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2018 GRACE Diversity Leadership Award: Eddie Hernandez

Tuesday, November 27th, 2018
Eddie Hernandez

Eddie Hernandez, owner of Taqueria Del Sol. Photo by Angie Mosier.

by Candice Dyer

Eddie Hernandez is part of a generation of immigrants who landed in the American South, where they explore their culinary roots using locally sourced ingredients.

His restaurant, Taqueria del Sol, specializes in playful, flavorful mashups of Mexican food with homegrown fare.

His spicy turnip greens, Memphis pork barbecue tacos and weekly blue plate specials draw crowds stretching to the sidewalks at seven locations in Atlanta, Athens and Tennessee.
“I care deeply about Southern food,” he says, “and I love cooking. It’s that simple – I really do.”

Hernandez grew up in Monterrey, Mexico, where he learned his way around a kitchen with his grandmother, who operated several restaurants. At 16, he moved to the United States, where he tried to make it as a professional drummer. He finally ended up at an Atlanta restaurant, where he met Mike Klank, his current business partner, who introduced him to Memphis barbecue.

Hernandez saw creative possibilities, and he didn’t have to work hard to meld cuisines. Most of the differences are a minor matter of semantics, anyway. Mexicans eat corn tortillas; Southerners favor cornbread. Mexicans render pork fat and conserve the lard; Southerners cook bacon and save the grease. Mexicans make barbacoa; Southerners call it barbecue. So why not stuff tacos with fried chicken, and smother it all with lime jalapeño mayonnaise? Wash it down with an “Eddie Palmer,” iced tea spiked with tequila.

“The country is irrelevant to me,” he says. “It’s what’s available and what you can do with it.”

So he notoriously does not fret too much about “authenticity.”

“In Mexico, we eat what we like and don’t worry about what is authentic to this cuisine or that,” Hernandez says. “You make do, and you make it taste good.”

Hernandez’s recently published book, Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen. Photo by Angie Mosier.

Early on, a customer gave him a bag of turnip greens. At first, Hernandez didn’t know what to do with them, but he recalled the way his family used to cook lamb’s quarters. So he simmered them in a pot with chicken stock, tomatoes and garlic, and added chile de arbol. The dish is now a beloved staple at the restaurants, and the recipe is included in his recently published cookbook, Turnip Greens & Tortillas: A Mexican Chef Spices Up the Southern Kitchen.

For these efforts, Hernandez and Klank have been named semi-finalists in the James Beard Foundation Awards for Excellence’s Outstanding Restaurateur category for four years in a row.

Hernandez feels hopeful about Georgia’s restaurant industry, but believes it still can do more to reach a broader customer base. “I think it is very important,” he says, “but it needs to be pushed even further. We are beginning to become a food destination, and I think once we establish ourselves further we will be able to thrive even more.”

For more on Eddie Hernandez and Taqueria del Sol, read “Mixing It Up.”


Hitting the Sweet Spot

Thursday, October 25th, 2018
Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake at No. 246

The Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake at No. 246. Photo by Chrysta Poulos

Take a look at some of the pastry and dessert trends to keep an eye out for on restaurant menus across Georgia.

By Candice Dyer

Look on any menu in Georgia and you’ll probably notice there’s been a renaissance with desserts.
While chocolate will forever remain tried and true, the segment is going in some different directions. Pastry chefs are stretching past conventions and exploring fresh possibilities with a new sense of bravado, experimenting with new items like ruby chocolate and incorporating vegetables into traditionally sweet dishes.

Yes there’s the extreme dessert trend – think the freakshakes, charcoal ice cream and multi-colored unicorn desserts – fudge, frappe, ice cream, you name it. But there’s also more refined, restrained statements being made out there, too.

“An ideal dessert should hit all of the flavor profiles – acidity and bitterness along with sweet,” says Claudia Martinez, pastry chef for Tiny Lou’s, an American-French brasserie that opened this summer above the Clermont Lounge (a seedy landmark legendary for its unconventional strippers) as part of the complete refurbishment of the 94-room Clermont Hotel.

dessert chocolate shoe

Tiny Lou’s Chocolate Shoe. Photo by Sarah Newman/

The restaurant’s showstopper dessert is inspired by the dancers’ flashy footwear. It’s a six-inch stiletto pump made of chocolate, coruscated with real gold and glitter, and spilling over with luscious exotic fruit and ice cream. Known as the chocolate shoe, it goes for $50 a plate.

“It’s representative of what I want to do in the future, in terms of creating something dramatic with a higher markup,” says Tiny Lou’s pastry chef, Claudia Martinez. “People want something weird and interactive. They want a flambé or a sauce that changes color when it’s poured on something. They want to see what happens when you pour liquor over cotton candy.”

That approach is in line with what many pastry chefs are saying. Thanks to the constant exposure to cooking shows and splashy desserts on Instagram, diners have become more playful, savvy and adventurous, Martinez says. When it comes to the final plate of the evening, they’re now looking for a mix of novelty, comfort, nostalgia and creativity. And Georgia’s pastry chefs are delivering on those expectations.

Here’s a look at some of the trends in baking and desserts and what some of the state’s top pastry chefs are doing to keep guests coming back for more.

Claudia Martinez, pastry chef at Tiny Lou’s in Atlanta. Photo by Heidi Geldhauser.

Showstoppers. Instagram-worthy desserts are de rigueur if you want word to spread about your restaurant. Increasingly, more pastry chefs are designing with one eye on how the final product will look online. This isn’t vanity – create a buzz-worthy dessert that gets comments and views, and you’ll get more people through a restaurant’s doors to enjoy the rest of their dinner there, too.

