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Southern Comfort Goes Gourmet

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By Connie Gentry June 2014 Chef Profiles

Restaurants are all about food, beverage, and service—but hospitality is all about people. That is perhaps the core message from a conversation with John C. Metz Jr.—because this man, who is chef, entrepreneur, and executive, is truly a people person. Whether talking with reverence and awe of the lifelong influence his father, John Metz Sr., has had on his career and restaurants, or crediting his partners, Thomas DiGiorgio and Richard Rivera, with helping build the successful Marlow’s Tavern concept and Sterling Spoon Culinary Management, or simply lauding the team of professionals who help run their restaurants, Metz makes it clear that his priority is all about providing the highest-quality hospitality, always focused on the people being served. Metz, CEO, executive chef, and co-founder of Sterling Spoon Culinary Management and Marlow’s Tavern, talks about opportunities and trends within the industry, issues that warrant engagement, and the emergence of upscale-casual dining, of which Marlow’s Tavern is a perfect example.

“The idea of Marlow’s Tavern started because we wanted to create the kind of place where we’d like to go hang out, taking the idea of the neighborhood tavern and reinventing it with great food and great atmosphere coupled with four-star inspired service,” Chef Metz says. “Our goal for Marlow’s is to provide the luxuries of upscale dining to the neighborhoods we serve, in a simple, relaxed way.”

How is the industry different today than when you started?

The biggest piece that has changed has been the introduction of fast-paced technology. For the most part, that has been really positive, especially relative to food safety, sanitation, and inventory management.

But with the reliance on technology I think we’ve lost a little personalization, whether it’s at the table or within the restaurant operation. It’s important to remember that people still want to be served, they want to interact, and they want to escape. We are here to serve great food, great beverage, and give our guests hospitality.

Another big influence is the Food Network, which has created a bigger limelight around the profession, introducing a lot more people to the field and helping to grow both the labor force in the industry and the quality of talent.

And the last thing that has changed has been the evolution of the fine-dining world of the past into upscale-casual dining. People still want high-quality service and food, but they don’t need or want the stuffiness. This has forced the industry to maintain quality hospitality in a more casual setting.

How do you define the upscale-casual experience?

It’s all about warm, comfortable environments—places that can be simple and approachable from the guests’ perspectives. The food, beverage, and service are all equally important to us at Marlow’s Tavern, but we think about aspects of those elements that have a uniqueness and specialness, and that helps create the upscale feel.

The Food Network has fed the fascination with celebrity chefs but there are mixed reviews on that topic. What is your opinion?

I think it’s great that there are celebrity chefs and that the opportunity to become a star within the industry exists. We didn’t have that opportunity before. We had our four-star chefs, but now you can become a celebrity because of your style and personality without having to own a great restaurant. The downside is that everyone wants to become a celebrity chef, forgetting about all the other opportunities in the industry that don’t have celebrity status but are an excellent way to grow within the industry.

Are there opportunities for evolution or continued improvement in the industry?

The idea of local and natural still needs a lot of work in terms of affordability and feasibility. One issue is actually being able to provide local foods to the amount of people who are craving local. We try to do that at Marlow’s Tavern and in our cafés at Sterling Spoon, but it’s difficult because most of the time [local providers] can’t keep up with our volume as we grow. And if they can provide the volume, it sometimes becomes a price issue because we can’t afford to serve those local foods at a good value for our guests. As the demand for sourcing local continues to grow, it’s going to become more challenging, and it will have to evolve over time across the industry.

Everyone seems to have a different definition of what local is, or what the geographic parameters are for something to be considered local. How would you define local?

I think there are a couple different types of local; there are products that come from the town you are in or maybe from a 50-mile radius around your city. In a metro area like Atlanta, the meaning of local would have to be more like a 40-mile radius. There is also the idea of local-regional sourcing, and we go as far as Alabama, the Carolinas, or Florida to capture some of the great produce and meats available in those areas. Of course, the time of year and seasons have an impact on defining local as well.

You’ve held a number of leadership roles in the industry on. Can you talk about some of the issues impacting the industry such as the Affordable Care Act and the minimum-wage debates?

Yes, I’ve been involved in the Georgia Restaurant Association, I’m on the board of the National Restaurant Association, and I’ve worked in local charitable foundations. The Affordable Care Act is having a massive impact on the bottom line of every business that has 50 employees or more, and we certainly fall into that range. As it stands today, the impact to our business is going to be several hundred-thousand dollars—and we’ve been proactive in offering employees health benefits so we won’t feel as much of an impact as businesses that have not been as proactive. The industry is working hard, and we’re working hard, to figure out how to offset that expense. That’s really all we can do; we don’t want to take anything away from our employees, and we want to make sure we give them the best possible options.

The minimum-wage debate is also concerning, and we’ve been very active as a company, as has the Georgia Restaurant Association and the NRA, which my partners and I are active in. We are talking about it, keeping it top of mind, and making sure our opinion is heard.

What is your opinion on the minimum-wage discussion?

The problem is how minimum wage is perceived. In this industry, the one that people most quickly gravitate to is the server who is making minimum wage, and they forget about the tip component during that conversation. Every one of our servers and waiters make exponentially more than the minimum wage, even with a non-tipped position. Some of them make tens of thousands of dollars a year, which puts them in the categories I wish I’d been making when I was at that stage. That’s my biggest frustration—that the discussion is always tied to the servers. But when you couple the base rate with the tip component, in most cases a good server is making great money. The opportunity is exactly what a server wants to make it.

