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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.

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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.

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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.

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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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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!”

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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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John Ferrell

Thursday, November 9th, 2017

John Ferrell: Mary Mac’s Tea Room

At Mary Mac’s, family meal takes on a whole different meaning. For more than 70 years, the restaurant has embodied the very ideals of comfort food and southern hospitality.

That’s in part thanks to owner John Ferrell, who has shepherded the Atlanta institution through nearly 25 years of change in the city surrounding it while keeping the restaurant steeped in much-loved traditions, including complimentary pot likker for rst-time diners and pencils on the table for guests to mark their orders with.

“For Mary Mac’s, tradition is everything,” Ferrell says. “ ere’s not many places you can go back to a er 40, 50 years and basically have the same menu. … So it’s comforting, as well as comfort food, to just come back home and see the same faces and enjoy meals that you grew up with.”

Founder Mary McKenzie first opened the restaurant in 1945 with 75 seats; today, it has six dining rooms and seats 400 at a time. An average of 2,000 guests are served each day.

Generations of families return time and again to experience the same authentic hospitality and southern staples like fried chicken, sweet potato sou é and collard greens that the restaurant is known for.

“With Emory University, Georgia State and Georgia Tech all right here, we’ve fed so many students,” Ferrell says. “Some stay in Atlanta and have families, and they all dine here and eat with us. And those that move around the world, they’re always coming back in.”

People visit from all over, and the restaurant’s walls are lined with photos of some its well-known guests, like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, James Brown, Justin Bieber and even the Dalai Lama.

A Tallahassee, Fla., native, Ferrell was born into the hospitality industry – his family developed some of the state’s rst tourist inns, and his grandmother still owned two roadside inns in Pensacola when he was a boy. It was there that he rst helped guests by carrying their luggage and getting them ice. “I learned at an early age that hospitality pays. I’d get a nickel or a dime maybe a quarter tip,” he recalls. “I loved it.”

Growing up, his Aunt Frankie embedded in him both the importance of southern hospitality and his love of southern food.

“She was quite a cook,” he says. “Anytime you would walk into her house or her kitchen, she had two stoves, two refrigerators, three or four tables all pulled together with different tablecloths.” And of course those tables were groaning with southern classics like fried chicken, vegetables and cornbread.

“She was so intent on making sure you were well taken care of. She’d fix you an ice tea, fix you something to eat. And I’ve always loved that,” he says. “It’s like coming home, and you’re welcome.”

The seed was planted for the rest of Ferrell’s career.

He later attended Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality, then made his way to Atlanta in 1979. It was at Florida State where he met Marie, daughter of former Mary Mac owner Margaret Lupo, who had run the restaurant since the 1960s. The two became good friends. Marie later went on to marry another close friend, industry veteran Steve Nygren. When Marie’s mother decided it was time to retire, the family knew John was the right person to continue the legacy of Mary Mac’s.

“I always wanted a small restaurant, and I knew I wanted to do southern food because I knew it,” Ferrell says. “But I never dreamed I would be doing something as big as Mary Mac’s.”

The restaurant has since won awards and recognition from all over the country – even a proclamation from the Georgia State Legislature in 2011 declaring Mary Mac’s “Atlanta’s Dining Room” – but for Ferrell, there’s nothing like hearing from guests about how much the restaurant means to them.

“It’s just the customers who really keep you excited about being in the business,” Ferrell says. “It’s the sweet little notes – now emails or tweets or whatever you read – that make it all worthwhile.” – Christy Simo

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An Eye on Restaurant Design

Saturday, September 30th, 2017
Bread and Butterfly Interior

Bread and Butterfly

By Nancy Wood

When Meyer Davis Studio won a 2017 James Beard Award for best restaurant design for Ford Fry’s St. Cecelia this past May, it was the first time a Georgia restaurant concept won the award.

But it wasn’t a surprise to those in the know – thanks to a handful of talented design firms, Georgia restaurants have been upping their game when it comes to creating an experience for guests.

Especially in Atlanta, where new restaurants are opening – and closing – at a breakneck pace and competition is fierce, restaurateurs know good design can help tip the scales in their favor. And they are increasingly turning to architecture and design firms to help turn their vision into reality.