“Social media has really changed the food landscape,” Martinez says. “Millennials, especially, want to post pics and even videos of their desserts, so we have to be extra-conscious of how they look, how they’re plated, how they’re described on the menu.”

Think of it like a circus act – the more over the top, the better. There’s the overloaded cakes trend, where simple cakes are topped with whole candy bars, truffles, cookies – anything piled high to make a statement. These types of desserts are intended to be shared, both online and by the whole group at the table.

At Tiny Lou’s, the chocolate shoe can be customized depending on the season – guava and citrus for summer, apples and cinnamon for fall – which entices guests to order it again and again to see what
surprises will be added to the dish.

Dessert Blondie

Tiny Lou’s Ode to Blondie, a brown butter blondie with curried bananas flambé, buttermilk ice cream and a hazelnut crémeux. Photo by Sarah Newman/

A sense of fun and whimsy is coming back to desserts as well. Another one of Martinez’s creations for Tiny Lou’s pays homage to the Clermont Lounge’s most celebrated exotic dancer, Blondie Strange. It’s a Brown Butter Blondie with curried bananas flambé and buttermilk ice cream.
Carrie Hudson, pastry chef at Atlanta’s West Egg Cafe, has a current fave: sprinkles. “I call it fufetti,” she says. “We’re all on the unicorn boat these days, it seems. They’re on cupcakes, sugar cookies, and specialty coffees, and we do a cheesecake with them inside of it. People get excited about little pops of color.”

Textural Play. “Textures are a big thing,” Tiny Lou’s Martinez says. She experiments with mouth feel – the foams, gels, and powders that are sweeping Europe. Other options include topping desserts with textures – think battered and fried, dehydrated, puffed or popped. “I add what I call fuzzies to dessert to give diners a Pop Rocks feeling,” she says. “I believe in using those elements sparingly, though, and not making them the main event.”

Novel Ingredients. The unique ingredient of the moment is Ruby Chocolate, a pink, sweet-and-sour product introduced last year by Barry Callebaut, a Belgian-Swiss cocoa company. “It’s hot in Europe, and it’s making its way through New York, California and Chicago, so I expect it to arrive in Atlanta very soon,” says Martinez. “It’s the biggest revolution in chocolate since white chocolate.”

Made from the Ruby cocoa bean, the naturally reddish chocolate lends a berry-fruitiness flavor to a dish and is extremely smooth. That’s thanks to a unique processing formula that took 13 years to perfect, in which no berry flavor or color is added. The chocolate is not widely available in the U.S. yet but has taken the rest of the world by storm; look for it to become more prevalent in 2019.

Chrysta Poulos, creative director of pastry for Ford Fry’s restaurants. Photo by Emily Schultz.

Nostalgia. No matter how crazy desserts get, nostalgia and tried-and-true recipes continue to hold their own on the menu. Old standbys are rooted in familiarity, but are today being reinvented to suit the restaurant’s personality. Chrysta Poulos’ desserts fall squarely into this category.

“We don’t follow dessert trends at any of our restaurants,” says Poulos, who serves as creative director of pastry for Ford Fry’s sprawling empire of seven restaurants: The Optimist, JCT Kitchen, No.246, King+Duke, St.Cecilia, Marcel’s, and State of Grace. “We very much adhere to tried-and-true classics.”

She says a traditional pudding cake is her calling card.“At King + Duke, we’ve been serving the Sticky To ee Pudding for 10 years,” Poulos says, “and it remains a favorite.”

The Optimist serves a lemony Atlantic Beach Pie with a saltine crust that echoes the oyster bar; No. 246 sells a Macchiato Crème Caramel; and Marcel offers a disarmingly simple Hot Fudge Sundae.

“I think nostalgia plays a big role in desserts,” Poulos says. “You want something that tastes like what your grandma made, something that will bring out the kid in you.”

Martinez agrees, saying for that reason, she believes caramel “will always be a thing – it’s so homey.”

At West Egg Cafe, Hudson plays around with childhood favorites. “We do pop tarts with the full, heavy consistency in the filling,” she says. “Probably my favorite, though, actually uses one of my grandmother’s richer recipes: the Kentucky Butter Cake. I call it the ‘fried chicken of pound cakes’ because it leaves a butter ring on a napkin.”

Dessert Plate

Some of the sweets served at West Egg Cafe in Atlanta. Photo by Janet Howard Studio.

Hudson likes to explore “straightforward Southern” fare inspired by her family’s kitchen table in Midway, Georgia, which, every day, come what may, always held fresh-baked cornbread and a cake.

“I love to browse the farmers markets for Mercer apples and fresh peaches for pies,” she says. Hudson also makes seasonal jams and uses ground, dehydrated fruit to create a paste that adds color and flavor to baked items without increasing their moisture.

Savory Bites. Another movement to watch for: savory desserts. “These will incorporate things like celery, mushrooms and foie gras,” Martinez says. “I’m already doing macaroons with pimiento cheese or herbed cream cheese in a black pepper shell.”

Incorporating hits of savory balances out the sometimes overly sweet notes you can get from many dessert menus.

“It’s ironic that I’m in the position I’m in because I was never a dessert person,” says Martinez, whose roots are Venezuelan. “My mother didn’t let me eat candy when I was growing up, and American desserts just tasted too heavy and too sweet for me.”

At No. 246, Poulos offers a Lemon Olive Oil Layer Cake with charred lemon curd. And West Egg’s Hudson won national recognition this year in a General Mills competition for her Butternut Squash and Goat Cheese turnover.

