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Q&A: Scott Serpas, Chef and Owner of Serpas True Food

Monday, January 29th, 2018

By Nancy Wood

Scott Serpas

A Louisiana native, Scott Serpas has been cooking up good food almost his whole life. Part of a large family, he found he liked spending time in the kitchen growing up – then later found he liked working in a restaurant even more.

Serpas opened his own Atlanta restaurant, Serpas True Food, in 2009. That same year, the restaurant was named one of the 10 “Best New Restaurants in America” by GQ Magazine.

Located in Studioplex in the Old Fourth Ward neighborhood, Serpas True Food is on the Atlanta BeltLine, the internationally renown and award-winning greenspace initiative that is bringing new restaurants, retail and housing along a 22-mile ring encircling the city.

Today Serpas and his family call Atlanta home, and he’s always looking for ways to make his community even better. He donates his time and effort to organizations like Share Our Strength, the American Liver Foundation, Camp Twin Lakes and the March of Dimes.

Restaurant Informer talked with Serpas about how he’s seen the area around his restaurant change, what today’s diners are looking for in a restaurant and why it’s important to give back. Following are edited highlights from the conversation.

RI: How did you first become a part of the restaurant industry, and what was your first job?
SS: I was born and raised in New Orleans, and my mom and dad loved to cook. I’m the youngest of five kids, and I was always in the kitchen. We had craw sh boils and shrimp boils – I had a big family, and we always got together and did something in the kitchen. I was really attracted to cooking in that sense, and my mom was a good cook.

As I got older, I got jobs in restaurants as a busboy and running food, but I was really interested in the kitchen and what they did. So I applied to culinary school at Delgado’s, a small community college in New Orleans. They had a culinary arts program in which you went for three years, which is a little bit different from some of the other ones.

As soon as you signed up, you had to find a job. If you didn’t find a job in a restaurant, they would find you a job – which was good because right away, you knew whether it was for you or not. You didn’t have to go through a year-and-a-half or two years of doing externships.

I was 19 when I started out in the restaurant business. I was very attracted to it – working in the French Quarter at Mr. B’s Bistro, the Le Meridien Hotel and Mike’s on the Avenue. That’s how I got my feet wet. I really liked it a lot – creating, learning the inner workings of a kitchen and a restaurant. Working for the Brennans [the family owns 13 restaurants in New Orleans, including Mr. B’s Bistro] taught me a lot about that.

RI: How long have you been in Georgia and what first brought you here?
SS: I moved to Dallas, Texas, in 1990 and worked for Kevin Rathbun from 1990 to 1994. Then he got an opportunity to open Nava in Buckhead, so I moved with him from Dallas and worked there for a few years. I went home in ’94 for a year-and-a- half and came back to open up a place called Sia’s in North Fulton in 1998. So I’ve been here permanently since 1998.

RI: What do you like best about the state?
SS: I love the people and love the community sense and the history here – the topography, the landscape, the trees, the hills. There’re a lot of things that are good about Atlanta. It’s a growing city, and its proximity to Louisiana is pretty close, too, so that’s not too bad.

RI: Where’s your favorite place to eat in Georgia?
SS: I eat out more and search out more restaurants when I go out of town than I do in Atlanta. I just have more time. When you go somewhere, you have more free time to do something like that. There’re a lot of little local spots that are fun.

To be honest, when I’m away from the kitchen, I’m easy. I like chicken wings, pizza, burgers – a lot of that stuff is in the bloodlines of a lot of chefs. They don’t want anything ‘foo-foo,’ they want down and dirty, like barbeque – not foam and pretty dishes and that style of cuisine.

You always learn something when you go to a restaurant – whether it’s something in the bathroom that’s cool like the way it’s designed or the way they execute the kitchen. I try to ask the chef if I can take a walk-through. You always get ideas about how they execute things and how things have changed with the millennials now –how to adapt to what they do now and how to be more relevant than the old-school style. I’m always learning.

RI: Have you changed anything about your restaurant to accommodate the millennials?
SS: They like a lot of small plates and a lot of grab and go. I don’t have grab and go right now, but it’s something I need to think about in the near future because of our close proximity to the BeltLine. There are quite a bit of appetizers on the menu that you can share and things that are a little bit more affordable.

RI: You opened Serpas True Food well before this portion of the Atlanta BeltLine was completed. What was behind your decision to open your restaurant where you did?
SS: There were a couple of spots – this was back in ’08. There was a spot on the Westside I looked at that was almost across the street from where Bocado is – it didn’t work out for some reason. My agent found the space on the BeltLine in Studioplex.

When I worked at Two Urban Licks – when we opened that up – they told us a little bit about the BeltLine, and I saw the vision of what they were doing. I liked what I heard about what was coming up in the future. This space was right on the BeltLine – a really cool-looking space with high ceilings. I really liked the space, the proximity and the parking was really good – and just a good vibe. I had a good feeling about it.

RI: Was there anything different about building out a restaurant in a historic structure vs. building new?
SS: This was my first restaurant that I built on my own. There’s a learning curve. There’re a lot of things you have to go through and think about – a lot of things to do with the city, a lot of rules and regulations. They make you jump through all these hoops, and you learn a lot when you’re going through it – more than I wanted to learn (laughs). You see what other restauranteurs have to go through to make it happen.

People think the restaurant business is very glorified, but it’s not that much fame and fortune, I tell you. It’s definitely a labor of love. I’m very passionate about what I do. The food aspect, the people aspect of it – trying to grow this new generation and try to teach them a work ethic – that’s a great part of it that I really enjoy.