Why work with a design firm? Because it takes more than that great idea or mouth-watering dish to be successful. When opening a restaurant, the to-do list is long and potentially costly: creating a business plan, setting a budget, finding and securing a location, working with a landlord, finding a contractor, permitting, working with a kitchen designer, determining plumbing and electrical needs, layout, lighting, color palettes, artwork – down to the perfect seating and the size of the tables.

Each part of the process plays a huge part in whether your restaurant will keep its doors open in the long run, no matter what type of place you’re envisioning. And it takes careful planning, smart design, creativity, collaboration – and time.

Billy and Kristin Allin, owners of Decatur-based Cakes & Ale and Inman Park’s Proof Bakeshop found out just how beneficial a good design team could be when they built their latest venture – Bread & Butterfly in the Inman Park neighborhood of Atlanta. For the first version of Cakes & Ale, Kristin Allin says they “started off doing things on our own. When we moved Cakes & Ale into a larger space we used an architect, but he didn’t specialize in restaurant design.”

Admitting that they learned a lot from the first two iterations of restaurants, “when Butterfly came along,” she says, “we knew we wanted to go full-on with a restaurant design and architecture group.”

After interviewing several groups, the Allins choose Square Feet Studio, run by husband and wife team John and Vivian Bencich. The studio has also designed local restaurants such as Staplehouse, White Oak Kitchen and Kimball House.

“If you want to have a restaurant that feels put together and you want to get the concept right and the flow,” Allin says, “it’s important to engage a design firm. I feel like Square Feet got what we were talking about right away,” she adds, “and that’s very important.”

Longtime restaurant designer and principal architect of The Johnson Studio, Bill Johnson, agrees that ‘chemistry’ is a crucial element when restauranteurs are choosing architects and interior designers. “Your design firm needs to be one you feel comfortable with,” he says. “You have to be able to communicate ideas and be on the same page.”

Ideas and Expectations
One of the biggest challenges architects and designers face is unrealistic expectations of restaurant owners. Experienced design firms provide more than the look of the interior. “It’s the foundation that allows the designs to really work,” says John Bencich of Square Feet Studio. “We often help owners finish out their business plans first so they can check the feasibility of their expectations.”

“It’s important that people get in touch with reality sooner than later,” emphazises Bill Johnson, whose Atlanta-based firm has been designing restaurant concepts across the world and in Georgia, such as Atlas, Bistro Niko and Ecco, for years. “Mistakes can be costly. You can have great vision, but it has to be possible and feasible.”

Ecco

Ecco restaurant

Most owners, according to Johnson, are aware that restaurants are expensive to build and take a long time – generally a year. “I usually tell clients to budget 10 percent for design,” he says. Then costs are put to each line item in a business plan so owners can see the reality of their budget and balance that budget across the vendors and tradesmen needed to complete a project.

“The kitchen is the gatekeeper to the cost,” John Bencich says. Because there are so many variables in a project, owners can assume that the majority of their budget will go toward what’s behind the scenes.

“In the beginning, it’s an investigative process,” says Vivian Bencich. “We have to determine what the project is, and we ask a lot of questions.”

Many of those questions focus on the obvious: How long it will take? What will it cost? What are the expectations from a landlord, contractor or the architect/designer?

Other questions designers want answered include: What kind of restaurant is it going to be? What level of service or formality will it have? What is the price point? How often do you want to turn the tables? What’s the beverage program? Is there a host?

For restauranteurs, it’s critical to collaborate with their design team throughout the process. Discussing what the vibe of a place might be – from the food being served to the potential guests – sets the direction for a project and guides architect/design firms toward the great design ideas and solutions. As John Bencich puts it: “The best projects are the clients who have a strong point of view and want to execute it with a high level of detail.”

Chefs and owners even go as far as sharing potential menus with their architects and designers, which can set the tone for the look and feel of the space. While a chef might be more specific about the food, an owner may be more concerned with the type of patron he or she is trying to attract or how many tables will fit safely in a space. The frequent conversations that help define the details of a concept often include ideas from other restaurants both the owner and the designers have seen.

“One of the things every restauranteur in the world does,” says Bill Johnson, “is look at every other restaurant. They study what other people do to see what’s new, what’s successful and what’s not.”