Ice Cream. The Thai rolled ice cream trend continues to gain steam, and the aforementioned charcoal and unicorn flavors have been a hit on social media. But look for more soft-serve ice cream to start popping up, both as stand-alone locations and on restaurant menus, in the near future. Its signature ridged swirl harkens back to the nostalgia trend, and it’s approachable, too. Behind the counter, it’s fairly simple to manage, aside from finding room to install a soft – serve machine. Once the ingredients are added, the dessert is ready to go for the remainder of the night.

West Egg Cafe pastry chef Carrie Hudson. Photo Courtesy of General Mills.

Vegging it Up. Innovations with plant-based and vegan products have headed to the dessert menu as well. And vegetables are increasingly being incorporated into desserts, even if they’re not necessarily name checked on the menu.

Yes there’s carrot cake, but there’s other naturally sweet vegetables you can play around with, including corn. And don’t exclude savory vegetables – avocado, squash, zucchini and even parsnips are all popping up on dessert menus across the country.

Diners may not be as open to eating their veggies in desserts though, unless they try them first.

“People are intimidated by beets, for some reason,” Hudson says. “When I listed beets in the description on the menu, it didn’t sell, but when I removed the word ‘beets’ it went fast.”

Healthy Desserts. The macro-trend that everyone seems to agree on is health consciousness. Gluten-free, vegan, and non-dairy desserts are increasingly in demand.

“People ask for them,” Hudson says. “So we do gluten-free granola bars, nut-based cakes, hazelnut tortes, gluten-free brownies, flourless cakes. People want a healthier option, especially in bathing-suit weather.”

Hudson is especially proud of her gluten-free dark chocolate cupcake. She uses avocados in the frosting and beets instead of eggs. “I mix soy milk with vinegar and let it curdle like buttermilk,” she says.

dessert pound cake

Tiny Lou’s vanilla pound cake with lemon curd. Photo by Sarah Newman/

An Eye on the Environment. Just like the rest of the kitchen, pastry chefs are increasingly trying to keep a lid on food waste, creating housemade vinegars from fruit and vegetable scraps and incorporating “leftovers” from the main menu into a dessert.

Reducing costs is also a concern. To minimize costs, Martinez cross-utilizes ingredients between the cart and the main menu. “If there’s leftover fruit, it can go in a muffin or something.”

Ford Fry keeps his inventory in a large commissary for distribution. “We input all of the recipes there, and there’s this massive org chart,” says Poulos. “We share ingredients among all of the restaurants, especially caramel and fudge sauce, which cuts down on waste. So even if the cost of eggs and dairy fluctuate, it doesn’t affect our bottom line.”

No matter what your dessert menu looks like, don’t feel like you have to follow these trends just because everyone else is. If you want to freshen up your sweet list, consider incorporating one or two of these trends into a dish or two.

But the most important thing is to make sure your dessert menu stays true to your restaurant concept. Do that, and you’ll be sure to hit the sweet spot with your guests every time.

On the Menu

It’s great to keep an eye on the trends, but how many dessert items should a menu include?

Carrie Hudson, pastry chef at West Egg Cafe in Atlanta, usually maintains a dessert menu of 14 items, including four cookies, four cupcakes and cakes and pies – one chocolate-based pie, one fruit pie and a random one, such as a Root Beer Float Pie or an Oatmeal Cream Pie.

Tiny Lou’s dessert menu presents six dishes, along with a mobile, rotating cart with smaller, less expensive items that are not plated. “In an ideal world, if I were running a Michelin restaurant, I would only offer three desserts,” says its pastry chef, Claudia Martinez.

A good dessert menu should never reveal too much, she adds. “I do a Royale that is 74 percent chocolate with cardamom, but I only list the main ingredients so it’s more of a surprise. Some people are initially put off by the spice if it’s listed on the menu.”

Martinez enjoys introducing diners to unanticipated tastes and ultimately winning them over to something they might not normally order. Her current favorite is the Fair Lady Tarte, a crème fraiche cheesecake topped with passionfruit, guava, mango, coconut and lavender ice cream and garnished with a grapefruit tuile for added crunch and astringency. “People aren’t expecting that combination.”

Poulos says the perfect dessert menu offers only four items. “We’ve tried five in the past, but usually one of those will lag in sales,” she says, “so I’d rather have four truly kick-ass desserts.”


2018 GRACE Restaurateur of the Year: Small/Independent: Federico Castellucci III

Wednesday, September 26th, 2018

By Nancy Wood

Federico Castellucci III may have had a fleeting thought of becoming an attorney, but the pull of the family business was too strong to resist. Steeped in tradition with Italian and Greek roots, the Castellucci dynasty has grown exponentially since Federico Castellucci graduated from Cornell University and returned to Atlanta to help his father run the first of their concepts, Sugo, in Johns Creek.

As president and CEO of the Castellucci Hospitality Group (CHG) since 2007, Castellucci has taken what his grandfather and father started and – with his parents, siblings and wife – developed multiple concepts sprinkled across the metro area. While Sugo and Double Zero in Emory Village focus on Italian cuisine, three concepts, Bar Mercado in Krog Street Market, Cooks & Soldiers in West Midtown and The Iberian Pig in Decatur, are built on traditional Spanish flavors. A more recent concept is Recess, a vegetable-centric, casual chef-driven food stall in Krog Street Market. Accolades and awards have followed with each new opening.

“We are growing up in the restaurant industry during a pinnacle time in Atlanta,” says Castellucci. “Our family-oriented core values drive the way we do business, and as a small independent operator, we have the luxury to make a personal impact with our guests and our employees.”

