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Takes One To Know One: What These Top Restaurateurs Say It Takes To Be A Success

What does it take to operate a successful restaurant in Atlanta's eatery fray? We got insight from some of the city's top restaurateurs during our Retail & Restaurant Roundup yesterday at the JW Marriott.

1. Restaurants Win Before Ever Opening


For a restaurateur, the success of a location happens well before the doors ever open for those first diners.

“80% of the success of a restaurant is already in place by the time you open,” says Brewed To Serve Restaurant Group's Alan LeBlanc (left, with CohnReznick's Stephanie O'Rourk and Bisnow's own Daniela Castellon), which owns Max Lagers and White Oak Kitchen & Cocktails.

Fixed costs need to be controlled: From the labor and food to detailed knowledge of who customers are and from where they will be coming. “You can be swimming really, really strongly, and you're still not making that nut” if you fail to solidify these factors, he says.

2. Keep Your Staff Happy


Miserable people don't make great food,” says Fifth Group Restaurants' Robby Kukler, owner of such restaurants as South City Kitchen, Ecco and Alma Cocina. That's because customers want quality and consistency in their meals “with no surprises.”

3. Being A Chef From NYC Isn't All That Alluring In ATL Anymore


Atlanta diners have grown in sophistication. Just because you're a named chef from a big city like New York doesn't mean you'll automatically win the affections of a fickle eating populace. “It's a sophisticated enough restaurant town now that we don't get all hot and bothered when a New York chef comes in,” says Revel's George Banks. He says he'd hesitate to lease a restaurant to an out-of-town operator since it may not intimately understand the local market.

4. Restaurant Staffing Is Getting Harder


With the unprecedented growth in eateries, finding great personnel is becoming more expensive and competitive. The best of the best in staff often get recruited by competing restaurants for more money. “The other problem is that we're really rapidly running out of back-of-house staff,” George says. Housing costs in the city are keeping some restaurant professionals out in the 'burbs as well. “It doesn't matter if you're talking about a $10/hour dish washer or a $100k/year chef or general manager,” Robby says.

Famed chef Tom Catherall (here) says restaurant rent is another cost adding to the struggles for some restaurateurs. “I've done some deals at some big spaces in town, and it's a lot of pressure for a restaurant to pay $70k/month and keep the [behinds] in the seats,” Tom says. “I mean, my payroll used to be a million dollars a month, and my old restaurants used to work, quite frankly, until my divorce.

5. Some Restaurants Are Struggling Now Just To Survive


Alan (third from right with George, PSG Construction's Trey Edwards, Tom, Stephanie and Robby) shared a secret struggle with some area operators: Even though they look like high-flying successes, behind the scenes, the restaurant could be falling apart, unable to keep pace with a surge of new competition as more restaurants open their doors. “I do think supply and demand is getting a little bit unbalanced,” Alan says, comparing some operations to ducks in the water: “They look like they're floating on the water nice and neat, but underneath” those duck feet are paddling as hard as possible just to stay afloat.