RI: Now that the BeltLine is running behind your restaurant and there’s so much more development around you, how has that changed things?
SS: I was locked in for rent, so that was a good thing. We started in ’08 and opened in ’09, and the economy wasn’t that great at all. It’s grown a lot, but there’s a lot more competition as well. There’re a lot more restaurants just in a 1⁄4-mile radius. There’re a good 20 to 25 restaurants in walking distance, with Krog Market, North Highland, Ponce City Market, and there’re a lot of different, smaller, individual restaurants as well.

I always tell my staff – there’s a lot more competition out there, so we have to be on our A game. Because when those doors open at 5:30, you’ve got to be ready – or at 11 for Sunday brunch – it’s go time.

It’s not just about the food, it’s about taking care of the guests and knowing the menu and giving them that all-around quality experience to where they want to come back to Serpas, and they want to tell their friends about Serpas. It’s a good challenge to have. It’s attracted more people from the BeltLine since it’s more walkable, and different events going on throughout the year really attract people and bring them in. It’s a win-win situation.

RI: Was there a specific decision not to open for lunch?
SS: At the time, there wasn’t a lot of business traffic around there. I’d thought about it at one point, but it really wasn’t there. Now, it could possibly be there. There’s more construction going on on the BeltLine right behind us. They’re putting up retail as well as more townhomes and more commercial, so it’s something I may think about in the future.

I’m open for dinner Tuesdays through Sundays and Sunday brunch. The next step would be to try and open for Saturday brunch. I think Saturday brunch would be a good draw. I just have to work out the staffing situation. I think that’s something that could be coming up in the near future.

RI: Who is the most influential person to you in the restaurant industry?
SS: As far as work ethic and being humble, I think I’d have to say my mom and dad – even though they weren’t in the industry. They taught me a lot about work ethic and doing the right thing. I think I’ve learned a lot about myself and just being true to yourself.

RI: What’s the best thing about being a chef and restaurateur?
SS: The fact that you wear a lot of different hats. It’s not only managing and teaching – being a mentor. It’s also giving people advice through life, whether it’s financial advice or personal advice. It’s being able to connect with people and try to help people out. People have helped me out along my career in different ways.

RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for the restaurant industry right now?
SS: Understanding the millennials and a new generation. It’s a little bit different. I think they like a lot more fun food, portable food items and a smaller footprint – not a big restaurant like mine – and maybe a couple of locations. I think they’re very adventurous as far as food goes. I don’t think they’re scared about food like other generations have been. I think you can be a little more creative and a little more outside the box.

RI: What are some of the trends you are seeing right now in the restaurant world?
SS: I don’t think people want fine dining – that sit-down, formal hour-and-a-half, two-hour dinner. I think they want more relaxed, fast-casual, crafty cocktails, fun food – combining all in one – a place to go, hang out, drink.
Back when I was growing up you wouldn’t really go out to eat. You’d grab something to go and then you’d go out to a club. Clubs have kind of gone away. These places have all in one – a gaming event or a pop-up, food vending thing. A lot has changed.

RI: Are you using more technology?
SS: We’re using OpenTable, and there’s a lot of things you can do on your phone now. You can look on your phone for reservations, you can change your thermostat and turn off your alarm in your restaurant, you can look at inventory, time management, labor costs, food costs, liquor and wine costs – all those things are at your fingertips. It’s a lot more user-friendly these days and a lot easier.

RI: How do you feel about people taking pictures of your food and posting online?
SS: Yeah (laughing) – and some of them aren’t the best shots either. There’s nothing you can do about it. You put out the best product you can. The younger generation, especially the staff in the kitchen, they know that a lot of pictures will be taken and posted on Facebook and Twitter. You get your name out there, and people will be talking about it. There are some [reviews] out there that you kind of battle with a little, but you try to think back about the instance and what they might have had a problem with. But for the most part, we’ve had some great reviews and great support and great local followings, so I’m very fortunate.

I can only thank my staff for that. I’m not always there, and they’re an extension of me. You try to do the right thing and show them the right thing. Hopefully, they’ll follow in your footsteps.

RI: What do you cook for yourself when you’re not in the restaurant kitchen?
SS: I enjoy cooking on my Green Egg. If I’m off one day, I’ll try to get a pork shoulder or a good steak or a piece of fish. I try to do as much cooking on that Green Egg as possible so I don’t heat up the kitchen at the house. It’s fun, but I don’t do it much as I used to.

I try to get adventurous. I have a six- year-old daughter, and she’s becoming more adventurous as far as food. I’m trying to teach her a little more about that as well – which is fun.

RI: If you could create your last meal, what would it be?
SS: I think my last meal would be boiled crawfish. I gotta be true to where my roots are … gumbo, jambalaya – all Louisiana.

RI: What are you currently reading?
SS: Franklin’s Barbecue: A Meat Smoking Manifesto – it’s about Franklin’s out of Austin, Texas.

RI: A lot of stars making movies in Atlanta come to your restaurant. Have you ever been star-struck?
SS: It would have to be Robert Downey Jr. – he’s been in a lot for brunch. He’s very laid back, not at all pretentious – all in all, a good guy.

RI: You spend a lot of time volunteering in the community. Can you talk about your penchant for giving back?
SS: I think it’s important to give back to the community. Growing up in New Orleans, it’s a big community thing. There’s a big sense of neighborhood and family. It’s important to give back, because one day you might be on the other side of the fence and need help. It’s good to be helpful.

