Often restaurants close, but less often do they take a prolonged break and then reopen as the same concept, with the same food, style and staff. But for Foundation Social Eatery's owner and chef Mel Toledo, that's exactly what he did in Atlanta.
The original Foundation Social Eatery was located a few miles away, in the suburb of Roswell, and closed in 2020. Now, as of December 2022, FSE has launched again in another suburb, Alpharetta. For Toledo and his wife/co-owner Sandy, that means the beloved concept has not only a new lease in a building, but a chance to shine even more. The space seats 160 people, has two patios and soon will have a small market in the building as well.
With all this promise of a second chance, Toledo said in this interview with Restaurant Hospitality that he's very excited for the future of FSE.
Why did you close the first iteration of FSE in 2020?
I will say this, it was a terrible location. We had scrambled to find a spot and found this location [in Roswell] that we thought would have potential, but it was terrible. We ran the lease three-quarters through and looked for other locations, but things kept falling through. Our landlord found someone to actively take our lease over, and then they gave us 45 days to vacate. It was scary, but we saw it as a blessing in disguise.
Then, as we were getting a new lease [and location], COVID hit. We decided to stop and not jump into something with all this going on, and from there we navigated through COVID. Then the current location [in Alpharetta] fell in our laps. COVID was far enough along and people were out and about so we took it.
What made that first spot so bad?
We were in it for about seven years, and I call the area a cesspool. Going in, it seemed like a great idea. It was a shopping center that was newly renovated and they had big plans. It ended up having no retail, and it became more of a destination. We reached out to the economical development person for Roswell and he said the area was a "tweener," meaning it was between highways where people don't usually stop. Down from us a Kohl’s and a Target closed, and those places don't close, they are like cockroaches: They multiply.
We were there, on the east side of Roswell, but people from the west side of Roswell don't come to the east side. It used to be the lower income area, but that has drastically changed and now the demographics are incredible. But still, people just wouldn't cross over.
Those were literally some of the hardest years of my life. My wife Sandy and I pulled money from one account to another account to pay labor and bills. It was really rough. I told her it's easier to run a busy restaurant than a slow restaurant. So much stress comes with barely making it and having to pay bills.
After all that, why did you want to start over with a new copy of FSE?
In our search we looked all over the place. Alpharetta is maybe three exits up from our last location and we decided it would make more sense to stay in the general area. We already have our following, those supporting us through the years of barely making it. We just weren't ready to give up.
The new location is in a newly developed downtown city center, and we knew we could still cater to our old guests but tap into a very affluent area. Another thing, we wanted to reopen FSE because we knew we were doing something right. On Yelp we got in the top 15 of New American restaurants in all of Atlanta, along with some highly-rated places. On Trip Advisor we constantly were on the top five [restaurants in the area]. Also on Yelp we had the most reviews of all the restaurants in Roswell, and when we closed, we had 730 total.
Can you keep the Yelp reviews when you move a restaurant to a new location?
If I had done it within a year and provided a location and opening date they would have reopened the Yelp page. But it was two years. They were going to be flexible. I checked after a year-and-a-half and they were willing to launch it again because of COVID, but two years was too much.
But, if you go on Google the old page is still there, you just can't add to it. We retained all the Google reviews and on Resy, but only operators can see the Resy reviews.
After two years out of the restaurant business, what changed?
In two years a lot has changed. It's been a huge eye opener, the cost of goods after being closed for two years. Some guests are saying we are more expensive, and I am like, it's after COVID, it's all more expensive — food, labor, rent.
I am not going to give my guests crap. Quality is crazy important and giving it to our guests is important. At the end of the day, I say, don't take business for granted. There are shit tons of restaurants that are open or opening, and people are choosing to spend their hard-earned money on us. We owe it to them to give them excellence.
What did you do over the two years FSE was closed?
I did a lot of traveling, with family and for food-based, inspiring research. I went to San Francisco and ate at a crap ton of Michelin-starred restaurants. Then I went to New York City and did the same thing. I got a lot of inspiration. When I opened this restaurant I had a lot of pressure coming back. But now I am being told I came back better than before. People are saying that about the restaurant and the service. I do credit that to traveling. Traveling is what made me want to be a chef in the first place.
How is the new iteration of FSE the same and/or different from the old one?
The best part of the new place is I have windows in my kitchen, both in my prep area and also on the line. That's one of my dreams. When we looked at locations the first thing we said was, "Can we put a window there?" It was very important to me.
