Restaurateurs ‘embrace the suck’ as they adapt during COVID-19

Local Three employees Carter Vaughn and Kelli Bullock bring orders for curbside pickup at the upscale Buckhead restaurant. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Local Three employees Carter Vaughn and Kelli Bullock bring orders for curbside pickup at the upscale Buckhead restaurant. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Local Three, Muss & Turner’s and MTH Pizza all open for takeout

“It was the most harrowing experience we’ve ever been in,” Ryan Turner said.

Via Zoom, Turner and his longtime business partners, chefs Todd Mussmann and Chris Hall, recounted the days in mid-March when life, as restaurant operators knew it, came to a screeching halt.

A snack pack ($31.93) from Local Three is a joy to unwrap. It contains fresh potato chips with a container of Vidalia onion dip; hummus with crudites and pita for dipping; barbecued pork rinds with a spicy-tangy pepper vinegar; a pint of pimento cheese; a container of Emily G’s jam to smear on a stash of butter crackers; and a big chocolate brownie with four individual milk containers. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
A snack pack ($31.93) from Local Three is a joy to unwrap. It contains fresh potato chips with a container of Vidalia onion dip; hummus with crudites and pita for dipping; barbecued pork rinds with a spicy-tangy pepper vinegar; a pint of pimento cheese; a container of Emily G’s jam to smear on a stash of butter crackers; and a big chocolate brownie with four individual milk containers. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

The arrival of COVID-19 forced them to furlough 145 employees across five locations – Local Three and adjacent private club War Horse in Buckhead; and Muss & Turner’s, its hidden speakeasy, Eleanor’s, and MTH Pizza — all in Smyrna.

“Our message to the staff was, ‘Expect the unexpected. Be prepared to embrace the suck.’ If we do, we’ll come out stronger and wiser, which was our experience in the great recession,” Turner said.

Local Three’s Cajun Night family meal ($89), included a portion of blackened redfish and Gulf shrimp on a bed of dirty rice, a quart of sauce piquant to dress it up, chicken and andouille gumbo, a lettuce salad with buttermilk dressing, and a freshly baked mini blueberry cake. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Local Three’s Cajun Night family meal ($89), included a portion of blackened redfish and Gulf shrimp on a bed of dirty rice, a quart of sauce piquant to dress it up, chicken and andouille gumbo, a lettuce salad with buttermilk dressing, and a freshly baked mini blueberry cake. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Although the Unsukay group never shut down its three restaurants during the pandemic, they had to make some quick moves. They added online ordering capabilities to the Local Three and Muss & Turner’s websites, a feature that already existed for the pizzeria that they opened last fall. Had they not switched point of service providers in January, “we would not have been as nimble,” Turner said.

While their current situation is nowhere near settled, at least they’re not having to put out fires every hour. “Long-term planning is one week out, which is a luxury compared to eight weeks ago,” Turner said.

You can pair food from Local Three with a bottle of Giving Kitchen label wine. Proceeds benefit Atlanta-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen, which provides emergency assistance to food-service workers facing unexpected hardship. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
You can pair food from Local Three with a bottle of Giving Kitchen label wine. Proceeds benefit Atlanta-based nonprofit Giving Kitchen, which provides emergency assistance to food-service workers facing unexpected hardship. LIGAYA FIGUERAS / LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

Each of their restaurants has required unique attention. MTH Pizza has been impacted the least, because pizza lends itself to takeout. Prior to the pandemic, less than half of 1 percent of Local Three’s business was carryout. Now, it’s all carryout. Family meals there are such a hit that they aren’t likely to go away when the crisis dies down, Turner said.

As for the decision about reopening for on-premises dining, “It has to be right for our employees, our guests and our business,” Hall said. “We are in the planning stages, making a floor chart, (figuring out) how to limit contact as much as possible, the wine list, how to keep doing to-go, what kind of staff we need, what does all that cost? We can’t run at a deficit.”

Local Three chef and partner Chris Hall directs traffic for curbside pickup at the restaurant. For Hall, the biggest discovery during these unprecedented times has been seeing how much people value restaurants. Food and drink are a vehicle for human connection. Restaurants are more than restaurants. They are centers of the community. And that community has kept us going during this time. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM
Local Three chef and partner Chris Hall directs traffic for curbside pickup at the restaurant. For Hall, the biggest discovery during these unprecedented times has been seeing how much people value restaurants. Food and drink are a vehicle for human connection. Restaurants are more than restaurants. They are centers of the community. And that community has kept us going during this time. LIGAYA FIGUERAS/LIGAYA.FIGUERAS@AJC.COM

And, they know that many things can’t go back to the way they were. Reservations-only or taking deposits are among possible strategies to ensure the safety of workers and guests, as well as the financial health of their businesses. “We are trying to be as thoughtful and innovative as we can be,” Turner said.

For Hall, the biggest discovery has been how much people value restaurants. “Food and drink are a vehicle for human connection,” he said. “Restaurants are more than restaurants. They are centers of the community. And that community has kept us going during this time.”

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

LOCAL THREE

Menu: limited a la carte menu of new American and comfort dishes

What's new: themed family meals that feed four to six ($75-125); snacks, including a truffle popcorn kit ($30), raw cookie dough by the quart ($19.93), and a snack pack ($31.93).

Alcohol: margarita and bloody mary cocktail kits, wine, beer

What I ordered: Cajun Night family meal, snack pack, Giving Kitchen chardonnay. This hearty meal included a massive portion of blackened redfish and Gulf shrimp on a bed of dirty rice, a quart of sauce piquant to dress it up, a quart of meaty chicken and andouille gumbo, a lettuce salad with sweet corn, red peppers and buttermilk dressing, and a freshly baked mini blueberry cake. The snack pack was a joy to unwrap: a big brown paper sack of fresh potato chips with Vidalia onion dip; hummus with crudites and pita for dipping; barbecued pork rinds with a spicy-tangy pepper vinegar; a pint of pimento cheese; Emily G's jam, to smear on a stash of butter crackers; and a big chocolate brownie with four individual milk containers. The meal and the snack pack are ideal for those who embrace leftovers. Hot and cold foods were packaged separately, and stapled shut. The wine was chilled.

Service options: contact-free curbside pickup; in-house delivery within 5 miles of the restaurant, further for large and group orders (call to inquire)

Safety protocols: adhering to all COVID-19 safety precautions and state guidelines; sanitation captains sanitize the restaurant every 30 minutes; all cooks and managers are ServSafe certified; patrons cannot enter the building

Address, phone: 3290 Northside Parkway, Atlanta, 404-968-2700

Hours: 4-8:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays; place orders online, beginning at 9 a.m., or call beginning at noon.

Website: localthree.com

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