Come April, Fifth Group Restaurants will celebrate 30 years in the industry. It started with South City Kitchen, which opened in the city’s Midtown neighborhood in 1993. Now there are four locations of that concept, as well as La Tavola, Lure, three-unit Ecco (including one at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport), two-unit Alma, a freestanding El Taco and two others at the airport.
A lot has changed in three decades, but South City Kitchen’s fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and fried green tomatoes remain almost identical to how they were back in 1993.
Restaurant Hospitality spoke with Fifth Group Restaurants partner Steve Simon about the milestone, and how the group has managed such a long and successful run in Atlanta.
How has South City Kitchen stayed so successful?
I think a lot of what we, at the restaurant, do is approachable and understandable. It's things that people know from growing up. It is regional, but for whatever reason, cooking from the South, it's what people are familiar with. In 30 years the things we are offering and the way we are preparing them may have evolved, but the food is still familiar. But, even though it's familiar, the food isn't something you make every day or at home. There's a level of skill involved.
Do you have an example of the types of dishes people might not be making at home?
We have had she-crab soup on the menu for 30 years, and you just don't have crab roe or jumbo lump crab in your fridge. Most people also don't know how to cook with sherry and cream necessarily. We have fried green tomatoes, and they have been on the menu for 30 years. We do things that are a little bit of a stretch for people, like we have chicken livers on the menu. For some it's gastronomic and some people think it's weird. But we sell a lot of them, along with Tasso ham.
Then chicken fried steak, it's a menu staple and we sell a lot. When I take a bite off of someone else's plate I am like, “This is really good.” We do things like that. And we do shrimp and grits. I tell you, people walk through the door every day and it's like we created a new food group. It tickles us. We are there to make people happy and excited.
Certainly it's not the only Southern comfort food spot in Atlanta, so aside from a solid menu, what else is it about South City Kitchen that draws people in?
We have taken an approach with hospitality that is similar to our food. It's approachable and friendly. It feels good. Also, Atlanta has been a very prosperous city for the last 30 years, and that has had something to do with it. The reality, we are fortunate that we get to do what we do. People ask me what I do for fun and I say, I do for a living what I do for fun.
Over the decades, how has dining in Atlanta changed?
The amount of people for one. For example, there's a building that [listed] the Atlanta population on it, and at the end of 1992 it said there were 1.4 million. When it got torn down a few years ago it said 7.4 million people. It's a dense city, and the size has grown a lot. The skyline has changed over 20 years, and it's tremendous. It's changed completely
And, as neighborhoods expanded, people would drive 20 or 30 minutes to have dinner here. But now that there are micro neighborhoods, you don't have to drive, you can walk or Uber and go somewhere that's five minutes away.
Then there's the same thing here that's happened all over the country with cities expanding and foods becoming more of a focus. The [Food] Network has created more interest in general. The Food Network has changed food everywhere, and the importance of it in people's lives. Now I guess social media is kind of the new Food Network.\
How have diners' tastes changed? Does heavy southern food still do as well?
Here's the thing: South City is a specific food style. If you are on a diet, you either struggle to eat there, or you don't eat, or you aren't on a diet and eat the shrimp and grits. It's about flavors and tastes, and fortunately, when no one wanted to eat carbs, we didn't have to worry about that. Pick the diet du jour, it's not really a thing here, it hasn’t influenced what people ordered.
There are times when we try to lighten the menu, but people talk skinny and eat fat. At the end of the day, if you are going out somewhere you want to enjoy yourself. Most people don't have the will to eat a dry salad. I think we have been less affected by the changes because we are Southern American. Also, just because there might be a new trend toward Thai or Vietnamese or Israeli — pick one — we aren't influenced to change our food.
Did you ever think South City Kitchen would have such a long run?
Look, it hasn’t been by mistake that we have succeeded. We are a team of operators that focus on what the guest experience is like. There are times we are better at it and then times when we don't do as good a job. But what we feel strongly about is that if we are good to people, be they guests or employees, it will help them forgive some sins that might come out of the kitchen.
We have taken a long-term approach. When I was 25 [and opening the first restaurant] I said I wanted to be around 10 years because I didn't know what 30 years was. People ask if I expected 14 restaurants and a catering company, and I say, “No. When I was 25 I expected to get up and work 14 hours and go home tired every night.”
Fortunately, it has gone well. Not always great: We have been through different recessions and we have been through some things in Atlanta in the last few years, but we have been consistent. Whether we have a recession or COVID, we go back to the foundation and take care of people. It sounds over simplistic, and over the years it's gotten more refined, but the biggest thing is taking care of the employees.
Even with a reputation for a good working environment, are you facing issues with the labor shortage?
It's awful. We need 100 [more] people still. Unfortunately we are not exempt, and at the beginning of this year we only had around 500 to 600 employees [for all 14 restaurants]. But South City Kitchen has come back faster from COVID than the other brands. I think because it's familiar and offers a bit of comfort. When you're stressed, that's what you want, and right now people have stress.
How did you make it through the pandemic and restaurant shutdown?
We closed for two or three weeks, then scrambled to do take-out from mid-April to mid-July [of 2020]. We failed miserably because we didn't know how to do it. We literally had three managers answering phones and taking orders, some people cooking and some bagging. It was a disaster from a financial point.
The whole world was trying to flip to a to-go model and the world of tech didn't have it figured out and they were overwhelmed by the zillions of restaurants that needed it. We used the government programs and worked hard, scaled back menus, consolidated lunch and dinner, and kept working at it. Slowly more people came in.
It was especially hard because for 27 years at that point in time we were in good locations in business districts. Then suddenly all hotels were empty, no one was traveling and no one was back in the office. All the people that were the everyday clients, they were gone. We are still far from 50% occupancy in the office areas.
But the good news is corporate America is now spending money in restaurants again. I think they are spending more in restaurants than on having people go back to the offices. Our group dining is higher than in 2019, and I think it's those corporations.
So maybe South City Kitchen is good for another decade or two?
I hope there's a 40th and 50th anniversary. At least that's the plan. In addition to the approach of us having food that will be relevant in five to ten years, we thought to also do it in our restaurant design. We try and be current, but not too trendy or flashy. In the restaurants it's the same furniture that's been replaced many times. We choose something that doesn't date itself. That's what it feels like when you walk in: It feels like a big city place and you can't tell if it's been here six months or 16 years.