“Getting inspiration from what’s happening in other cities and bringing that back to Atlanta adds a certain level of sophistication to design,” says Vivian Bencich. Adds their client, Kristin Allin, “A lot of what we’ve done comes from our travels and places we’ve lived. When we see something that we wish we had here, that usually starts driving the whole process.”

Concept, Location and Look
Another important factor is how a particular location will work with a certain concept. A space that may already be set up for a restaurant can dictate the layout of a new concept and potentially save money in the long run. However, undeveloped spaces offer owners, architects and designers a blank canvas – and a lot of options.

“In some spaces,” says Bill Johnson, “it’s very clear that the front door needs to be here, the bar in this area, the kitchen here and so forth. We like to look at as many options as we can,” he says. By working through the process with his clients, Johnson says, “We can narrow the focus. By the time we’ve gone over the options several times, everyone has been part of the process and understands why we are where we are in terms of the style of the restaurant.”

At Bread & Butterfly, for example, the space was small and intimate, and the Allin’s wanted a French café feel. By working closely with Square Feet Studio, the design ended up with a smaller kitchen and a ‘layering effect,’ with one of the dining rooms featuring glass doors that could be open to the street.. “They were upfront about the food and the feel,” says Vivian Bencich. “and very collaborative.”

For another one of Atlanta’s current popular restaurants, Ford Fry’s The Optimist, the design team led by Smith Hanes turned an old-school fish house into a seafood paradise, complete with a casual oyster bar. And a review of the firm’s design for Richards’ Southern Fried in the Old Fourth Ward area of Atlanta touted the retro, glitzy look of the food stall complete with marquee-style signage.

It’s important to take the existing space into account when designing a restaurant, too. For Edgar’s Proof & Provision, located in the basement of the histori Georgian Terrace Hotel in Midtown Atlanta, Seiber Design used exposed brick walls to reflect the century-old building and contrasted that with concrete floors and industrial elements scattered throughout the space.

And good design is not reserved just for high-end, fine-dining types of restaurants. Seiber Design also helped convert a former service station in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood into Yeah! Burger. The restaurant’s dedication to environmentally friendly principles and sustainably sourced food is reflected in the reclaimed, recycled materials used throughout the interior.

For some restauranteurs, there’s a particular brand recognition they need, says John Bencich. “For others, they just need a place they can serve good food. Fast casual is not the same as fine dining or small-format food stalls. There are different challenges associated with each of them.”

In a clever approach, the team at ai3, run by Lucy Aiken-Johnson, her husband, Patrick Johnson, and Dan Maas, literally built the interior of Kevin Gillespie’s Gunshow on-site in full-size cardboard first. By working out the details this way, they fulfilled the celebrity chef’s vision of a fine dining experience in a sparely designed space.

Matching concepts to locations is nothing new for another famous chef in Atlanta, Kevin Rathbun. One of the instigators behind the now booming Krog Street scene, Rathbun took a twist of his own by opening his newest location, KR SteakBar, at the Atlanta Decorative Arts Center (ADAC).

KR Steakbar

KR Steakbar

Inspired by a restaurant he saw at the Miami Design Center, he remembers thinking, “it was a weird location for a restaurant, but the place was packed.”

“It was kind of location that a lot of people wouldn’t think of,” says Rathbun’s long-time design collaborator, Bill Johnson. “It has great access and that great outdoor space.”

“My other restaurants, Ratbun’s, Kevin Rathbun Steak and Krog Bar, were all off the beaten path,” says Rathbun. “I thought I could redevelop that concept in town, and I wanted something accessible with plenty of parking.”

After studying the location, Rathbun and the team at The Johnson Studios created a warm, inviting space that felt like a comfortable, neighborhood place. “I knew I wanted to do Italian meets steak,” says Rathbun,”and Bill and his team can take a few key words and go to work.” Like all of Rathbun’s spaces, KR SteakBar includes a private room behind the kitchen for guests who may want a quieter experience.

“Anybody can have an idea and throw something together, but people don’t realize it’s not that easy,” Rathbun says. “There’s a reason they’re the architects. Food and service may be the first focus, but the design is what makes people come back.”