While CHG continues to grow and expand, Castellucci faces industry challenges head on – labor, competition and the changing macro trends in the way people are experiencing food and beverage. “We are a small part of this larger fabric doing our best to create places where people want to dine and where people want to work,” he says. “With hard work and dedication, even those with limited education can create a fulfilling career path for themselves.”

One area of focus that Castellucci is passionate about is the use of technology across the restaurant group to streamline operations and improve communication. Actively involved as a mentor, advisor and investor in early-stage hospitality technology companies, he says, “We are early adopters of technology and have been part of building and testing technology solutions for our industry that have found greater success.”

As he looks to the future, Castellucci says his biggest challenge is “balancing growth and creativity with the personnel and the financial realities of the business.” And he’s also looking at the impact CHG can have on the communities where the group’s restaurants are located. “We currently support the communities where we have restaurants through local charitable organizations and schools,” he says. “We spent the last year evaluating opportunities to direct CHG resources toward a singular charitable mission and are excited to push this forward in 2019.”

Beyond his responsibilities for high-level operations and leadership development and training, Castellucci still revels in positive guest interactions. “There is nothing better than connecting someone to your vision and creating an experience for them that they otherwise would never have.”


Gerry Klaskala: 2018 GRACE Lifetime Achievement Winner

Friday, August 24th, 2018

Gerry Klaskala

For Gerry Klaskala, the kitchen is where art and food collide.

In high school, Klaskala was on a path for fine art school when he stumbled upon his true calling while working at a restaurant.

“The chef that I worked with, he was into doing ice carvings and buffet work and pulled sugar. … I said that’s really cool. Can you teach me this stuff?,” Klaskala recalls. “And he said yeah. but you gotta come in on your own time. He wasn’t going to pay me to learn.”

The chef also liked to enter competitions, so Gerry helped him with that, too. And they won.

That’s when the chef turned to Gerry and said, “You should really go to culinary school.”

So he did. After graduating from the Culinary Institute of America, he spent 10 years working his way around the kitchen.

“You have to love it from the beginning. I love every step of the way, from washing dishes to working as a short-order cook, progressing through the whole thing. There’s not one step that I didn’t like.”

Some of Atlanta’s most storied restaurants have Klaskala to thank for their success. He helped launch the Buckhead Diner and Horseradish Grill. He consulted for restaurants like Atlas and Murphy’s. Then he met George McKerrow. The two decided to open a restaurant together. And in 1995, Canoe debuted along the banks of the Chattahoochee River.

But Klaskala wanted to do more. So in 2000, he and McKerrow launched Aria in a historic home in Buckhead off East Paces Ferry. Today it’s regarded as one of the city’s finest restaurants. It’s become a neighborhood spot for Buckhead locals, a respite for celebrities and movie stars filming in town, and a special place for a generation of Atlantans celebrating birthdays, anniversaries and promotions.

The menu changes nightly, albeit slightly, and rolls with the seasons and Klaskala’s inspiration.

“[It’s based on] seasonality, but then you’re moving it forward in the creative process,” he says. “You’re [always] looking at things differently.”

Now in its 19th year of operation, Aria has gone on to be recognized with numerous accolades, including a 2017 James Beard Award semifinalist for Outstanding Service, a Top Time-Tested Restaurant by The Atlanta Journal- Constitution that same year, and one of Atlanta magazine’s best restaurants in 2018. Klaskala’s food has been featured in Bon Appétit and Esquire, among many others.

And while he still can be found in the kitchen most days, he’s also dedicated to giving back. If there’s a cause, you can be sure Gerry is helping out. He’s a mainstay at Share Our Strength’s Taste of the Nation, and he’s also the chef chair for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society Georgia Chapter’s Harvest for a Cure event. He’s chef co-chair of Open Hand Atlanta’s Party in the Kitchen. He’s a founding chef of the Atlanta Food & Wine Festival, a member of the Vidalia Onion Committee’s Chefs Advisory Board and on the board of advisors for the Atlanta Foodservice Expo.

“I feel very connected to the community that I live in. Being a part philanthropically with the community is extremely important to me.” he says. “Then you’re part of the solution. You’re not one who sits on their hands.”

He has also supported the Atlanta Community Food Bank, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, Georgia Organics, High Museum of Art and Southface, among many others.

“For chefs it’s easy for us to connect and feel a direct connection to solving the problems of some very serious issues of childhood hunger, feeding the less fortunate. You know, taking care of one another,” Klaskala says. “That’s what we do in the restaurant industry. We take care of one another.”


Q & A: Zach Meloy

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Chef and Co-owner of Better Half

By Lia Picard

Atlanta native Zachary Meloy became smitten with food and the restaurant world while working in Birmingham as a busboy. Eventually he and his wife, Cristina, opened a restaurant in her native Costa Rica before moving back to Atlanta. They started PushStart Kitchen, a supper club, in 2011 at the Goat Farm and built a base of loyal, hungry diners.

When they launched a 30-day Kickstarter campaign to raise $50,000 for a restaurant of their own, the goal was met in only a week. No longer was Meloy prepping dishes at home and cooking on a pancake griddle, but he was able to open his own brick-and-mortar restaurant, Better Half, in 2013.

The restaurant’s name is an homage to Zach and Cristina’s bond. One of his signature dishes – a creamy bowl of handkerchief pasta, wild mushrooms, porcini cream and tomato marmalade – was used to woo her. At Better Half, Meloy crafts artful dishes with a high-end touch in a laidback and welcoming setting. Restaurant Informer talked with Meloy about the transition from roving supper club to brick-and-mortar restaurant, working with his wife and changes in the fine dining landscape.

Following are edited highlights from the conversation.