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John Williams

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

At the tender age of 22, John Williams is on the fast track in Atlanta’s restaurant scene.

Unlike most chefs, Williams fell into the business after accepting a job offer from the owner of a local music venue right before he graduated from high school.

“I was taking a food science class and really liked it,” recalls the Atlanta native. “When the owner asked if I could come to work there, I said ‘sure – why not?’”

John Williams         

John Williams

Ever the quick study, Williams soaked up every bit of knowledge he could – from food basics to handling and ordering.

“He opened a lot of doors for me,” Williams says fondly. “When he went to West Egg, he urged them to hire me and I found out I was really good at this!”

Within a year, John had climbed the popular Westside café’s kitchen ladder and at one point ran the whole establishment. He was 19.

Williams’ career has been full speed ahead ever since. Named to Zagat’s 30-Under-30 before he had even turned 20, he added to his list of credits with the co-creation of Oddbird, the Westside pop-up that features his take on Nashville hot chicken – served with his favorite dish, mac and cheese.

He then moved to sister restaurant The General Muir, owned by James Beard-nominated chef Todd Ginsberg with partners Jennifer and Brad Johnson, to be a sous chef. There, Williams delved into his creative side, learning to “mix food flavors together to make something beautiful.” Adds Williams, “Todd is so passionate about that style of food that it was easy for me to pick up on it. He’s has been my biggest influence so far.”

In his newest role as Chef de Cuisine at Fred’s Meat & Bread and Middle Eastern- inspired Yalla – both at the Krog Street Market and owned by the same team – Williams still gets to try new things.

“I enjoy taking different products I’ve never worked with and making something delicious. I’ve never worked with as much eggplant as I have at Yalla,” he laughs.

“I like a lot of change, and this move was great for me,” he says. “I never thought I would be where I am right now. It’s a sign that I’m doing something I should be doing.” NW

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Matt Weinstein

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Executive Chef

ONE Midtown Kitchen

Atlanta

Matt Weinstein

Matt Weinstein

“I’ve always loved working with my hands,” says Matt Weinstein, executive chef at ONE Midtown Kitchen. Fortunately, the jobs he tried along the way – plumber, auto mechanic, carpenter – didn’t pan out.

Starting at 15 as a busboy and dishwasher at a family-owned restaurant, the 30-year-old Virginia native soon got his first opportunity as a short-order line cook. “The owner showed me how cooking could be fun,” recalls Weinstein, “and an outlet for working with my hands.”

It didn’t take long for that outlet to become a calling. By 2009. Weinstein had his associates degree from the Culinary Institute of America and was back in the metro D.C. area, joining the staff at 701. The next stop was a three-year stint in Maryland under the eye of Top Chef finalist Bryan Voltaggio.

“I learned a lot about technique as well as a general love of cooking and presentation from Bryan,” Weinstein says. But his move to Atlanta as sous chef under Tyler Williams at Woodfire Grill broadened his horizons.

“Tyler showed me the creative side and the cultural diversity found in different cuisines,” says Weinstein. “He opened up that whole world of cooking.”

Diners can taste those influences on Weinstein’s menus today. “I would call my style Modern American with cultural influences,” he says. “I love Indian and Mediterranean food, and I pull from that when I’m looking for inspiration.”

Since the “co” was dropped from his title in 2016, Weinstein’s offerings at ONE Midtown Kitchen now include Sunday brunch and a weekly five-course tasting menu with wine pairings for six.

Next up for Weinstein is bringing Concentrics Restaurants’ Golden Brown & Delicious concept to life at the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium as consulting chef. “The food is what I would want at a stadium,” he says. “Something fried, a sandwich, American beer.” One twist? Falcon’s fans will get their Dirty Bird fries with jerk chicken gravy – not your typical stadium fare.

While Weinstein clearly understands what his guests want – whether it’s a corn dog or a delicate seafood entrée – he welcomes the challenge of changing trends.

“I think guests today are more health conscious, and they’re looking for a value-driven meal with good local ingredients.” And he’ll do it all with those talented hands. NW

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Woolery “Woody” Back

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Coalition Food & Beverage, Alpharetta

Table & Main, Roswell

Woolery “Woody” Back

Woolery “Woody” Back

When he was a high school-aged server at Uno Pizzeria & Grill, the camaraderie of the kitchen staff helped Woody Back realize he belonged in the back of the house. “I saw what they were doing and cooking, and I wanted to be back there,” he says. “I’d cooked for my friends and parents quite a bit; it just came naturally to me.”

The 40 year old is now Executive Chef at Table & Main in Roswell and Executive Chef and Partner at the new Coalition Food & Beverage in Alpharetta.

“Opening a new restaurant with Ryan Pernice is exciting, and making that transition from chef to restaurant owner is a big transition,” he says. It’s a dream realized. “I think this will be my end all be all,” he says of his future career plans. “I think as a restaurateur I’ll keep opening restaurants and see how they do.”

After graduating from Johnson & Wales, he worked at restaurants in Virginia and Georgia, including Craft, Restaurant Eugene and Holeman & Finch. Back credits Chef Linton Hopkins with expanding his understanding of Southern cuisine.

“He really opened my eyes to the fact that it’s not just fried chicken,” he says. “It changes so much depending on the season. Plus there’s the whole Gullah culture, coastal cuisine, Louisiana cuisines” and other contributors.