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A Q&A with President, COO and Executive Chef Marc Taft

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

By Nancy Wood

It all started with chicken on a vineyard. Those free-range feathered fowl pecking around Marc Taft and his wife Elizabeth while on a trip to California are what prompted them to start their own chicken-centric restaurant. Since it opened in 2011 in Cobb County, Chicken and the Egg has hatched a budding empire across Atlanta’s northern suburbs that shows no signs of stopping.

Marc Taft

Chef Marc Taft

An Alabama native, Taft spent a number of years traveling the country before his job brought him to Atlanta in 2009, when he opened the Hotel Palomar and Pacci Restaurant for Kimpton Hotels and Restaurants.

When Chicken and the Egg opened, it was one of the few chef-driven restaurants in the suburbs committed to using local and sustainable product as much as possible. Thanks to the restaurant’s success, he opened Brine Seafood Shack this past April in Alpharetta’s Avalon development. And there’s two more concepts ready to come on board: FEED – Fried Chicken & Such opening this month at The Battery Atlanta, part of the Braves’s new home at SunTrust Park, and CO-OP Community Table + Bar, which will open next spring in Forsyth County’s HALCYON development.

To manage the growing empire of restaurants, he recently launched Southern Fried Hospitality Group, where he serves as president, COO and executive chef and which also plans to offer restaurant development, consulting and management services to others in the industry.

Taft has much experience in that department – he’s opened more than 40 restaurants across the country during the course of his career. He also currently serves as senior director of openings and transitions for New York-based The ONE Group, whose concepts include STK, Bagatelle and Asellina.

In 2014, he was named a Georgia Grown Executive Chef. Selected by the Georgia Department of Agriculture in partnership with the Georgia Restaurant Association, the chefs serve as ambassadors for Georgia’s farmers and crops while increasing awareness about the availability of quality local products in the state’s restaurant scene.

He was also invited to participate in the third annual Georgia Grown dinner at the Beard House in New York City this past June. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Obviously that’s a bucket list thing for any chef.”

Restaurant Informer talked with Taft about what it’s like to open new restaurant concepts, why he feels it’s important to use sustainable products and how cultivating a solid workforce is one of the biggest challenges the industry faces today. Following are edited highlights from the conversation. – The Editors

 

RI: How did you first become a part of the restaurant industry?

MT: I was a teenager who needed a job. I worked in a Chick-fil-A when I was 15. Chick-fil-A was the greatest first experience in the hospitality business. The way they treat their people and the culture they have. It’s the first impression of what hospitality is supposed to be.

 

RI: Is that how you got involved with chicken?

MT: No – I got that from my grandmother in East Tennessee – just growing up and eating her fried chicken a lot. Growing up that was my favorite meal – fried chicken, mashed potatoes and green beans.

FEED – Fried Chicken & Such, which will serve primarily fried chicken, is opening this month at The Battery Atlanta.

What do you like best about Georgia?

RI: The products we can get. I’m a Georgia Grown Executive Chef representing the state. I just got done cooking at the Beard House [in New York City] with the Georgia Grown Chefs, and it’s just the amount of products we can get and use that’s so accessible.

 

RI: Why did you decide to open your restaurants outside the perimeter vs. intown Atlanta?

MT: I ran a very popular restaurant in Midtown – we were on Esquire’s Top 20 Best New Restaurants in U.S. list. AltoRex rooftop lounge was named the hottest bar in Atlanta, so we definitely had something in the city working with Kimpton and running the restaurant. But I lived in Marietta. Just living up there and seeing the void of chef-driven restaurants is probably what started it and why we opened Chicken and the Egg back in 2011. We were kind of trailblazers out there, because no one else had really gone outside the perimeter at the time.

Doug Turbush came in about five months after us in East Cobb, and now Ford Fry is doing something out there. The Indigo Road guys from Charleston are out there. I think it’s a market. As long as people are working inside the city and they live outside – trying to deliver that chef-driven quality without having to drive into the city to eat. That’s probably what started the whole thing.

 

RI: How did you come up with your concepts for Chicken and the Egg, Brine Seafood Shack and FEED – Fried Chicken & Such?

