It was 9:30 a.m. on a Thursday when I pulled into the parking lot at the Curious Pig in Peachtree City. Chef-owner Scott Smith met me as I stepped out of the car.
“You wanna jump in the golf cart with me to get the lettuce?” Smith asked.
During the seven-block drive down Huddleston Road to pick up hydroponically grown lettuce from Alo Farms, Smith gave me a quick primer on the curious golf cart culture of Peachtree City, as well as the premise for the work culture — the impetus for my visit — that he has spearheaded at the Curious Pig since opening his gastropub one year ago.
As the operator of a single-unit concept, Smith could try to squeeze as much money as possible from customers, and as many hours as possible from his staff. But, after working in the industry 25 years, Smith seeks quality over quantity.
He finds joy in simple golf cart runs to pick up lettuce or mushrooms, and the 10-minute trek in the electric vehicle from home to work at 114 Huddleston Road, the same building where he snarfed down Mexican fare as a kid when it operated as La Fiesta restaurant.
“I want to live comfortably,” said Smith, speaking not only of this latest phase of his culinary career, but also as a husband to wife Amy and father to their three children ages 10, 8 and 2. Speaking as an employer: “I want the people who work here to be happy.”
Restaurant work can be a grind. The hours can be long, the schedule unpredictable. Employees can be treated like garbage. None of that, Smith reasons, needs to be an absolute.
There are other examples of restaurateurs around the country who seek to improve the workplace environment, which, when it reaches a toxic level, can lead employees to bounce from job to job, suffer in silence, seek help for the pain of harassment and myriad stress-induced problems, or just get out of the industry altogether.
Smith doesn’t have the funds or status of someone like celeb Southern chef Sean Brock, whose ambitious Nashville project devoted to Appalachian cuisine will include a mindfulness center focused on mental health for his team. But, Smith’s singular efforts to cultivate a nurturing workplace in Peachtree City are worth noting.
The Curious Pig is open five days a week, serving lunch and dinner Tuesdays through Saturdays. Most nights, its 16-person staff is out the door by 11 p.m. Full-time employees earn enough that none works a second job to make ends meet. Smith says his indie business operates in the black.
As we walked through the back entrance, with Smith stopping to place the bagged lettuce in the walk-in cooler, the kitchen team greeted us with smiles and good mornings.
Kitchen manager Kyler Strom, 26, has worked in restaurants since he was 17, and was a car hop on roller skates at Sonic. He met Smith in 2017, when the two worked the line at Local Republic in Lawrenceville. As the executive chef there, Smith took the young prep cook under his wing.
“He saw that I was wanting to learn,” Strom said. “I’d come in on my off days. What I liked about our relationship the most is that it was not always about being clocked in and making money, but helping me learn, and pushing me to the next level. He gave me opportunities to work harder and move up in the ranks.”
At the Curious Pig, Strom runs the kitchen. As its leader (Strom eschews the title “chef”), he follows his mentor’s model of fostering a positive work culture. “Where I always felt disrespected, I can now be the person that acknowledges that I can treat you with respect,” Strom said. “I can create a team environment. I want all of us to be learning, excited to work and having a good time doing it.
“I like to tell people that this isn’t about just having a job anymore. It’s about building a career and a healthy work environment.”
Matt Gosk, 24, is Strom’s most recent kitchen hire. Gosk enjoys the upbeat atmosphere (“They joke!”), and that he’s not shamed when he makes a mistake. “If I mess something up, they’re not like ‘Ah!’ They show me how to fix it, what I did wrong.”
Alayna Yong, 24, manages the front of house, as well as the restaurant’s social media accounts. Like Strom, she appreciates the trust that Smith has in his staff. “Scott lets us have a lot of creative freedom,” she said, pointing to the printed fall menu that she’d restructured a day earlier. Having graduated from college with a major in public relations and a minor in marketing, Yong feels empowered to test those skills in what she called her “first adult job.”
Yong’s fiancé, bar manager Michael DeReimer, 32, has poured drinks for nearly 15 years. The money he pocketed stirring and shaking cocktails at a private club in Buckhead was “obscene,” but working at the Curious Pig he still can pay his bills, and “the quality of life is way better.”
“An honest human approach” (and no TV around) enables DeReimer to connect with guests as he mixes up the signature Curious Pig cocktail (a spin on an Old-Fashioned) or explains the bar’s impressive bourbon selection to whiskey aficionados.
DeReimer shares his boss’s mindset: “If I’m going to spend 60 hours a week doing something, I’m going to enjoy it,” he said.
Every employee that I spoke with lauded the scheduling (the same two days off each week), but DeReimer, in particular, appreciates closing time. The restaurant shutters at 10 p.m. weekdays and 11 p.m. weekends. “I can be home at midnight on Friday or Saturday,” he said. Compared with jobs that kept him behind the stick until 3:30 a.m., “that is wonderful.”
The other “wonderful” that surfaced in conversations was Smith’s manner of team-building. He’s taken the group on an overnight stay in Asheville. He’s taken a couple of staff members on restaurant recons. There have been field trips to mushroom farms and, most recently, a fun day to splash around the indoor pools at new Great Wolf Lodge in LaGrange, selected so that the restaurant’s few under-age employees could be included.
The group finds camaraderie even on days off, and without Smith as organizer. “Normally, when you work with people, nobody’s got a night off together. But we all experience the same off-day,” Strom said, citing weekly meet-ups for bowling or backyard barbecues.
The Curious Pig does not offer health benefits or a retirement plan. Yet, when I asked employees what could make their employment situation better, that’s not what surfaced. Several spoke about wishing that they could lock the doors in the dead hours between 3 and 5 p.m. to regroup before the dinner rush.
Work is called work for a reason, but a place like the Curious Pig is a reminder that work can be more than money in the bank. A job can be intensely rewarding, because you feel valued. The daily grind is not a grind if you’ve found an element of fun, and have learned that the odd (golf cart) path to perfection is a reward in itself.
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