Seasonal ingredients drive his menu, along with memories of childhood favorites. “I remember my grandma making soup beans or pinto beans for me,” he says. “I’d beg her to make those! She cooked them with ham hock and green onions.”

Raised in Syracuse, N.Y., he claims Southern roots through his Kentuckian mother. “My mom made fried chicken, collard greens and stuff like that,” he says. He now counts fried chicken as his signature dish, based on “as much as we sell!” – HP

 

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Savannah Sasser

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Hampton + Hudson

Atlanta

Savannah Sasser

Savannah Sasser

As a little girl, Savannah Sasser loved working alongside her single mother in the kitchen. “It was the best way for us to spend time together as a family,” she says. When her mother first taught her how to make a roux, she’d said that it would be finished when it was the color of a penny. Sasser ran to fetch a penny then set it by the pot on the stove as she stirred.

She doesn’t need a lucky penny anymore. The 31 year old is now Executive Chef at Hampton + Hudson in Atlanta, where she employs a playful mix of classic French techniques with creative twists using seasonal ingredients.

“I always wanted to cook for a living,” Sasser says. At age 18 she left home for Pittsburgh to attend culinary school at Le Cordon Bleu. She says that her food will always have a French influence since “that’s where my foundation lies,” but she enjoys adding Southern twists “because that’s where I’m from.”

She recently discovered a love of butchering. “I’m teaching the staff to break down primals,” she says with a smile. Pleasing customers is a passion. “It’s exciting to see what a community wants and give it to them.” She predicts quality will continue to drive Atlanta’s dining scene: “More people care now about what they put in their mouth, so we need to take time to do it right.”

Sasser cites her mom as a key influence. “My mom is strong. She was in the military when women stayed in the same barracks as men,” she says. “She always taught me that for equality, you just have to work really hard.”

Though ultimately she’d like to own a small restaurant of her own with a garden out back, she plans to stay put for the foreseeable future. “I’d like to continue to elevate the food here, hopefully grow with the company, and teach and grow with the staff. I love what I’m doing now!” – HP

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2017 Rising Stars: These 5 are the ones to watch in Georgia’s restaurant scene

Monday, June 19th, 2017

By Hope S. Philbrick and Nancy Wood

What does it take to make it in today’s competitive restaurant scene? Talent? Determination? Blood, sweat and tears?

For the five people Restaurant Informer selected, in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association, as the state’s Rising Stars, it’s all of the above and more.

While these five chefs come from varied backgrounds and cook different cuisines, they all have two things in common: A determination to succeed, and a love of cooking. They’re also people who are not only leaders, but mentors to others, whether that’s by teaching kitchen staff how to break down primal cuts or nurturing talent in the people around them.

Read on to learn more about these five talented chefs – no doubt you’ll be hearing their names again in the next few years.

 

Savannah Sasser

Savannah Sasser

Hampton + Hudson

Atlanta

Read about Savannah Sasser

 


Woolery “Woody Back

Woolery “Woody” Back

Coalition Food & Beverage, Alpharetta

Table & Main, Roswell

Read about “Woody”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Matt Weinstein

Matt Weinstein

Executive Chef

ONE Midtown Kitchen

Atlanta

Read about Matt Weinstein 

 

 

 

 

 

 


John Williams

John Williams         

Freds Meat & Bread and Yalla

Read about John Williams

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


John Castellucci

John Castellucci

Castellucci Group

Atlanta

Read about John Castellucci 

 

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In the Fast Lane

Monday, May 15th, 2017

By Hope S. Philbrick

Back in the 1990s, if you wanted a quick meal on the go, fast-food was pretty much your only choice.

But then a few companies figured out a way to raise the bar with their product but still commit to quick service while providing a slightly more upscale environment. A new restaurant segment was born.

Today, fast-casual is the restaurant industry’s fastest-growing segment. Increasing 550 percent since 1999, it reached $30 billion in annual sales in 2014. That’s more than 10 times the growth of the fast-food industry over the same period, reports Nation’s Restaurant News and The Washington Post. A slowdown isn’t expected: Double digit growth is forecast through 2022.

Fast-casual is a hybrid mixing the convenience and quick service of fast-food with the healthier ingredients and more upscale settings of casual restaurants. For many people, especially those in the coveted 18-35 year old demographic, fast-casual is perceived as healthier than their fast-food counterparts.

Matt Andrew

“There are three key drivers of ‘fast-casual,’” says Matt Andrew, founder and CEO of Uncle Maddio’s, an Atlanta-based fast-casual pizza concept with 57 locations in 18 states. “Higher food quality, made to order and price – of course, customers pay a little more for a premium product [compared to fast-food], but it’s still affordable.” A meal might cost $10 rather than $5.

Fast-casual gives people what they want: Quality food fast for a reasonable value.

Define, Differentiate

To compete, any restaurateur needs a defined concept and a marketplace differentiator. Fast-casual is no exception. “Identify consumer demand and fill the void,” says Andrew.

Uncle Maddio’s key differentiator is its specific niche: New York-style pizza. “New York-style pizza appeals to 40 percent of the market,” says Andrew. “But our competitors play in wood-fire or Neapolitan, which is 17 percent of the market.”

Of the $40-billion a year in pizza sales in the U.S., he notes, New York-style pizza accounts for $16-billion worth of sales. “That translates to tens of millions of consumers – a much larger pool of people who demand and crave New York-style pizza as opposed to wood-fire or Neapolitan pizza, which is a $5- to $6-billion market.”