And there are other issues that are important to address: Credit card fees and processing fees will continue to be a burden until the issue is resolved, and I don’t think we’ve felt the true burden of what that actually means to us yet.

Finally, we also need to be thinking and talking about labor resources. As the economy continues to recover, the labor market is going to continue to shrink, and that is something that needs to be addressed: What can the industry do? What can the Association do? What can we do as leaders of restaurants to bring people into the industry at a younger age? We need to understand all those opportunities.

Speaking of opportunities, do you plan to open more Marlow’s Tavern units?

Yes, we’ve been growing since we started that concept in 2004, and now we have 13 locations. Our intent is to grow primarily in the Atlanta area, but also in Orlando and Tampa. After those markets, we’ll look at other cities in the Southeast.

Before starting your own company, you took some concepts international while you were working with Carlson’s. Do you have any desire to open restaurants in other countries?

I really loved that part of my career and I absolutely have aspirations to have restaurants in international locations. My partners and I have talked a lot about that, and we’d likely be taking concepts that are currently in our portfolio. It’s not something we are ready for today, but as the opportunities are provided to us it’s something we’d love to do in the future.

Are there particular countries that interest you most?

The Asian market is always a fascination for us, and then South America is as well.

What are some of the most memorable moments in your career?

Early in my career I was able to work in Europe and that was a pretty awesome experience. Another was in 2005, when I was named by Zagat as one of the top 10 hosts in the Atlanta restaurant scene. That was a unique recognition and exciting for me personally. Of course, when my partners and I started our companies it was a very exciting time because we were getting to do something very special. And last year, it was incredible to receive—on behalf of our company—the IFMA Silver Plate and the Gold Plate. This was even more significant because my father won the Silver Plate during his career, and he is the one who got me into this industry and made me fall in love with this industry. To share that recognition with him, and with my team and partners, was really special.

How did you end up in Atlanta?

I was in Dallas, Texas, working for Carlson and one of my personal goals was to open a restaurant before I was 30. So when I was 28 or 29, I started thinking of when and where we’d do that. I called my partner and said “Meet me in Atlanta and meet me in Charlotte,” because I wanted to stay in the South, but wanted to get back to the East coast. Atlanta and Charlotte are both great cities, but we fell in love with Atlanta and the rest is history.

Do you still work with your dad?

Yes, he’s a partner in my Sterling Spoon business and I’m still involved in the family business back in Pennsylvania. My brother runs that business and my sister is involved as well, but I’m also involved on a part-time basis, which is a lot of fun and it’s great to be able to have the opportunity to do that.

Is there one lesson your father taught you that you refer to most often as you run your own company?

There are probably two or three. First, make sure you’ve got the right people in your business to support you. Second, take time to listen to all of the people who influence you—whether it’s a guest, your employees, your partners, or your management team. So those two things are the most insightful and helpful to me, and finally, you have to be willing to serve people.

What will you do next with your company?

The first priority both with Sterling Spoon and Marlow’s Tavern is that we want to grow; we’re focused on the cities that we are in now [Atlanta, Tampa, and Orlando] and then expanding in the Southeast. The second priority is attracting and retaining great folks, then it will be time to start looking at another concept or reconsidering some concepts in our creative archives that we might launch over the next several years.

Is there any overlap in the menus between the different concepts?

Yes, we share ingredients a lot and we’ll share signature dishes from one concept to another. For instance, Aqua Blue has a signature crab cake that we’ve also run in Marlow’s Tavern, and we’ve brought our Marlow’s Shrimp and Crab Nachos to some of our Sterling Spoon cafés. It’s fun to do and a great way to cross-market.

Do you have as much time in the kitchen as you would like?

No, definitely not. Most often, you’ll find me in my car driving between locations. But the good news is that four or five times a year we get into major menu development and that is when I’m most engaged. Also, whenever I am in the restaurants I talk with our chefs and cooks, and with our bartenders and beverage managers. Staying closely connected with them, tasting the food and beverage, and giving our team feedback keeps me connected.

You are both CEO and executive chef, with a business degree as well as having graduated at the top of your class from The Culinary Institute of America. Do you enjoy one aspect of the business more than the other?

The reason I trained as a chef and also as an operator—and I was pretty [deliberate] in doing that—was to know all aspects of the business from a very detailed perspective so I could talk in the culinary circles as well as in the business circles, and with anyone we bring in to help lead our business. But I don’t prefer one over the other; I love it all. I love the challenges that come with the diversity of our businesses.

What have we not discussed?

My father [John Metz, Sr.] and partners, Thomas DiGiorgio, Richard Rivera Hank Clark, Robert Schmitz and Alan Palmieri are integrally involved in all we do. Success is about partnering with and hiring great people so you have a team that can grow the business. We have so many great professionals—servers, cooks, chefs, managers—and these are the folks who are ultimately the heroes of our businesses. They interact with our guests on a daily basis and I’m extremely proud of what they do, how they support the company’s initiative, and drive the quality of the hospitality we provide.

How do you and your partners arrive on the same page and communicate the company culture?

In the beginning, we made sure we were all aligned on our values, guiding principles, and the mission itself. All that time up front became our filter for the decisions that came after. If there is a discrepancy from one of those values or guiding principles, it makes it easy to say yes or no.

What about personally, what’s on your bucket list?

Spending more time with my better half! We like to travel so making time to visit some places we haven’t been to together is a priority for me. I really want to take her to the French Open; she’s a big tennis player. That would be fun, and I’ve never been to the city of Lyon, which is where great food started, so to get into that city is a dream of mine, and also to enjoy the wineries of that region.