Atlanta Classics: Ted’s Montana Grill celebrates 20 years

Entrepreneur-conservationist Ted Turner teamed up with restaurateur George McKerrow in 2002 to open the first Ted’s Montana Grill.

Twenty years later, the “green” restaurant chain, which now includes 39 locations in 16 states, is marking its success in saving the American bison, while practicing sustainability.

McKerrow sat down recently at the Ted’s on Luckie Street in downtown Atlanta to discuss his background, the restaurant’s history, and what he touts as “the largest bison menu in the world.”

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After graduating from Ohio State University and deciding not to pursue law, McKerrow took a job with the Victoria Station restaurant chain in 1974.

“It was prime rib, salad bar, baked potato, bread and butter,” he said. “That was the beginning of casual dining in the steakhouse business — Steak and Ale, Cork ‘n’ Cleaver, Victoria Station.”

McKerrow moved to Atlanta in 1976, to open and manage Quinn’s Mill, a Victoria Station spinoff located in the Northlake area. He was the Southeast regional manager when he left the company in 1980.

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In 1981, McKerrow opened LongHorn Steakhouse on Peachtree Road. That single restaurant evolved into Rare Hospitality International, which owned and operated multiple LongHorn locations, before being sold to Darden Restaurants.

McKerrow retired from Rare Hospitality in 2000. But, before that, he co-founded two other Atlanta restaurants with chef Gerry Klaskala: Canoe opened along the banks of the Chattahoochee River in Vinings shortly before the 1996 Olympics, and Aria opened in Buckhead in 2000, replacing another McKerrow eatery, variously called Hedgerose Heights Inn and just Hedgerose.

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Credit: © Sean Fitzgerald Photography

However, retirement didn’t suit McKerrow, and, in April 2001, he wrote down the concept for Ted’s Montana Grill as “a one-page document.”

“Ted and I shook hands in May of 2001,” he recalled, “and he said, ‘George, there’s four things I want to accomplish. I want to save the great American bison, because it belongs in North America. I want to help the bison ranchers that are failing. I want to keep all the Turner ranches for all the future generations of my family. And, I want you to build a restaurant chain that we can both be proud of and will be profitable.’”

In July 2001, McKerrow opened an office in Atlanta, and quickly went about creating the design, decor and menu for Ted’s. Then, he hired staff, and opened six restaurants over the next 12 months, starting with the first in Columbus, Ohio, in January 2002.

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All told, Ted’s Montana Grill opened 56 restaurants in 19 states in 72 months. McKerrow admitted the company grew too fast, but it accomplished what Turner wanted.

“It brought bison to the American table,” McKerrow said. ”When we started, there were less than 30,000 bison a year brought to market, and there were less than 300,000 bison alive in North America. We doubled the size of the herd, and 60,000 a year are brought to market now. It was an endangered species. By putting it on the table, we saved it.”

In the beginning, bison wasn’t exactly an easy sell, but Ted’s persevered, also serving beef burgers, steaks, chicken and fish. And, as bison became better known as a healthy alternative, the demand for it grew.

“You can get bison in almost every grocery store in America now,” McKerrow said. “That’s basically our story. Bison are ranch-raised and eat only grass. Bison are richer in omega-3 fatty acids than salmon, and (have) half the fat and cholesterol of beef. It’s one of the top five foods women should eat for iron replacement.”

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McKerrow also believes bison tastes sweeter than beef, and, because it’s leaner, Ted’s employs special ways of cooking it for bison burgers and steaks, as well as meatloaf, pot roast, short ribs and brisket.

For the brisket, meatloaf, and short ribs, the bison is “cooked low-and-slow,” McKerrow said. “For steaks and hamburgers, we have a unique cooking method on a flattop grill under a dome that seals in all the juices.”

The fare at Ted’s is chef-driven comfort food, McKerrow said. The only frozen foods are ice cream and chicken tenders for the kids meal. The scratch kitchen turns out its own croutons and salad dressings, and cuts and grinds its whole proteins, including fresh fish.

“We don’t have any boil-in-the bag, microwave, almost-as-good food, which all the typical chains in our price-point do,” McKerrow said. “The uniqueness of our product is that it’s super high quality at a reasonable value. We’re the only restaurant we know of that sells bison filet steaks every day.”

Among the innovations McKerrow is most proud of, Ted’s replaced plastic straws with environmentally friendly wax-coated paper straws, which prompted many other companies to follow suit, and, in turn, helped revive a small family manufacturer.

From the perspective of his many years in the restaurant business, McKerrow has some strong opinions about hospitality.

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Credit: Handout

“We’re a very simple business,” he said. “And, what you have, fundamentally, is your reputation. Genuine hospitality is now the most important thing people are looking for. In order to play the game, you have to deliver consistently great food. But, making people feel better than when they came through the door is the key.”

Over the past 21 years as business partners, McKerrow and Turner have remained good friends.

“He and I talk all the time,” McKerrow said. “We’ve had some tough goes. A lot of the restaurants struggled, because we opened too many, too fast, and I didn’t know how to tell Ted Turner ‘no’ in the heyday. But, he’s called me every day, Monday through Friday, since we started this business.”

Asked about Turner’s health, McKerrow was candid, not holding back his emotions.

“Those of us who knew him, knew something was wrong,” McKerrow said, his voice cracking. “He came out a few years ago with the admission that he has Lewy body dementia. I call him Timex Ted, because he takes a licking and keeps on ticking.

“He’s one of my best friends, and I’m really proud of the fact that we’ve had a really healthy relationship. As far as I know, I’m the only partner he’s ever had. Everybody else worked for him. Every morning, when calls me, he says, ‘Hey partner, how are you?’”

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