As another calendar year comes to a close, it’s time to take a look back and see what the Atlanta dining scene cooked up.
Dozens upon dozens of restaurants opened in metro area counties. A few, like Mission + Market in Buckhead and Noona in Duluth, the only two restaurants to be awarded three-star reviews this year, stood out from the pack.
As was visible in our food tours of Castleberry Hill; Doraville’s Peachtree Pavilion shopping center, with standout newbie Snackboxe Bistro dishing up Laotian street food; the stretch of Memorial Drive that borders Reynoldstown; Cabbagetown and Grant Park; and downtown Alpharetta, new restaurants and bars inside and outside the Perimeter continue to add distinctive flavor to their neighborhoods. Our fall dining guide celebrated Buford Highway, Atlanta’s ever-growing corridor for ethnic dining.
While there was a lot to cheer about in 2018, the explosion of restaurant openings has me concerned. Is the bubble about to burst?
“The word reckoning is going to be used,” restaurateur Ryan Pernice predicted in an interview this summer, soon after having debuted Coalition Food and Beverage in Alpharetta, adding to his existing portfolio of Table & Main and Osteria Mattone in Roswell.
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Among 2018 openings — or announcements of future projects — a flurry came from independent operators who seem to be expanding their businesses at a rapid pace, and with mixed results.
“It’s business as usual, business as normal,” said Sage Woodfire Tavern owner James Liakakos.
That was in late July, just after his company had filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for two of its four restaurants. By mid-August, the Sage that opened last fall near SunTrust Park was up for sale.
When a second Sage opened in Buckhead earlier this year, Liakakos was asked why he would launch two restaurants within six months. “I didn’t want to say no to SunTrust Park,” he told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “And, then, how could I ever say no to Buckhead?”
How about, just say no?
“Business as usual” has meant oodles of operators saying yes to high-profile developments — be it work-live-play projects; food halls intown, such as Ponce City Market and Krog Street Market; as well as developments outside the Perimeter, such as the Battery Atlanta, Avalon and the upcoming Marietta Square Market, due to open in January after having been delayed 10 months.
With retail moving online, and developers looking to fill spaces with anchor restaurants and proven culinary names, they dangle carrots, like generous tenant improvement allowances, the funds that a landlord is willing to spend to retrofit or renovate a space. Restaurateurs spoke of incentives of up to 80 percent being offered if they would ink the deal.
“It breaks down into pools of people. If you are at the upper end of the food chain — Ford Fry, South City Kitchen — developers are more prone to put money into the deal,” said Harold Shumacher of Atlanta-based restaurant real estate company the Shumacher Group.
But, as even veteran culinary operators say yes to such offers, knowing full well the risks, is anyone thinking about the short- and long-term implications for this explosive growth?
For diners, a larger pool of restaurants might seem like a huge positive. With more choices overall — and as big names get attached to every big project in metro Atlanta — it is awfully convenient for folks who live in the suburbs to be able to grab decent grub near to home, instead of battling traffic to dine intown.
Still, I’m not convinced that a Ford Fry restaurant in practically every county of the metro Atlanta is the greatest thing in the world. A dining destination — be it a single restaurant or a cluster of drinking and eating establishments in a neighborhood — becomes a dining destination precisely because you can’t experience it anywhere else.
Back in mid-summer, I compiled a list of about three dozen prominent area chef-owners or restaurant groups that had signed on as part of development projects. Wondering whether this could lead to the dining scene becoming both diluted and homogeneous, I gave a call to Bon Appetit editor-at-large Andrew Knowlton. Raised in Alpharetta, Knowlton is in tune with the Atlanta dining landscape, but can speak from a national perspective.
“You can’t underestimate the soul of the place,” he agreed. “That is what gets lost in these behemoth projects that get guided by money. They have to have a vibe, and a spirit.”
Think about huge projects like the Battery Atlanta. I’ve felt a vibe there, mainly on Braves home game days, but there’s also been instability. Todd English Tavern struck out in the spring. Hugh Acheson’s Achie’s closed this fall. Neither survived a year in business.
There is one more piece to the expansion puzzle that concerns me: the labor pool. Operators will tell you just how hard it is to attract and retain employees. That’s disconcerting, because green hires need to be molded into the next generation of managers, chefs and beverage directors.
“I’ve seen chefs who can’t afford to keep the labor, and the labor can’t execute their vision,” said Grand Champion BBQ co-owner Robert Owens, who will be opening his fifth unit when Marietta Square Market debuts. “We’ve dumbed it down, too. Nobody is getting trained as well. Repetition is needed. The skill level in what we are teaching these guys can be improved upon.”
“We’re guilty,” said Marc Taft of Southern Fried Hospitality group. “We’ve oversaturated the Atlanta market with restaurants. The labor pool that is left is underqualified.” Taft opened his Brine Seafood Shack at Avalon last year. He’s got Chicken and the Egg in Marietta, and became a stakeholder in the success of the Battery with his fried chicken concept, Feed. He’s also involved in three restaurants going into Halcyon, a mixed-use development in Forsyth County.
Are you dissatisfied with service these days? Wondering why your meat isn’t getting cooked to your satisfaction? I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but it might not get better anytime soon.
But, hey, at least you didn’t drive far for it.