Under the Toque: Karatassos grows company nationally on his own terms

Under the Toque: Karatassos grows company nationally on his own terms

Pano Karatassos, the founder of multiconcept operator Buckhead Life Restaurant Group [3], is credited by many both in the industry and outside of it as putting Atlanta on the “culinary map.” The entrepreneur, who is of Greek descent, grew up working in his father’s import food business, Pano’s Food Shop, in Savannah, Ga. Later he worked in the Navy’s food department during military service. He graduated from The Culinary Institute of America [4] in 1960 and did an apprenticeship at The Greenbrier hotel in White Sulfur Springs, W. Va. He went on to hold positions at the DeSoto Hotel in Savannah; the Palm Beach Everglades Club in Palm Beach, Fla.; the Gstaad Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland; the Montreaux Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland; the Hotel Corporation of America in Washington, D.C.; and the Lodge of The Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Mo.

Karatassos opened his first restaurant, Pano’s & Paul’s [5], in 1979. Subsequent restaurants include The Fish Market, 1981, which relocated as the Atlanta Fish Market [6] in 1993; 103 West [6], 1982; Pricci [7], 1985; the Buckhead Diner [8], 1987; Chops, 1989; Lobster Bar at Chops, 1996; The Club at Chops, 1999; Veni Vidi Vici, 1993; Buckhead Bread Company and Corner Café [9], 1994; Nava [10], 1995; Bluepointe [11], 1999; and Kyma [12], 2001.

Until recently, the restaurants in Karatassos’ growing empire were confined to Atlanta and its environs. Things changed in March, however, when Buckhead Life opened a Chops Lobster Bar [13] in Boca Raton, Fla. This is the first location of what the company plans to be a national expansion of that concept.

What inspired you to become a chef?

BIOGRAPHY

Title: founder and chief executive of Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, AtlantaAge: 68Hometown: Savannah, Ga.Education: The Culinary Institute of America in New Haven, Conn., before it moved to Hyde Park, N.Y.Career highlights: working at Gstaad Palace Hotel in Gstaad, Switzerland, and the Montreaux Palace Hotel in Montreaux, Switzerland; opening his first restaurant, Pano’s & Paul’s in 1979 in Atlanta; and founding and leading Atlanta’s Share Our Strength Taste [14] of the Nation event, which has raised more than $5 million

I knew what I was supposed to do all my life, really. As kids we did chores at the business so our parents could keep an eye on us while they worked, and it became part of my blood. Everyone I knew was thinking they would be a lawyer or a doctor, but I learned to love the restaurant business at an early age. I always knew it was where I wanted to be.

Who were your mentors?

Of course, it started with my parents, and as I moved into the profession, Hermann Rusch from the Greenbrier was very influential. At the time he was internationally known. He was a big showman and a great, great chef. Also, Joe Amendola was another major influence. Joe is the only still-living instructor who taught me at the CIA. He became a pastry instructor and later became the head of the school.

How much influence did your time in Switzerland have on your cuisine?

Working in that environment…it capped everything off. In my mind it was comparable to a Ph.D. program.

What else has influenced you?

My family has always been well-connected with art. The food and all of the artistic influences just sparked my creativity. I learned the hard work ethic from my Greek background for sure. I knew as a kid that Greek food was different from everyone else’s, and I had a love for it.

So how have you mastered so many other cuisines?

When you live and breathe the business, you somehow dip into other cuisines. A lot of it came about from being a creative person. Our restaurants have until now all been close together—all within a three-mile radius—so if I was to take advantage of a close location, it better be different. I didn’t want to cannibalize the first restaurant, so I allow the development people to use their creativity when coming up with ideas.

I’ve read in multiple places that you put Atlanta on the culinary map. What do you think of that?

I have heard that over and over, and I am really humbled by it. If I contributed to the dining scene, then it makes me feel that much better about all the hard work we have put in.… I am proud of the restaurants but also the people who run them. Many started as waiters and moved up to management.

All three of your children work in the business in some capacity. Was this your idea, or did it come as naturally for them as it did for you?

I thought it would be good for them to look at other professions but it didn’t work, and in the end they have stayed in the business, although all three chose different paths.

You say you work 70 to 80 hours a week, work is your only vice, and you are so busy you have no time to think about retiring. Do you have any regrets?

It was hard on the family. I was not the guy that was around, and I missed a lot of the kids’ sporting events and activities. But I felt I had to make the sacrifice: I felt it was important to be in the restaurants. Otherwise, I don’t know what I would have done differently. I don’t have a college education, but it might have thrown the timing off and a lot of what is successful in restaurants can be due to timing.

Tell us about the expansion of the Chops Lobster Bar concept.

Chops Lobster Bar is a place for great steak and great seafood together. This combination is different enough to give us an advantage. So far, Boca Raton has exceeded every expectation that we had. We are now checking out other cities where we feel the restaurants will do well…right area, right market, right location. Some might be more successful than others. It is all a crapshoot. At our level, we cannot open up as fast as some casual places like P.F. Chang’s [15], not with our high, $95 average check. The market has to be able to afford that too, so we are looking at markets within that demographic.

It was written somewhere you decided to fund the restaurant expansion yourself rather than seek help from aggressively minded venture capitalists. What is your thinking behind that?

CHEF’S TIPS

Have the highest quality sharp knives. A good chef cannot get started without them and also has to know how to use them.

Have fun shopping and don’t be locked in on a recipe but see what looks great and plan from there.

We have no silent partners. We like our own comfort level of opening and financing restaurants on our own, and we certainly know our limitations. We might be able to handle two more after Boca and probably take on another. But the bottom line is we aren’t going to be able to open a dozen Chops. We don’t have the capital to do that. Where we are, we have good leases and good tenant allowances. Aggressive openings can compromise quality. We are imminently looking to pick our next location in as yet undisclosed locations, and maybe a lot sooner than we would like. We have two good locations and must decide on one or see if we can financially handle two.

Are you nervous?

I am always nervous. You never can become overconfident. Everything has to be in place. I can never get to a point where I think we have it made because every day is a new day. I am as nervous as nervous can be, because if it doesn’t work we cannot afford a big hiccup, so with that you can take nothing for granted.

What advice would you give an aspiring chef?

Start with a good culinary education, then a good apprenticeship. Be selective and go in and work in an environment where you can put to work those things you learned in school and build a foundation to continue to work in good houses and gain new experiences. You really have to have that before becoming a restaurant entrepreneur. If I were a young guy starting off, I would sacrifice whatever it takes to build a great restaurant.