Atlanta Orders In: Communication key to survival for Fifth Group Restaurants

Alma Cocina's guacamole and salsa tasting features three guacamoles and three salsas, with a stack of housemade corn tostadas. Courtesy of Paula Pontes

Credit: Paula Pontes

Credit: Paula Pontes

10 of 14 eateries have reopened; 300 employees no longer on payroll

March 15 brought a stark reality to Fifth Group Restaurants, thanks to the pandemic, as the company shut down all 14 of its metro Atlanta restaurants (South City Kitchen, Alma Cocina, Ecco, El Taco, La Tavola and Lure), along with its catering arm, Bold Catering & Design.

That led to the furloughing of all hourly employees — the majority of the group’s 900-person staff. In making those tough decisions, the management team called on a philosophy that has been standard procedure for the 27-year-old restaurant group: communicate — early and often.

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Fifth Group management includes founding partner Robby Kukler (from left), Executive Chef Chad Clevenger and Ian Mendelsohn, director of beverage operations. Mia Yakel for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Setting up new systems to communicate quickly and forthrightly with employees was among the first agenda items, partner Robby Kukler said. The company created an extensive Q&A list that addressed COVID-19; employment, payroll and benefits; food assistance programs; and even guidance on approaching landlords and creditors about problems paying rent, mortgage, utilities and other bills.

Before Fifth Group dining rooms — like this one at Alma Cocina Buckhead — were reopened, staffers were trained on new safety protocols. Mia Yakel for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Prior to the staggered reopening of its dining rooms from mid- to late June, the company trained employees on new safety protocols and the reasoning behind why it implemented an automatic 20% service fee in lieu of gratuity to all guest checks at every location. The money goes into a pool, and is split among all hourly employees from the front and back of the house.

Kukler said that arrangement enables more flexibility in assigning people in tipping positions, such as servers, to other tasks when necessary, without the employee worrying about losing potential money that comes from waiting tables.

“It has taken a lot of explanation,” he said. Tips left via credit card payment in addition to the service fee go into the pool; cash tips go to the server.

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Roasted mushroom flautas from Alma Cocina are garnished with cashew crema, pico de gallo and huitlacoche sauce. Courtesy of Paula Pontes

Credit: Paula Pontes

Credit: Paula Pontes

The company has attempted to communicate honestly with patrons, as well. The new service fee policy is posted on each restaurant’s website and printed on menus. Upon arriving, a sign at the entrance explains policies regarding mask wearing, social distancing and other expectations. Managers at its various locations also recorded YouTube videos that give virtual tours of the revamped spaces, like Alma Cocina in Buckhead, which debuted less than two months prior to the March shutdown.

While some restaurant operators have faced rent issues with landlords, decades-old relationships with building owners have resulted in a willingness to work out solutions. It’s a similar story with patient purveyors, including its seafood supplier, whom Fifth Group owed $28K at one point during the pandemic.

“Like so many things, relationships and communication are the root of good — and bad — things,” Kukler said. “Having conversations — it’s just that: talking, even though there might not be a resolution.”

Among current questions: the next round of federal unemployment that is being distributed this week (“People want to know when it’s going to happen”); politics (“Our lawmakers aren’t working hard enough to make things better”); issues with the Georgia Department of Labor (“People all of a sudden just stop getting their unemployment”); winterizing the patios (all Fifth Group restaurant patios except the Ecco Midtown location are open year-round) while addressing the simultaneous need for fresh air flow and a warm enough environment for dining; and creative catering solutions for safe holiday parties (one idea for large company parties is to divide guests among multiple Fifth Group locations on the same evening, and tie them together virtually through the use of technology).

“We are going to get through this,” Kukler said. “We don’t know exactly how. We will be creative. Our goal is to be standing and keep moving forward.

“The unknown is what bothers all of us,” he added. “You can’t see the horizon.”

Roasted chicken mole Oaxaca is available for takeout from Alma Cocina. Mia Yakel for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

ALMA COCINA

Menu: seasonal contemporary Mexican and Latin American

Alcohol: full menu available for dine-in; wine, beer and margarita mix for carryout

What I ordered: guacamole and salsa tasting, Alma salad, huitlacoche empanadas, roasted chicken mole, roast mushroom flautas, carnitas de lechoncito tacos, esquites, pastel del elote cake. The six-dip guac and salsa sampler, with a stack of tostadas, would be a fun appetizer to pair with a margarita for an at-home happy hour. The tacos were filled with a generous portion of succulent, super savory shredded pork.

Service options: dine-in or takeout; order in person, online or by phone; curbside available; no delivery

Safety protocols: following all COVID-19 restaurant safety guidelines; all staff wear masks; patrons must wear masks when not seated; high-contact surfaces disinfected every 45 minutes; hand sanitizer stations for patrons; touchless menu enables viewing on mobile devices

Address, phone: Terminus 100, 3280 Peachtree Road NE, Atlanta; 404-873-4676

Hours: 5:30-9 p.m. Tuesdays, noon-9 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, noon-10 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays

Website: alma-atlanta.com

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