While pizza is a large market, “fast-casual pizza appeared about five to seven years ago; it’s an awakening of a new category,” says Andrew. “While it took 25 years for the burrito [concept] to get 1,000 stores, it won’t take that long for pizza. There’s a major paradigm shift in how consumers are using pizza.”

Traditional options (delivery to home or office, whole pie or slices at a restaurant) have been reinvented as Uncle Maddio’s serves craft pizza in eight minutes or less. “That’s transitioning the occasion from dinner to lunch,” says Andrew, who sees a 50-50 split in lunch and dinner, “a major shift.”

Newcomer Rize Artisan Pizza + Salads is “fast-casual 3.0,” says John Smith, founder and CEO. At Rize, guests order when they walk in the door then sit anywhere in the open dining room of tables, booths and pizza bar. Once seated, there’s tableside service until they decide to close their check. Everything is handcrafted, but the approach isn’t build-your-own.

While Smith cites the “amazing pizza crust” as Rize’s biggest differentiator, service is equally essential. He sees his restaurant as someplace that families can get in and out quick at and people can pick up food to go when they’re in a hurry, but it can also be a great date night spot, too – something that’s not typical for the average fast-casual concept.

“We invest in our culture, do a lot of training,” he says. “There are competitors and then what I call rivals.” In Smith’s mind, traditional pizza places are rivals while any other restaurants customers may consider are competitors.

Fast-casual isn’t just burritos, burgers and pizza. “‘Fast-fine’ is the category we developed in 2006,” says Pierre Panos, founder and CEO of Fresh To Order. “We take fine-dining preparation and cooking methods and bring it down to a fast-casual price point and space.”

Pierre Panos, founder and CEO of Fresh To Order

With the mission to serve “incredible food” in under 10 minutes for around $10, Fresh To Order’s menu is chef-inspired yet line-cook executable with recognizable favorites like grilled salmon, fire-grilled chicken, seared tuna, Asian salad and more. “‘Fresh’ and ‘fine’ permeate everything we do,” says Panos.

The menu alone cannot drive the dining experience. Tijuana Flats takes an “‘anything goes’ approach to food, service, art, hot sauce and life in general,” says CEO Larry Ryback. The Florida-based Tex-Mex concept has two locations in Georgia. “Our community hand-made ceiling tiles and mural art are throughout the restaurant; our team members are empowered and unscripted with a mission to include multiple touch points with our guests.”

Empowering team members is one way Tijuana Flats helps “ensure guests have a ‘flat outrageous’ experience,” says Ryback. “Our guests are greeted at the door, our team might share their favorite menu item, review the menu with them, explain the order process and the hot sauce bar, refill drinks, deliver food to the table and clean up.”

Growth Drivers

The impact of fast-casual is felt throughout the industry, especially fast-food and casual dining.

“We are taking market share from casual dining restaurants,” says Fresh to Order’s Panos. “Guests want quality food quickly at a lower price point. In casual dining you eat slowly and have to leave a tip, so the average ticket is $15 and up per person plus a 20 percent tip. In fast-casual, your ticket average is $10 per person for the same food quality, and you don’t have to leave a tip.”

While fast-casual concepts tend to average less than 20 percent of sales from dinner, at Fresh To Order dinner accounts for close to 40 percent of sales. Panos credits entrées on the menu and locations near a high density of both office workers (potential lunchtime customers) and residents (for dinner) for the numbers.

Millennials are big fans of fast-casual. “They eat out more frequently,” says Smith. “And they want better food but at the same time don’t want to spend two hours in a restaurant. Fast-casual is the intersection of better food and a better dining experience with a timely service cycle time and lower cost.”

Fast-casual alcohol sales are typically five percent, but Rize is “approaching 20 percent, which is unheard of,” says Smith. “And we don’t have a bar or bartender – we have beer, wine, sangria. Twenty percent is what casual restaurants with a bar and sell spirits get.” He credits the menu and atmosphere for the numbers, favoring locations with rooftops and/or patios to encourage lingering.                                                                 

What the Future Holds

Fast-casual will continue to evolve, especially as fast-food outlets up their game to gain back some market share. Expect to see an ongoing rollout of new menu items and different flavor profiles, as well as additional serving size options and expanding fresh, vegetarian and locally sourced options.

Also look for new technology and tech applications. “Technology and convenience will continue to play a significant role in the restaurant industry,” says Tijuana Flats’s Ryback. “As consumers become busier and the world continues to evolve, restaurants must also become fast paced in order to serve those growing needs.”

Adapting to customers’ demands helps keep them. “Online ordering and delivery services are changing the landscape,” says Andrew. “We have to be at the forefront of embracing technology and how that plays into our dining room and kitchen. There may be a shifting downward in the size of dining rooms as people use more third-party delivery services to take food home.”

Rize employs smart digital technology – via team member’s individual tablets for tableside service, mobile app ordering and Bluetooth technology – for expedited food delivery and bill pay. “You can’t do cool stuff with an old closed-system POS,” says Smith. “We use a cloud with open architecture and are giving control back to the consumer in terms of when they order, how they order, when they pay and how they pay.” The goal is to give diners more control while allowing for increased interaction between team leaders, team members and guests.

From the moment someone enters the door, technology steers their experience at the restaurant. Team members take their order on a tablet then give the diners a disc similar to those pagers that buzz when your table is ready.