RI: What was your first job in the restaurant industry?
ZM: I would say my very first job in restaurants was a job as a busboy working at Frank Stitt’s Bottega over in Birmingham. I went into it thinking well, I’m just going to get a job where I can do the least amount of work and make the most amount of money (which sounds absurd at this point now). Incredibly lazy, but I just didn’t know what I was getting myself into.

RI: What did you take away from the job?
ZM: On my first day at this job, the chef walked over and handed me a wine list and the menu, and said, “You need to learn all of this.” I looked back and said, “I think there’s been some sort of mistake. I’m a busboy.” They said, “Oh no, you need to learn this.” Their whole mentality was that their guests weren’t going to try and differentiate between a server’s assistant and a server. They were just going to grab somebody with an apron and ask a question, and they wanted whoever that got grabbed to be able to answer that question.

As I dove into learning this material, I totally fell in love. Up until that moment, for me, food was a little more about checking off a square and not really considering that we really define ourselves as human beings through the food that we eat. I was head over heels after that.

The peach wood-smoked beets with lemon horseradish yogurt, crunchy red quinoa and blueberry vinaigrette.

RI: How did you know that you wanted to make it your career, and how did you shift into cooking?
ZM: I studied Art and Spanish in college and knew that either of those were going to be career paths. I wasn’t interested in following Spanish as a language as a career path, and I had one of those classic moments after I graduated college where it felt like I was standing there holding my diploma going, “Well, great now what?” Someone looked at me and said all you ever do is talk about food. Why don’t you become a chef? I immediately enrolled at Johnson & Wales in Denver.

RI: Can you tell me about PushStart Kitchen, your supper club that preceded Better Half?
ZM: Cristina, my wife, and I had just come back from Costa Rica. We had had to close the restaurant that we had started down there at the beach after the economy took a bad turn and tourism took a hit. The town where we were shriveled up, and we were left trying to fill a void. Trying to figure out what was next, we moved here, which was kind of a homecoming for me – I’m from Atlanta originally.

The restaurant’s signature dish, silk handkerchief pasta with roasted mushrooms, porcini cream, tomato marmalade and cotija cheese.

We took jobs in the fields we had the most experience in. Mine, obviously, being restaurants. Hers being marketing, so she took the daytime hours and I ended up doing nighttime hours. We were just like two ships passing in the night. It hit this point where we knew if we didn’t do something it was just going to spin out, and we were not going to make it.

So we started this supper club as an opportunity to introduce ourselves to the Atlanta market, which is a tough market to break into. And, to also have something that felt a little like therapy. Like restaurant therapy for us, to feel like we weren’t just crossing ourselves working, trying to make other people money. We wanted to have something we felt like was ours.

We started PushStart Kitchen in June 2011 in the basement of the Goat Farm. We had no running water, one electrical socket that I had an electric pancake griddle on and a dorm room fridge, and we had a lamp and an iPod dock. We would prep everything on the other side of town in our apartment on Ponce and then drive food, dishes, linen, wine, ice, literally everything that you could possibly need to do a five-course meal for 10 strangers. We would unpack everything, serve that meal, pack all the dirty dishes back up, drive them across town, unpack, wash, and do it again.

RI: In what ways did the supper club help you with your current restaurant?
ZM: The supper club laid the foundation for this restaurant. We did the supper club for two and a half years. We started with a mailing list of about 12 people. Thirty percent of that was my family and, by the end of it, we had well over 5,000 people on our mailing list. We were feeding upwards of 100 people a week out of our apartment. We eventually moved to the Goat Farm, where we went from serving 10 people a five-course meal to serving 22 people a five-course meal. We ended up doing that four or five times a week out of our apartment.

We decided it was time for a restaurant, which we crowd- sourced through Kickstarter. I feel like that was the real measure of our success with the supper club. We had a $50,000 goal that we were trying to make in 30 days on our Kickstarter campaign, and we met it in eight. We had an overwhelming response to the work that we were doing, and that’s really what drove us into the restaurant where we are now.

RI: How is operating a brick-and-mortar restaurant different from running the supper club?
ZM: It could not be any more different. It’s been an adventure to try and maintain that original spirit from the supper club while running the brick and mortar. There are a lot of pros and cons when you’re doing the comparison. I, for example, was doing everything out of the grocery store when I was doing the supper club, and now I have purveyors. We’ve developed a really great relationship with the folks who are bringing us the food so that I don’t have to go and carry in 400 pounds of groceries anymore. That’s all being brought, basically, right to the refrigerator.

And, honestly, just being able to really project who we are. In doing the supper club, everything was a little more on the underground side, and it’s really hard to get out and advertise something that’s really just a project out of your living room. Having the restaurant was really an opportunity for us to have a bit more of a broader scope in being able to interact with more people.

We’ve left the kitchen open in the restaurant here intentionally so that we could really have a high level of connectivity with our guests, which is something that we really valued from the supper club. The overhead in having a brick-and-mortar restaurant goes way up, obviously, and just having to make sure that you’re constantly filling seats to make sure that you’re able to pay your bills, pay the staff, pay the people who are making it all happen, so there’s a little more stress involved in having the brick- and-mortar scenario. But at the end of the day, it’s been amazing to have that kind of natural progression.

RI: How is Cristina involved in the restaurant now?
ZM: At this point, Cristina has taken a little bit more of the marketing, behind-the-scenes approach because we now have two beautiful daughters. They’re two and five, so they need constant support. So Cristina, because of the restaurant, has been able to step aside from being the front-of-the-house presence and being more of the marketing and day-to-day clerical stuff.