MT: Chicken and the Egg was probably not going to be the first restaurant I opened. It was way too much like my childhood, and it was probably something I was trying to avoid because as a chef, you don’t want to be known as just the guy who cooks southern comfort food. But I think it was the right concept for the space we had in Marietta and for the market that we were trying to serve.

If you really look back at some of the first menus we had and some of the first things we did, they were probably a little more ‘cheffy’ than what they are now. It’s important that we listen to our guests and don’t get inside of our heads as chefs and be so arrogant that people will eat our food just because we cook it. Listen to what they want. Different markets want different things.

The concept itself came when my wife and I were visiting California. We were staying on a vineyard. We were sitting on the veranda, and I’m just looking around at these heritage free-range chickens walking around. We had just come off of 10 days eating the freshest food I’ve pretty much ever had. I looked at that chicken and thought about how sustainable that animal is, and that’s where the name Chicken and the Egg came from. It represents the cycle of life and sustainability and the impact we put on this planet.

Chicken and the Egg, which opened in 2011 in Cobb County, serves southern-tinged “modern farmstead fare.ˮ

We’ve won some awards with our fried chicken, and it’s very popular. So it was kind of a natural thing when the Braves approached me about doing a restaurant [FEED – Fried Chicken & Such] and wanting to do fried chicken. That was an easy decision to make, so we’re doing a fast-casual version of Chicken and the Egg with our fried chicken.

Brine Seafood Shack up in Avalon – they asked me what I wanted to do. I wanted to show that I could do something outside of one genre of food, so we decided to do Brine Seafood Shack. I just spent some time, about a year in L.A., doing some work for a company, and my chef d’cuisine had spent three years in Maine, so we kind of meshed the two – New England and California, sort of Nantucket meets Santa Monica – and created Brine Seafood Shack.

 

RI: Hows it doing?

MT: Super busy. Avalon is a different location than obviously Marietta. After six years, we have a good finger on the pulse of what Marietta wants. What we’re trying to do with Brine Seafood Shack is we’re trying to offer a very approachable food experience but use the finest ingredients and bring in our fish following the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch [sustainable seafood program]. It’s initially a challenge. It’s an educational process – hey, this isn’t the shrimp you’re getting at that chain restaurant. This is shrimp that was caught yesterday in the Gulf and brought up to us. This is different – this is fresh like something you’re going to get eating at the beach. It’s going to cost a little bit more.

I think people love it at the end of day. Since we’ve opened, we’ve fed about 20,000 people. That’s the number of covers we’ve done since April 13. That’s a lot of people to feed.

Brine. Photo by Ed Carter

 

RI: Tell me a little bit about your upcoming restaurant, CO-OP Community Table.

MT: We’re excited about expanding up on McFarland [Road] doing Co-Op Community Table in the Halcyon development in Forsyth County. And we’re going to have the opportunity to do a food hall version of our fried chicken, and we’re also going to do our first burger concept up there. I do not know the name of the burger concept, because I swore I would never do a burger concept. I’m only doing it because the developer really wanted a burger concept and asked if I would do both. Linton did it down in Ponce City – and I don’t try to put myself in the same shoes as Linton Hopkins, but I think we have the ability to be that outside-the-perimeter version and offer a really great burger product and an alternative to a lot of the burger chains in Forsyth County.

FEED, which is fast casual – obviously we’re going to do high volume here [at the Battery Atlanta]. We’re opening the FEED food hall version up in Halcyon, and in early 2018, we’ll be opening a FEED over in Peachtree Corners [in a] new food court development across from The Forum.

 

RI: Your restaurants use a lot of local, sustainable and organic produce, along with humanely raised animals. Why do you think these attributes are important for a restaurant to incorporate?

MT: People expect now when they go to a chef-driven restaurant and the chef is in the house sourcing – whether its farm-to-table or ocean-to-table – that’s part of the cost of doing business, of being a chef. People’s expectations that you are sourcing responsibly as a chef is there. The onus is on us to follow through with that.
You’re starting to see the days of having every single farm and every single place you source stuff from [listed on the menu] kind of over. Because that’s just the expectation. If you look at our website for Chicken and the Egg, we list links to our partners, but I don’t necessarily put everyone on our menu because it becomes very cliché and I shouldn’t have to do that for people to know that I source things responsibly.