But these do much, much more. The discs are synced up with that initial order, and each table has RFID technology built in underneath that ‘talks” to those discs as soon as they’re placed on the table. So if a diner sits at one table, then decides to move to a different table or sit at the bar, for instance, team members have no trouble finding them in the restaurant. Diners can also download the Rize app and pay via their smartphones when they’re finished eating and ready to leave.

If they’re in a hurry, they can also place an order before they arrive. The system will detect when the person is arriving so the kitchen can fire the order and have it ready for pick up as soon as possible – but not so early that the food gets cold.

While more restaurants will begin to incorporate such technology, labor and food cost challenges aren’t going away. “The difference between the cost of eating at home and the cost of eating out can’t continue to grow,” says Smith. “We cannot raise our prices or consumers will say it’s more financially beneficial to eat at home.”

At the same time, quality cannot be compromised. “The biggest trend we’ll see is fast-casual will try to elevate up to fast-fine,” predicts Panos. “Fast food is starting to elevate their facilities, trying to capture some of the market they lost to fast-casual, which has been the darling for 10 years.”

Ultimately, “People will always want to eat out to escape,” says Panos.

“When people decide to leave their house and eat in a restaurant, they have a lot of options,” says Smith. “When they choose a restaurant they’re saying ‘I trust you.’ They want to enjoy the moment. If the food is not right or a team member has a bad attitude or the food doesn’t come out right, we destroy that moment.

“We’re trying to enhance the moment for our guests,” he says. “It’s a lofty goal for fast-casual, but we’re doing it.

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Macon Mojo – Moonhanger Restaurant Group

Sunday, September 25th, 2016

By Kevin Hogencamp

Moonhanger GroupIt’s 11 o’clock on a steamy Sunday morning in Macon, and every seat is filled at H&H Restaurant, the city’s soul food icon.

Sounds of success are reverberating off the brick walls of the unembellished Forsyth Street business The Allman Brothers made famous.

The clanging of dishes. The waitstaff’s cheerful, Southern-twanged can-I-get-you-anything-elses. The buzz of more than a dozen conversations.

It’s music to the ears of Moonhanger Group’s Chad Evans, who with his business partner Wes Griffith resurrected the legendary restaurant in 2014 after it closed its doors the year before. It’s one of four restaurants – plus the historic Cox Theatre – the pair have purchased or opened in the last seven years in downtown Macon.

A young server approaches with an enthusiastic “Have y’all decided on anything?”

Evans chooses the ribeye accompanied by scrambled eggs with cheese, hash browns and biscuit toast.

“Medium, please, on the steak,” he says, leaning back to get a panoramic view of the classic comfort food venue, which first opened in 1959 and was featured this year in a Wall Street Journal meat-and-three profile. Aside from Sunday brunch, it’s open for breakfast and lunch Tuesdays through Saturdays.

“Nice crowd. And we’re a ways from the church crowd getting here,” Evans says.

The only absent sound on this morning, perhaps, is the cash register’s ching-ching from back in the day when “Mama Louise” Hudson handled the money.

“Even coming here as a kid, I knew there was something special – something larger than life – about this place,” says Evans, a native of nearby Fort Valley.

An hour later, three blocks away on Cherry Street, Evans strolls through The Rookery, a tourist attraction in its own right and one of the oldest restaurants in downtown Macon.

The popular beer-joint-turned-foodie sanctuary, which made Garden and Gun magazine’s best burger list in 2014, is rocking. Juicy burgers and milkshakes (including the popular Jimmy Car-ter, made with banana ice cream and peanut butter with a stick of bacon to scoop it up with) are ordered left and right. And it’s barely noon. On Sunday.

“I own the place,” Evans says, “and I usually have trouble eating here.”

A nice problem to have.

Potential Realized

Indeed, these are good days for Moonhanger Group, the ever-expanding hospitality firm Evans and Griffith started after buying The Rookery in 2009.

Griffith says that by naming burgers after local musicians and focusing on quality, The Rookery began “building excitement about what we do and tapping into hometown pride.”

“Another key was letting everyone who was working for us know they were part of something big,” he says. After getting business systems in place at The Rookery, Griffith and Evans opened the chic Dovetail, one of the first farm-to-table style restaurants in Macon, on the second floor above The Rookery in 2012.

The project spun off from The Rookery’s propensity to do business with local dairies and grass-fed beef producers. On a roll, Moonhanger took over the management of the historic Cox Capitol Theatre in 2013. After resuscitating the H&H, the pair opened El Camino taqueria and cantina in 2015.

The Dovetail, too, was jam-packed this Sunday. Featuring a sophisticated take on Southern cuisine with most of its menu committed to locally sourced food, Dovetail helped introduced craft cocktails to Macon.

Around the corner, the Cox Capitol lobby was dead quiet, but only because Macon Film Festival patrons were inside screening the satirical Manifest Destiny: The Lewis & Clark Musical Adventure.

When Moonhanger Group decided to open a restaurant in the space next door to the theater, they simply broke through the wall to the Cox Theatre’s existing kitchen, which now preps the tacos, tortas and burritos for El Camino and also serves hungry concertgoers during events and shows.

Moonhanger’s downtown-centric slant delights Josh Rogers, who leads the effort to bring jobs, residents and a sense of place to downtown.

“Macon has always had all the potential in the world,” says Rogers, NewTown Macon’s president and CEO. “Now, we’re seeing things fall into place.”