The strawberry and cream cake, with lavender ice cream, pink peppercorn meringue and strawberry glass topped with borage flowers.

RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for Georgia’s restaurant industry right now?
ZM: I think that one big thing we’re actually just seeing nationally is that it’s really hard to find staff. With having this glut of culinary schools and television programming, I think that young cooks coming up now don’t realize what a grueling career path this is. In a lot of ways, it’s very thankless, and your payment, a lot of times, has to come in other ways.

We work really, really, really hard to perfect what we do and to communicate a vision, and I think that there has been this idea that you just go to culinary school and graduate and you’re automatically the chef of a big, fancy restaurant, and there’s so much more that goes behind that. I think that we’re seeing there’s a lack of dedication to the cause.

I also feel like we’re still dealing with Georgia, and really just the South in general, we’re still a very conservative region. There’s a lot of folks who really want to cling to what’s traditional or what’s “authentic,” and folks don’t always want to branch out and try new things. You’re really wanting to open a restaurant that’s just going to be a knockout.

Everybody opens a new Southern restaurant where they serve shrimp and grits, or they do Tex-Mex or you get chips and cheese, and I think we’re forced to play it safe in the restaurant world in order to try. … As much as we love what we do, obviously, at the end of the day, we want to pay the bills. Since folks are a little timid to try new things, there is this pattern where a lot of the food ends up being exactly the same over and over again. I think that’s a frustration that needs to be faced, and we have to figure out creative ways to get people to open up and try new things.

RI: Your restaurant is a high-end meets casual hybrid. How do you think fine dining has changed in recent years?
ZM: I think what you’re starting to see is that fine dining is really being condensed. Reduced. There’s a lot of the extra pomp and circumstance that is being pared away. Chefs and restaurants are looking at what makes an experience a fine-dining experience. What are the elements that you have to have to have a fine dining experience, and what are the things that are unnecessary? What are the things that you can shave away to get down to the core of the fine dining experience?

You’re starting to see less waiters in tuxedos and white linen tablecloths and tableside Caesar salad preparations because there’s a lot of these things that are there because they’ve been there since forever, but maybe they’re not necessary anymore and that people are starting to take a little more of a contemporary approach.

So I guess that’s where we are. Modern fine dining. For us, our goal was always to try and present something in a fine dining way on the plate. We were looking for kind of a fine dining presentation, but we wanted the overall atmosphere to be as relaxed as possible, which is tough. A lot of people don’t get it. They don’t understand, because they get our room is pretty noisy, and it’s small, and there’s a lot of elements that have come from our home since the restaurant came from a supper club in our house, but then they’re presented with a plate of food that is a little more on the artistic side. It throws people for a loop.

Most people really love it, but every once in a while we’ll get some folks who are a little behind the times who just outright don’t get it, but that’s our job. We’re missionaries.

RI: What are some trends that you’re seeing in the restaurant industry?
ZM: For the longest time, everyone wanted ingredients that were far flung and from other parts of the world, the other side of the planet. Everyone was really excited about being able to eat a strawberry in February and being able to get a December watermelon. I think that chefs now are really starting to head in the opposite direction and really embrace both seasonality and hyper-local food.

RI: Why did you decide to stop serving brunch at Better Half, and do you think you’d ever bring it back?
ZM: Because no one came. We would do like 12 people for brunch, and we would work a busy Saturday night. We would leave at 1:00 a.m., and we would have to be in the next morning at 8:30 a.m. to cook for 12 people and just nobody came. So we quit.

I wouldn’t [bring it back]. It’s not worth it. As much as I like it, and I really loved the food that we were doing, our neighborhood that we’re in [West Midtown] is a little bit of a strange neighborhood.
Brunch tends to be the local neighborhood set that holds up the brunch service. Look at a place that’s known for brunch. Murphy’s, for example, that’s within walking distance for everybody in a really great, affluent neighborhood. The neighborhood where we are at, Home Park, is definitely coming up, especially with all of the development. Everyone’s growing in a westerly fashion right now, but we’re surrounded by college kids that I just don’t think are interested in that brunch market.

RI: Why do you think it’s important to participate in tasting events (i.e. Wrecking Barn’s Barn Bash)?
ZM: I think that there’s a couple of reasons. First of all, I love what Wrecking Bar and Wrecking Barn are doing. It ties back to what I was just talking about in a scenario where they, without question,
they could order everything from everywhere else and instead they decided to focus their attention on Georgia. And to focus their attention on local, and to really embrace what the south has to offer.

For me as a cook and for me as a restaurant owner and for me, honestly, as just someone here from Atlanta, it’s just an amazing opportunity for me to step out of my comfort zone, which is basically working in my own kitchen. It’s really easy to isolate yourself, and I really do feel like we bene t a lot from building a network, or a community, of cooks, of restaurant workers, of bar keepers, sommeliers, so that we can all learn. at was a great opportunity to get together with some of my favorites in Atlanta and, more than anything else, to just get to hang out and learn about what they’ve got going on there on the farm.

RI: What do you cook for yourself when you’re not in the restaurant kitchen?
ZM: I’m on a blueberry Frosted Mini-Wheats kick right now, to be honest. That’s the true irony of being a cook in a lot of ways. There’s not always a lot of time to eat. I like to cook for my family at home on my days off, but it tends to be pretty simple. We eat Costa Rican food at the house. Cristina’s Costa Rican, so lots of rice and beans, grilled meat. We use very simple vegetable preparations and fruit.