But from a seafood perspective, I learned about the Monterey Bay Seafood Watch a long time ago. They’ve done a great job globally in promoting sustainable fishery – beyond just the wildlife piece of it. They’re really into how the fleets are run, the amount of fuel that’s burned, the way the fishermen are treated – making sure they have a living wage. I think it’s a great program. They have an app that guests can download on their phone and look at fish and what they should be eating or buying themselves.

Brine Mussels Marinara by Heidi Geldhauser

We follow their recommendations on what fish we should be buying at the time, and that’s always changing. Some of our fish is even geo-tagged – especially stuff coming from the Gulf. We literally can have a tag that tells us the exact coordinates of where it was caught, who the fisherman was, the captain of the boat, what the boat name is and all about the species. So it’s easy to track things back to its origin.

 

RI: What was behind your decision to form Southern Fried Hospitality and to include restaurant development services in your offerings? 

MT: I think it was natural as we knew we were growing – we’ve got a pretty aggressive development plan. We knew we needed a management company to oversee our operations, so that’s where Southern Fried Hospitality was born. I do a lot of consulting work and a lot of F&B work both in lodging as well as in restaurants. It’s a natural progression that we do it as a company.

So we not only offer a management company to manage our own restaurants, but we can be a management company to help other operators that need someone to step in and help them become profitable. From a developmental side, I’m pushing 60 restaurant openings under my belt, so opening a restaurant is an art, following a critical path and making sure everything has its place and everything is taken care of when you open.

Chicken and Egg Restaurant

There are a lot of people who are consultants out there, but they’ve really never opened that many restaurants. So we thought a development service as part of our restaurants would be important for the future, whether we’re developing hotel F&B restaurants or we’re running them. That’s probably something we’ll look at in the future as we start slowing down our own buildout – we’ll start doing that a little more.

 

RI: Doesnt that take you out of the kitchen?

MT: It does – but Atlanta’s pretty aggressive about expecting chefs to be around. We see a graveyard of chefs from other cities who have come in with big names, and their restaurants have all closed because Atlanta [diners] expect to be able to talk to that person.

No matter how many restaurants we have, you’ll see me in one of my kitchens. When I go to Brine, I’m around the kitchen. When I go to Chicken and the Egg, you’ll see me in the kitchen; I’m in the dining room talking to people, and I think that’s an important aspect.

As with any company growing, it’s important that I surround myself with very qualified people and talented chefs. I’ve got two up-and-coming chefs now – one is chef d’cuisine at Brine and one is chef d’cuisine at Chicken and the Egg. They’re going to be rock stars in the city. The goal is to continue to recruit and create a company that people want to work for, so I can continue that growth and still have those same expectations from guests that they can continue getting that same quality product from our kitchens.

 

RI: Whats the biggest difference between operating multiple restaurants in different parts of town vs. just focusing on one single restaurant concept?

MT: Some of our brands – like FEED – you’re going to see more than one of those. I’ve never been a big fan of having “Part Twos” of certain restaurants. Chicken and the Egg would have to find a very unique place for it to be as successful as the first one. It’s a way we can express our creativity as chefs to be able to do that.

I’ve got 33 years of hospitality experience at this point, so I don’t find it as challenging as I might have 20 years ago. It’s easy to multi-task. Once again, it’s about having a great team. My partner, Tom Foust, has been in the Atlanta area for 20 years; he has 35+ years in the business. My director of operations, Fran Kieffer, he’s got over 35 years experience in the business and he‘s been around Atlanta for quite some time. When I’m not in a restaurant they’re in a restaurant, so we’re able to keep our standards and continue to grow our culture as a company.

 

RI: Who is the most influential person to you in the restaurant industry?

MT: Probably two different people have been the most influential to me. One is Karim Lakhani [former executive chef at the Watergate Hotel in Washington, D.C. and the Latham Hotel in Baltimore]. I got to experience him when he was a VP of F&B when I worked for AGI Hospitality. He’s probably the first person I worked with who really had a tremendous passion and demanded us to deliver. I’m very driven, but Karim was more driven and pushed me to push past my limits and do more than I could do. I will always be indebted to him to really make me see that I could always do better no matter what I’m doing. He’s probably one of the biggest influences I’ve had in my career.

