and knowing origins of what we’re serving is very important and trending.
We’re always going to have the dietary trend – whether it’s the gluten-free approach or vegan or whatever. They’re more likely to tell you how they want to eat [now] than they used to. Very rarely do I get a ticket in the kitchen that they order the dish exactly how it is on the menu. It’s like a build-your-own mentality now, and we have to – as chefs – be very flexible about that. The people who aren’t flexible are finding out their business is dropping. People want to eat what they want to eat.
The technology piece is pretty simple – one is for recruiting staff. The newer generations use a lot of technology, and we should be using new technology to be able to be more approachable to them – make things easier for them. Whether it’s how they schedule a request or how our schedules get out to everybody.
They don’t come in and look at the board and take a picture of it or write it down the way we used to do. Instead of everything being handwritten and kept in a calendar – our payroll systems, our accounting systems – almost everything we do, we’re trying to upgrade and use technology to our advantage so we can grow at the rate we’re trying to grow and be able to slowly recruit people into the ranks that are required to run the company without just filling holes with bodies. We want the right people to continue the culture that we want to grow.
It’s important that we connect with our guests and that we’re anticipating their needs and that we are hearing their feedback. We [need to] find a better way for chefs and the community to communicate with each other so they can understand what we’re trying to do and we can hear back how we’re failing at that or how we’re being successful so we can continue that process.
RI: Why do you like being a part of the restaurant industry, and why did you decide to make a career out of it?
MT: Everything is different every single day – we never have the same day twice. Your guests are different coming in. The food is organic, and it changes with what the season is or where that plant came from or where that animal was raised. So you’re constantly having to hone your skills and constantly learn something new so it doesn’t get stagnant. That’s probably what I like most.
And I would not know as many people as I do in the Marietta community if I didn’t own that restaurant. I’ve met so many people in my community because of the restaurant, and it’s pretty cool.
RI: If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?
MT: My grandmother’s fried chicken that she cooked in – heaven forbid – lard in her cast iron pot really low and slow. I love that fried chicken. And probably mashed potatoes and southern-style green beans. A biscuit with sorghum on it.
I’m not a huge dessert fan, but my grandmother got me addicted to banana pudding. Every time I came to visit, she always had it. And I’m sure bourbon would find its way into that meal [Laughs].