That’s in no small part to Evans and Smith’s efforts to bring more restaurant offerings to the city’s downtown area.

“Wes and Chad have been critical components,” Rogers says, “in helping Macon get our mojo back.”

Just a decade or two ago, Macon was a sleepy Southern city that many passed by while traveling elsewhere. Today, however, it’s a thriving community with a vibrant downtown and lots of things to see and do for tourists and residents alike. Its urban core has more than 600 occupied storefronts and counting, including about 40 restaurants.

Rogers isn’t the only one taking notice; for its contributions to downtown’s reemergence, Moonhanger received a Presidents Choice Award in 2015 from the Historic Macon Foundation, which seeks to revitalize the city’s neighborhoods and downtown by preserving its architecture and sharing its history.

Creating Community

Chad and Wes were first introduced by mutual friend Brad Evans (no relation to Chad) – at The Rookery, no less. Brad Evans is a partner with Griffith in the local radio station 100.9 The Creek and publisher of the 11th Hour arts and entertainment newspaper.

Like many in the restaurant industry, for Griffith and Chad Evans, the path to their current success has been circuitous. Griffith originally studied English and has a master’s degree in poetry; Evans studied literature greats like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf at Oxford University in England.

A Macon native with strong roots in the community, Griffith involved himself in the city’s renaissance efforts upon returning home from college.

“Wes always had this relentless enthusiasm about downtown Macon and about music,” Brad Evans says. “He definitely saw [Macon’s] maximum potential before most people did.”

Exploding with energy and determined to make a difference, he joined the Cox Capitol Theatre and Bragg Jam (the annual local arts and music festival) boards of directors and enlisted in other community-service initiatives.

Evans, who is also a signer-songwriter and frontman of the group Hank Vegas, cut his restaurateur teeth as a 26 year old, when he started the Georgia Bob’s barbecue restaurant with his father. (He sold his share of the business shortly before undertaking The Rookery venture.)

As Griffith and Evans became more acquainted, their cohesions – art, music, food, culture and business – emerged.

“We wanted to make a cultural impact,” Griffith says. “We wanted to be a part of celebrating the history and heritage of a community that we had both grown to love.”

After throwing some ideas around, the two decided to parlay their commonalities into an occupa-tional opportunity: The Rookery.

Owner Jim Kee, as it turns out, was willing to sell the then-33-year-old downtown institution.

When the pair purchased The Rookery in 2009, they made a few small changes, like renaming menu items and adding outdoor seating, but overall they left the vibe of the place intact.

Today, The Rookery continues to welcome locals, college students from nearby Mercer Univer-sity and travelers stopping for a bite to eat while heading down I-75 or I-16. The electricity spills over to the sidewalk patio, which serves as a beacon of sorts that Macon is open for business.

“Inside and out, there’s a real element of lightness, of community, to the place,” Chad Evans says.

He adds that Griffith’s focus, attitude and vision are infectious – “he’s an agent of change and a powder keg of potential,” Chad Evans says. “Wes’s value and core – the cloth he’s cut out of – really struck me from the beginning.”

Moonhanger’s payroll has swollen to more than 150 employees and counting, and the pair is planning to expand The Rookery, adding another dining room, a larger waiting room with some retail components and more kitchen space.

“I can’t think of anybody more important for downtown Macon than the two of them,” Brad Evans says.

Behind the Scenes

While Griffith primarily handles the business’s financial affairs and Evans has the larger grip on operations, their roles overlap.

That’s a good thing, Chad Evans maintains.

“It’s not important who’s contributing what now; it doesn’t matter,” he says. “We’ve gotten through the Vietnam of starting the business – the not knowing,” he says. “We’re on the other side of that marsh – that swamp.”

Over brunch, Evans brandishes his phone, which he’s deliberately avoided for a solid hour. He demonstrates an app called Slack, which aims to bring business systems together in one place.

“This thing allows me to track everything we do,” he says.

Broken ice machines. Labor numbers. Late deliveries. Inventory. Social media postings.

“Quickness of information is essential to what we do,” he says. “We’ve gotten better along the way at preventing problems by being proactive.”

Even the Moonhanger Classic softball game held this August was planned exclusively via Slack.

“We ordered uniforms, got the vendor and umpires – everything without ever getting together and meeting about it,” he says.

Face-to-faces, though, are a Moonhanger staple.

Evans meets with the restaurants’ managers every two weeks, and The Rookery leadership team meets twice a day. Agenda topics include sales analysis, business metrics, personnel issues and project updates.

“All the bones to make sure everything is working fluently,” he says.

Griffith says that from Day 1, a prevailing Moonhanger principle is its unwavering commitment to quality.

“At the end of the day, we’re guided first and foremost by putting a superior product out,” he says. “We don’t dumb down a product just to make it cost less.”

NewTown Macon’s Rogers says that that approach has been a game-changer for the local restau-rant scene.

“They’ve raised the bar,” he says. “The quality of the product you have to put out to be competi-tive in downtown Macon has grown exponentially.”

Reinvesting in What You Love

Jessica Walden, whose Rock Candy Tours promotes the city’s legendary music history, says Moonhanger “is the cornerstone to Macon’s downtown renaissance.”

“It can also be credited for waking us up and reminding our Southern city of what we do best – food and music,” she says.

By luring red-hot musicians Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell and the like, the Cox Theatre venture is a deliberate effort to help bring downtown back to its Southern music roots.

The studio for The Creek, an Americana-themed venture that devotes much of its airtime to spinning locally produced tunes, coexists with the Moonhanger corporate offices downtown.