The second person who really influenced me in a leadership regard was John Inserra. He was the Senior VP of Restaurants for Kimpton Hotels. He brought me back to work with The ONE Group to manage their acquisitions and transitions. He took up where Karim left off and really pushed me to be even better later in my career when I had done a lot. It’s easy to sit back and say ‘here’s some success,’ and he’s the one that makes me everyday say “What’s next?” “What do I need to do better?” and “What am I doing now that’s not right?”

Besides my grandmother, those two people have probably had the most influence on me.

 

RI: Tell me about your grandmother.

MT: She lived in East Tennessee. I spent a lot of time with my grandmother the first few years of my life. I stayed with her while my mom went to school and went to work. Growing up, I remember looking forward to those trips – when we moved to Alabama, we went back once a month, and my time was all spent with her in the kitchen.

My grandfather wanted me out playing on his ham radio and doing electronic stuff, but I just wanted to be with my grandmother. She taught me a lot about cooking even if it was from observation – and as I got older, by me asking questions. They had a small farm as well, and she was always canning and preserving.

There’s probably a lot of chefs who say they were influenced by their grandmother, but she’s probably had one of the biggest impacts of anyone in my life on who I am. She was just a very loving and caring person. I think probably my passion for food and cooking started really early with her, and she’s probably responsible for a lot of things, especially Chicken and the Egg. A lot of my recipes started as her recipes.

 

RI: Wheres your favorite place to eat in Georgia besides your own restaurants?

MT: I enjoy eating at Jay Swift’s restaurant [Noble Fin]. I enjoy going to Colletta and Oak [Steakhouse] up at Avalon. The Indigo Road Group does a fantastic job when it comes to hospitality. I like Cooks and Soldiers a lot – the Castellucci Group. I really like some of Ford Fry’s restaurants – St. Cecilia’s and No. 246. Sometimes it’s just grabbing a burger at The Red Eyed Mule in Marietta. They have a great burger.

I eat simply. We don’t do a lot of upscale dining just because we save that for special occasions, and I can cook it at home, too. It’s really just going out to enjoy the company and have something that tastes good.

 

RI: What do you see as some of the biggest challenges for the restaurant industry right now?

MT: Labor is a huge challenge for all of us. Twenty years ago, there was a lot of passion in the industry. Maybe not all the methods were appropriate, but there was a lot of passion and people would do anything in the kitchen to be successful and to learn.

That’s not the mentality in today’s workforce. You see a lot more people care more about their experiences out in the world instead of devoting time to work and trying to build for the future. We’ll see how that plays out 20 years from now.

The kids just come in, they don’t show up for interviews, they talk back to you when you’re trying to teach them something, they quit on a dime. If you say anything they do is wrong, they’re either in tears or they quit. They want off for a party, and you say “Sorry, you didn’t request in time,” they quit so they can go to a party. It’s not rational thinking to most of us adults.

The industry is hard as everyone in it knows – it’s grueling hours, it’s hard work, it’s hot. You’re taking care of guests who all have an opinion of what you should be doing. Somehow, we’re going to have to start younger and teach them – doing the school farming thing or talking to kids earlier – because at the end of the day, trades are important. Everyone can’t be a rocket scientist.

We have to be realistic with our kids. There are a lot of trades they can go into that they can be successful in, and there’s nothing wrong with cooking or being an electrician or a plumber or any of the things that require a learned skill.

So labor is the No. 1 thing we all have to face as well as fighting for a very small workforce.

 

RI: What are some of the trends you are seeing right now in the restaurant world?

MT: One of the biggest trends – and I think it will come back – is fine dining has been out for a while. It’s kind of a bad word. It’s almost like a splurge that’s hard to justify.

We’re finding more ways to open more casual restaurants that deliver a quality product, just in a different way. Casual dining is much more popular now, and you don’t see as many white tablecloths in any restaurant.

Chefs have to be approachable now because people are very knowledgeable about food – they watch a lot of TV and they read a lot of books. They expect the chef to be knowledgeable.