Windows are great, but why was that such a selling point?
At one restaurant I worked at I had three windows. The inspiration you get from the changing of the seasons, it's incredible. You see the green buds coming out and you think of lighter, greener spring vegetables. Then with the changing of the leaves it's all about warmer dishes. When the trees are bare you are looking for something to cover your bones, hearty dishes. During my stint at that restaurant [now closed] I did some of the most creative food.
What about the overall concept?
The concept of Foundation is based off my career. I said if I am going to do a restaurant, I am going to do it right. I wanted to go to the best schools and work at the best restaurants on each coast. I went to France and staged at Michelin-starred restaurants. All to give myself that foundation.
Next, we are casual, but social. The idea is to put your f'n phones away. We didn't have any TVs [at the first spot], but now we have one on the patio. We wanted people to get together and eat with their friends and family. We want them to put away social media and get to know each other over a meal.
As for other things that are the same, we went with the same design group, ai3 [Atlanta], who took the word "foundation" and ran with that. When you walk in we have a 10- or 11-foot wine rack made out of rebar. There are raw woods like birch and maple, pretty woods, which are used to build a foundation of a building. Then concrete tiles for the walls to symbolize the concrete foundation. Throughout the restaurant there is a motif, a silhouette of an orchid. The orchid is specifically from a tattoo on my arm, which is from the bouquet my wife carried in our wedding.
We took the panels, the wine rack and the motif from the old FSE and put them in the new iteration.
That way, the regulars would come in and say, "Oh this is the old one, but with higher-end finishes and things look different." Overall people say it feels like the old one, but it feels better. That being said, we are capturing our old guests, but the new guests are being blown away also.
Any other changes?
The last aspect that's different, Foundation is two concepts in one. In the A.M., the 800 square-feet in front is a grab-and-go-cafe and store. You can get a panini, salads, charcuterie to go, and pastas and sauces we make in house you can buy by the pound. It's an upscale grab-and-go little shop we call Petite FSE [and will most likely open in February].
Why did you want to add a market?
At my last location I had to do lunch and dinner service, and it stole my life. It was terrible. This time we wanted to capture the lunch business in the area, but in a less formal way.
Is the patio a new addition too?
The first spot did have a patio, but with this one, we have our big-boy pants on. We have heat lamps, fans and light fixtures hanging from the awning. In addition, in another part of the patio, which is huge, we have a lounge area with lounge chairs and cocktail tables. People can get a drink and wait for a table, or go have an after-dinner drink. We can have live music because we have a little stage. The landlords did it really well for us, and a patio like this in Georgia, it's huge.
How about the food, is it similar?
Over the seven years we were open it was obvious we wanted to have certain dishes people are going to say, "Don't take off the menu." We brought some back, but I'm not sure if I will keep them on for the life of the restaurant. I may trade them in and out, but wanted to make sure we captivated and excited our original guests.
One popular dish we kept is the mushroom ravioli with Port wine truffle sauce [$19/$28]. There's our confit pork ribs [$18], they are something special. We put a rub on them: There's almost a Chinese five spice flavor, but then we put in thyme and bay leaf. We confit them in duck fat and let them cool in the fat, so they suck up some of that ducky flavor, then flash fry them to make the meat super crispy on the outside and tender on the inside. There's also chicken liver pâté [$15] served with traditional accompaniments.
Lastly, the octopus [$19]. Atlanta is kind of funny. It has a highway that goes around it, they meet, and then separate again. It's like that same thing with east and west [side of the city], people outside the perimeter not wanting to go inside the perimeter [of the highway]. We are in the suburbs and I was hesitant to bring octopus out in the suburbs. I thought to myself, how can I present this that will be familiar and approachable? I found people are weirded out with chicken with its head on or its feet attached.
The octopus, I wanted to treat it like something that's really familiar to people. So we removed the suction cups and skin so you just have the meat. It's just an opaque white. They have six legs and two arms, not tentacles, and we take them and peel them, marinate with spices and olive oil, then sous-vide for five hours. It comes out tender, not chewy, then we treat it like calamari, bread and fry. Everyone loves calamari. Then I make a pan sauce with chorizo, so you get a chorizo-based butter sauce with more chorizo and potatoes.
After opening in early December, a month in, have you seen customers returning?
Absolutely, we are seeing a crazy amount of them, and often. We have some regulars that used to go once a week, and sure enough, they are here once or twice a week now.