“At the end of the day,” Chad Evans says, “both of us are just pretty good Southern boys and want to make our parents proud and leave our children something they are proud of.”

Walden says she’s particularly proud of what Moonhanger did with H&H.

“Not only did they rescue the establishment, they retained its dignity and flavor, in everything from the food to the well-worn décor,” she says.

Legend has it that in the early days of the restaurant, “Mama Louise” Hudson ran a tab at H&H for a group of hungry, long-haired musicians just before the youngsters left Macon to go on tour. The Allman Brothers later reimbursed Hudson, patronized the H&H throughout their pilgrimage to Southern rock superstardom, and even took their favorite cook on tour.

In 2006, Hudson was honored by the Georgia Music Hall of Fame for her contributions to the state’s musical legacy. Today, the restaurant’s walls are lined with memorabilia from The All-man Brothers Band, and most days you can find Mama Louise there, too.

Fittingly, H&H is the starting point and the first stop on Walden’s two-and-a-half-hour walking tour. Trolley and motor coach tours also are available.

“As a tour company, we couldn’t tell the Macon music history story without Louise Hudson and the H&H,” Walden says. “And with the Moonhanger Group, we have an exciting new chapter in that story.”

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Adriana Quintanilla- Marketing and Strategy Manager at Norsan Group

Wednesday, January 27th, 2016

Adriana QuintanillaAdriana Quintanilla of the Norsan Group, qualified as a finalist for the 2015 GRACE Awards Large/Corporate Restaurateur of the Year Award.

Quintanilla left her native country of Mexico and a job with Pepsico to join Atlanta-based Norsan Group – and it was there that she developed a passion for the restaurant industry and its customers. As marketing director for Norsan, whose three concepts – Frontera Mex-Mex Grill, Luciano’s Ristorante Italiano, and Pampas Steakhouse – serve a diverse clientele with different tastes, Quintanilla says it is interacting with customers that is most satisfying.

“I’ve always had a preference for working with business-to-consumer companies as opposed to business-to-business entities,” she says. “I found that restaurants are one of the most engaging platforms for consumers. They are a very important part of everyone’s life, so they offer endless possibilities for reaching your audience with different messages.”

In an ever-changing industry, Quintanilla knows the importance of staying informed about trends and preferences in order to keep ahead of the competition. The digital world is becoming increasingly important to customers of all ages as they turn to technology to simplify their daily lives.

“Functional and mobile websites, online ordering, social media and mobile applications are only some of the major trends that we’re seeing today,” she says. “We need to be aware of our customers’ lifestyle changes in order to find the perfect balance between the service and experience they expect to have, and aligning our capabilities and processes to meet that expectation. After all, you guests are the best brand ambassadors you will ever have.”

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Chef Jay Yarbrough, CEC of the Piedmont Driving Club

Monday, December 21st, 2015

Chef Jay Yarbrough When Atlanta chefs talk about the individual who has left an indelible mark of professionalism and integrity in their city, they are speaking of Jay Yarbrough of the Piedmont Driving Club.

Chef Yarbrough was born and raised in Marietta and moved to downtown Atlanta in 1979 to begin his culinary career. While still in high school, Jay served as an apprentice cook for three years at the highly regarded French restaurant Le Papillon in Inman Park. After graduating high school, Chef Jay enrolled at Georgia State University, studying Hotel and Restaurant Administration.

During his studies, Jay earned the position of Executive Chef at Conversations, a continental restaurant in Decatur.

1986 marked the beginning of a true blossoming in Chef Yarbrough’s career. He took a line cook position at the Ritz-Carlton Atlanta and was promoted to Sous Chef of “The Restaurant” then Chef of “The Café.”After working as Chef-Garde Manger, Jay was sent to Los Angeles in 1991 to be a member of the opening team of The Ritz-Carlton Huntington, followed by a stint as Executive Sous Chef at the Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island.

He then transferred to Cancun and became the Executive Chef of the Ritz-Carlton property for a year. Chef Yarbrough returned to the United States in 1995 to take over the position of Executive Chef at the revered Piedmont Driving Club, where he continues today.

Chef Jay has earned many awards and accolades throughout his career. He received CEC certification in 1998 and has won a plethora of gold and silver medals in cold food, hot food and ice carving competitions.

Over the last 20 years, Chef Jay has given back to his community and to his fellow chefs
by participated in numerous charity events and serving as an officer in the Atlanta Chapter
of the ACF. Recently, Chef Yarbrough was the Chef Chair for the 2015 “Give Me Five” Share
Our Strength dinner, a tremendous honor. He also participated in the 2011 event, which typically raises more than $50,000 to end childhood hunger.

“The ACF has most influenced my career by allowing me to work with some of the
best chefs in the country,” Chef Yarbrough says. “The insight, knowledge and exposure
to an array of techniques from your peers in a positive and cooperative environment is
priceless. I feel it is essential for chefs to get out of their kitchens occasionally and interact with fellow chefs. Most chefs’ daily duties are so intense, they must concentrate solely on their kitchen. In my case, I have three restaurants and a banquet operation to manage. Therefore, I look forward to being involved in special events and dinners.”

Chef Jay’s personal culinary style is a mix of classical European classical methods and regional influences of the Deep South, Mexico and the Caribbean. He is particularly interested in modernizing old Southern recipes with a contemporary approach to satisfy the needs of an increasingly well educated dining audience.

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