People care more about what they’re putting in their bodies than they used to. Being able to educate our guests on what we’re serving them and knowing origins of what we’re serving is very important and trending.

We’re always going to have the dietary trend – whether it’s the gluten-free approach or vegan or whatever. They’re more likely to tell you how they want to eat [now] than they used to. Very rarely do I get a ticket in the kitchen that they order the dish exactly how it is on the menu. It’s like a build-your-own mentality now, and we have to – as chefs – be very flexible about that. The people who aren’t flexible are finding out their business is dropping. People want to eat what they want to eat.

The technology piece is pretty simple – one is for recruiting staff. The newer generations use a lot of technology, and we should be using new technology to be able to be more approachable to them – make things easier for them. Whether it’s how they schedule a request or how our schedules get out to everybody.

They don’t come in and look at the board and take a picture of it or write it down the way we used to do. Instead of everything being handwritten and kept in a calendar – our payroll systems, our accounting systems – almost everything we do, we’re trying to upgrade and use technology to our advantage so we can grow at the rate we’re trying to grow and be able to slowly recruit people into the ranks that are required to run the company without just filling holes with bodies. We want the right people to continue the culture that we want to grow.

It’s important that we connect with our guests and that we’re anticipating their needs and that we are hearing their feedback. We [need to] find a better way for chefs and the community to communicate with each other so they can understand what we’re trying to do and we can hear back how we’re failing at that or how we’re being successful so we can continue that process.

           

RI: Why do you like being a part of the restaurant industry, and why did you decide to make a career out of it?

MT: Everything is different every single day – we never have the same day twice. Your guests are different coming in. The food is organic, and it changes with what the season is or where that plant came from or where that animal was raised. So you’re constantly having to hone your skills and constantly learn something new so it doesn’t get stagnant. That’s probably what I like most.

And I would not know as many people as I do in the Marietta community if I didn’t own that restaurant. I’ve met so many people in my community because of the restaurant, and it’s pretty cool.

 

RI: If you could decide your last meal, what would it be?

MT: My grandmother’s fried chicken that she cooked in – heaven forbid – lard in her cast iron pot really low and slow. I love that fried chicken. And probably mashed potatoes and southern-style green beans. A biscuit with sorghum on it.

I’m not a huge dessert fan, but my grandmother got me addicted to banana pudding. Every time I came to visit, she always had it. And I’m sure bourbon would find its way into that meal [Laughs].

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John Castellucci

Wednesday, July 12th, 2017

Castellucci Group

Atlanta

John Castellucci

John Castellucci

John Castellucci grew up in the restaurant industry. His parents opened Sugo and he worked in that kitchen in middle and high school. “That’s where I got my first real restaurant experience,” he says.

By age 13 he knew his professional path: “I felt like cooking was something that not only I would enjoy most but also be good at. It aligned together and was an obvious choice for me.”

A graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, Castellucci worked in several kitchens, including RN74 in San Francisco, WD~50 in New York City, and Arzak in San Sebastián, Spain, before officially joining the family business in Atlanta.

Now the 25 year old is one of the owners as well as the head of culinary development for The Castellucci Hospitality Group. He helped relocate Double Zero to Emory Village, serves as executive sous chef for Cooks & Soldiers, and will helm the kitchen at the new Bar Mercado in Krog Street Market.

“Bar Mercado is going to be very traditional Spanish tapas,” he says. “Very ingredient driven, focused, with a fun, lively environment.” In preparation, Castellucci has been hitting the books – old Spanish cookbooks to be exact.

“I’ve been learning a lot about classic old-school Spanish techniques,” he says. “It’s nice to get back to the nuts and bolts, see how it’s been done for hundreds of years, the most traditional way to make something super delicious. That’s exciting for me.”

He predicts the restaurant industry will see more ethnic-driven restaurants. In particular, he thinks “people will be looking at South American food differently.”

Castellucci’s ultimate career goal is to “really keep my head down and keep progressing as a chef,” he says, “and hopefully create people under me who are as talented or more talented than myself, at whatever pace that may be – I don’t want a number as a goal. I’d like to be recognized in the city as one of the best restaurateurs with the best concepts.” – HP

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