2018 Georgia Grown Chefs

Friday, June 22nd, 2018

GRA and Georgia Department of Agriculture Announce New Crop of Chefs at Taste of Georgia Event

In February, the Georgia Restaurant Association (GRA), in partnership with the Georgia Department of Agriculture, announced the 2018 Georgia Grown chefs. These six chefs join the roster of 27 other Georgia Grown Executive Chefs.

Now in its seventh year, the Georgia Grown Executive Chef program seeks to promote the state’s Georgia Grown campaign and help grow awareness for both restaurateurs and consumers about which local Georgia products are available each season. It also aims to highlight and involve public school culinary education and school food nutrition by increasing opportunities for Georgia Grown products, training and recipe development.

The chefs will participate in school demos, market demos, festivals and other events at the Department of Agriculture. The group will also travel to New York City in June to showcase a Southern feast filled with locally sourced ingredients at the James Beard House.

“Each chef chosen for this prestigious program brings a different perspective and unique talents to the Georgia Grown Executive Chef class of 2018,” says GRA CEO Karen Bremer. “All six chefs possess a true passion for local, seasonal cuisine and strengthening their relationships with Georgia suppliers.”

The 2018 Georgia Grown Chefs are:

Evan Cordes | Chef and Owner | Cast Iron | Atlanta
After starting his career in restaurants as a teenager, Cordes moved from North Carolina to Georgia, he worked in the kitchens of GRA members Scott Serpas at Serpas True Food and Billy Allin (Bread & Butterfly, Proof and Cakes & Ale) before a stint as a personal chef. It was this experience that led in 2016 to the opening of Cast Iron, a low-key, cozy restaurant in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward neighborhood.

Chef Jason Jimenez | Executive Chef | Kitchen Six | Decatur
An Atlanta native, Jimenez attended Johnson and Wales University in Charleston, working in several restaurants there before returning back to Georgia. Here, he worked at Canoe, Local Three and Muss & Turner’s before starting a boutique private chef and catering company, Homespun, with his wife in 2012. At Kitchen Six, a 60-seat restaurant in the Oak Grove neighborhood of North Decatur, Jimenez uses highly seasonal ingredients in his rustic cuisine with a Southern touch.

Brian David Jones | Executive Chef | University Dining at Kennesaw State University | Kennesaw
A native Georgian, Jones graduated from the Art Institute of Atlanta culinary arts program and has worked at local restaurants including Canoe, Watershed, The Atlanta Grill at the Ritz Carlton Downtown Atlanta and Restaurant Eugene, where he served as executive chef. In his role at KSU, he oversees a kitchen brigade who feeds more than 7,000 students, faculty and staff daily at the university’s two campuses. He collaborates with local farmers, including KSU’s own Hickory Grove Farm.

Zach Meloy | Executive Chef/Owner | Better Half | Atlanta
As a child, Meloy always made a mental note of what he’d eat each day. After attending Johnson & Wales in Denver and working with award-wining chef Frank Stitt at Bottega in Birmingham, Ala., Meloy went on to spend five years traveling, eating and studying the cuisine in Central America. He returned to Atlanta and worked in the kitchens of GRA members Gerry Klaskala and Jay Swift before launching an underground supper club, PushStart Kitchen, with his wife Cristina in 2011. After feeding more than 100 guests per week and garnering local, regional and national attention, the pair opened Better Half in Atlanta, where they continue to serve inventive seasonal food.

Christian Rodriguez | Chef and Vice President | High Road Craft Ice Cream | Atlanta
Rodriguez grew up in Hinesville as part of a tight-knit military Puerto Rican family. He graduated from Le Cordon Bleu in Atlanta in 2008 with honors, then worked at Five & Ten in Athens and the Grateful Tables Restaurant Group in Atlanta. He also opened the first Barcelona Wine Bar in the Southeast with the Barteca restaurant group. At High Road Ice Cream, Rodriguez oversees product development and helps manage daily operations.

Todd White | Department Chair/Instructor for Culinary Arts Program | Albany Technical College | Albany
An Albany native, White comes from a long line of farmers. After graduating from the Art Institute of Atlanta’s culinary program and training at the Ritz-Carlton in Buckhead, White moved to Savannah and started a 15-year career with Marriott. In 2011, he returned with his family to Albany and uses his 20 years of culinary experience to teach a new generation of students.


Game’s On: Fox Bros. BBQ

Wednesday, March 21st, 2018

By Kenna Simmons

Things Jonathan Fox, one-half of Fox Bros. BBQ in Atlanta, wishes he’d known about opening up a concessionaire in the old Georgia Dome: They needed six people there all the time to staff six point-of- sale stations. They needed both a front and back of the house. Using existing staff was hard without running into overtime. “It turned out to be really just like opening a whole other restaurant,” he says.

But they learned and adapted, and after the old Dome was replaced by Mercedes-Benz Stadium, they decided to open up there, believing they knew what to expect. Another surprise: Because the stadium was under construction, that experience was like opening a brand new restaurant, complete with reviewing and making decisions based on drawings instead of actual space. They also increased from one location at the Dome to four at the new stadium.

Around Labor Day 2017, Fox remembers two weeks where “there were [Atlanta United] soccer games, pre-season NFL games, back-to- back college kickoffs. Then more soccer games and the [Falcons] home opener. … I look back in amazement to when we started cooking for our friends to [opening in the] stadium where there’s no telling how many people we served.”

It’s worth it, Fox says, because opening in a venue catering to tourists helps expand the restaurant’s reach. Despite the exposure Fox Bros. BBQ has gotten in local and national media (such as on the popular Food Network show Diners, Drive-ins and Dives), Fox says after 10 years they still find out that people don’t know who they are.

