Here to Serve Restaurants abruptly shuttered 10 of Atlanta’s most popular restaurants on Monday night, leaving about 1,000 employees and even more patrons bewildered.
In addition to Prime, Shucks, Smash, Strip and Twist, the 19-year-old private company operated three Noche locations (Brookhaven, Virginia Highland and Vinings) and two locations of Coast (Buckhead and Johns Creek). The closing en masse appear contrary to Atlanta’s recent eatery boon, with a bounty of openings in shopping districts such as Buckhead Atlanta, Ponce City Market, Krog Street and Avalon.
Restaurant owners have not said much to explain the closings. As of late Tuesday, Leigh Catherall, owner and CEO, had not returned requests for comment regarding the shakeup of a once powerful empire among Atlanta restaurants.
A statement on the company’s website hinted that owners hadn’t totally surrendered.
“We apologize for the inconvenience, we are working on reorganization,” the statement read. “Hopefully we will be Here to Serve you again soon.”
Director of operations, Phil Handley, responded briefly via text message. “I may have contributions to something moving forward in a day or so but now I am simply trying to help staff as much as possible.”
While employees and diners were shocked by the closings, the restaurant group’s troubles had been visible for some time. In the last year, it closed several concepts, including Shout in Midtown, Aja in Buckhead and Goldfish in Perimeter Mall.
The company was also the subject of a federal court lawsuit in 2014 by the owners of Phipps Plaza and Lenox Square in Buckhead, seeking to have Twist at Phipps and Prime at Lenox evicted from the malls.
The claim was that Here to Serve founder, chef Tom Catherall, had breached the leasing agreement after the restaurants’ ownership was transferred to Leigh Catherall in 2012 as part of the couple’s divorce settlement. It wasn’t until late 2014 that it was disclosed that Leigh Catherall would be the full owner and CEO of Here to Serve, and that chef Catherall would retire.
Then came news of the departure of David Abes, who had served as the company’s director of operations since 2000. Abes left to join LDV Hospitality, which owns 22 restaurants, including Corso Coffee and newly opened Dolce Italian in Atlanta.
“David Abes was really the heart and soul behind that operation,” said Mara Davis, co-host for Atlanta Eats TV and radio. “He was the one who kept the wheels turning. Without him, that was an extreme game changer.”
During his tenure, Abes saw the group grow from three restaurants to 14.
“It was time for a change with the divorce and all that stuff,” Abes said Tuesday of his decision to leave Here to Serve the end of last year.
“We had a great niche,” Abes said. “They were all different types of concepts. We took care of our guests. It was great, quality food and a great price point. I guess they lost the way.”
The way began with Tom Catherall, who played a definitive role in Atlanta’s dining scene.
“He was the first Atlanta chef to do this sort of early ’90s fusion,” recalled Christiane Lauterbach, a veteran Atlanta foodie who writes for Atlanta Magazine and publishes monthly dining newsletter Knife & Fork. “Azalea was his first restaurant – Southern with fusion touches. Then he opened a more casual place in Lenox Square called Tom Tom.”
That was in 1993. Three years later, he founded Here to Serve Restaurants and opened Prime.
“Then there was a barrage: opening in nearly every mall in Atlanta,” said Lauterbach. “He was everywhere where people were flashy and wanted to spend money.”
In a AJC profile of Catherall published last year, Wendell Brock wrote “It’s hard to visit a major shopping area and not see a Catherall restaurant.”
“He was one of the first celebrity chefs in Atlanta,” remarked Davis. “Tom was really doing unique stuff. He had a pretty great formula: The restaurants were sexy. The drinks were at the forefront. He became more and more successful. I think a lot of restaurants in Atlanta took his lead.
“Ford Fry, in a sense, is doing what Tom Catherall was doing. In a city like Atlanta, there’s so much competition. If you aren’t on the top of your game, people are going to move on to the latest and greatest.”
Besides throwing Here to Serve’s employees for a loop, hungry diners have unexpectedly found doors locked at some of their favorite eateries.
On Tuesday afternoon, the lunch crowd at Town Brookhaven was surprised to find Noche and Shucks Oyster and Wine Bar closed for business. Several diners ended up at the door of Lucky’s Burger & Brew instead.
“I don’t know what the whole story is, but it is just unfortunate that all these people will lose their jobs and Atlanta loses 10 really good restaurants,” said Ted Lescher, general manager of Lucky’s Burger & Brew.
Diners certainly will find other options, but Lescher, who counts the chef at Noche as a friend, worries about the hundreds of restaurant employees now looking for work. “I have shut down a restaurant myself in the past, and it is no fun. As owners, we are not just responsible for customers having a good time, we are also responsible for our employees making a living,” he said.
Chris Clark, President & CEO, Georgia Chamber of Commerce, also lamented the closings.
“Atlanta has a long tradition and reputation of supporting exciting chefs and delivering unique dining experiences that has helped us continue to create a diverse hospitality environment,” Clark said Tuesday.
“So, when one of our premiere hospitality companies closes, even temporarily, it has an immediate impact on employees, families and the restaurant industry in the local area and region. We hope the Here to Serve brand reorganizes quickly and again serves up some great Georgia culinary experiences.”
Lescher and staff at the two-week-old Emory Village location of Lucky’s Burger & Brew were making phone calls on Tuesday to see if they could absorb some Here To Serve employees into positions as cooks and servers, he said.
A former employee set up a Facebook page for Here to Serve employees looking for work. By Tuesday afternoon, dozens of area restaurants had already posted job openings to the page.
“It is unfortunate for the Atlanta dining scene,” Lescher said of the demise of Here to Serve. “But as they say, for every door that closes, there is another one that opens.”
One person who did have a comment regarding recent developments was Tom Catherall.
“I am humbled by the outpouring of concern I have received in light of the recent news of Here To Serve Restaurants’ re-organization/temporary closures,” he said in a statement. “Though I am no longer at the helm of the company, I left it in good hands with the over 1,000 dedicated employees and the thousands of loyal Friends of Tom’s who were an integral part of its success.
“Atlanta was my choice to make my home and build my business due in part to the incredible restaurant industry and its dedicated work force. The support I have witnessed from this town to those employees who were caught by the surprise announcement from the new management, and the patrons who have indicated a sense of loss to the city, confirms my belief that Atlanta has a great sense of pride and community.”
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