“To have the opportunity to have multiple locations at this hub of tourism so people can find out about you – that was an opportunity we couldn’t pass up.” The restaurant also has a stand at SunTrust Park, new home of the Braves that opened in 2017, and provides the ’cue for Terrapin Taproom, a restaurant located adjacent to the park in The Battery Atlanta.

Stadiums and parks are much more likely to include local, independent restaurant offerings now, says Linton Hopkins, the James Beard Award winner whose C. Ellet’s Steakhouse recently opened in The Battery. “They are recognizing people don’t want anonymity food, institutional food. They want something that defines where they are,” he says.


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.


Restaurateur of the Year/Franchisee: Amici

Monday, January 29th, 2018

The winners of the 2017 Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards were announced in October. Amici was named Restaurateur of the Year: Fanchisee.

Jonathan Ewing and Jon Joiner: Amici

By Nancy Wood

Amici franchise owners/operators Jonathan “Bob” Ewing and Jon Joiner know the meaning of “high risk, high reward.”

“We bought into Amici at the beginning of 2009,” say the partners, “definitely a tough economic atmosphere.”

Lucky for them, the duo already had a good look at the business from the inside up.

The two began working at the Milledgeville location while attending Georgia College & State University in early 2000 and 2001. After working their way up the kitchen ranks, by 2007 Ewing had become the general manager and Joiner, the kitchen manager.

“We already worked with a concept that we believed in,” they say. “We saw potential growth in surrounding markets and within the brand.” When the founder started offering franchises in 2008, Ewing and Joiner took the plunge – becoming owner/operators of the very location they had worked in. They haven’t looked back.

After adding their second Amici location at Lake Oconee in 2013, the partners are now focused on their third location in Macon. Although they consider owning three restaurants in eight years a great accomplishment, it certainly has had its share of obstacles.

“Expansion is both challenging and rewarding,” say Ewing and Joiner. “Growing our business to multiple locations has been the hardest and also the most fun part of being business owners.”

One of their greatest challenges, common in the industry, is maintaining a sustainable workforce. “Labor costs are things that you have to monitor and react to, while preserving your concept and not sacrificing quality.”

Another challenge they face is keeping up with new technology. “Amici is utilizing new technology integrated into POS, inventory and mobile ordering,” they say. And the pair see trends like farm-to-table, gluten-friendly, healthier options, as well as smaller menus and express/counter take-out, continuing to gain steam in their industry sector.

As for the most rewarding aspects of their business, Ewing and Joiner say “developing lasting community relationships is one of the best parts of what we do.” And they are proud of the fact that the jobs they’ve created in cities with high unemployment have been important to Georgia’s economy and the industry.

The partners credit their work ethic and commitment to the brand for their success, along with the relationship they have with their franchisor partners. “Our communication with our franchisor partners in the development of the brand has helped streamline the company, and we have been an integral part of growing the concept from the ground up.”

Knowing the franchisor is just one tip Ewing and Joiner have for anyone who wants to become a franchisee. “Do your due diligence, and get legal representation and a good accountant.” They add that looking for a brand that wants to expand is important, but the most critical thing? “Location, location, location!”


Restaurateur of the Year: Small/Independent: Miller Union

Wednesday, December 20th, 2017

By Nancy Wood

Steven Satterfield and Neal McCarthy: Miller Union

Last fall, Steven Satterfield, executive chef and co-owner of Miller Union, showed up at the Chefs Collaborative 8th Annual Summit sporting a T-shirt that said it all: Change Menus. Change Lives.

As the local leader of the non-pro t that promotes food sustainability, Satterfield has been changing the tastes and raising the standards of diners at his award-winning West Midtown restaurant since 2009, when he joined forces with co-owner and general manager Neal McCarthy to launch Miller Union.

With McCarthy, who oversees the front of the house and the restaurant’s acclaimed wine program, Satter eld has created a comfortable yet sophisticated atmosphere where, as he says, “people can gather over a meal in a shared space that makes them feel a part of their community.”

Separately, Satterfield and McCarthy spent 20 years rising through the ranks at other restaurants before opening Miller Union. “It only made sense for us to start our own place,” says Satterfield. While he admits owning and running a restaurant has daily challenges, “to see the impact we make on the local food community is very satisfying.”

Miller Union’s support of local farmers as well as the restaurant’s commitment to purchasing sustainable products and only serving humanely raised proteins place Satterfield and McCarthy squarely in the forefront of the restaurant industry’s green movement.

In addition to creating Miller Union’s recycling and composting program, Satterfield has become known as a chef who is deeply committed to cutting down on excessive food waste. His 2015 cookbook, Root to Leaf, teaches cooks how to use every part of the fruits and vegetables they buy. And Sur La Table chef Joel Gamoran, who featured Satterfield in an episode of his TV series Scraps, was quoted as saying, “If there was a ranking, Steven Satterfield might be No. 1 in the country when it comes to food waste. … He’s the face of it. He literally embodies the whole movement.”

Frequently listed on best restaurant lists by the likes of Bon Appétit, Food & Wine and Esquire, Miller Union’s Southern- inspired menus are driven by seasonal harvests and Satterfield’s organic approach. In 2017 alone, Satterfield won a coveted James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, while certi ed sommelier McCarthy’s carefully selected wines from small organic producers was a nalist for “Outstanding Wine Program” by the James Beard Foundation. To top it o , Miller Union was named one of the best restaurants in the U.S. by Eater National.

The standards the duo have for themselves set Miller Union apart from the crowded restaurant landscape in Atlanta and clearly are rooted in Satterfield’s own advice to those who aspire to his success: “Hold yourself to a high standard, don’t let your ego get in the way, try to be objective and treat others with respect.”

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