There are few people in Atlanta or the restaurant industry who haven’t heard of Pano Karatassos and his growing restaurant empire, Buck-head Life Restaurant Group.
John Mariani, Esquire magazine’s restaurant critic for 20 years and author of many culinary books, says this is because Karatassos is easily Atlanta’s most important restaurant innovator.
“Pano put Atlanta on the face of the culinary map,” Mariani says. “I can remember coming to Atlanta in the 1970s and the food was appalling, and a few years later, Pano went to that city and changed all that.
“He didn’t copy concepts out of New York or Texas. Instead, he put his own stamps on them. His Chops is one of the best chophouses in the country, for instance, while his Greek restaurant, Kyma, is one of the best Greek establishments. The restaurants don’t have that corporate style. They are all individual and first-class within their class.”
George W. McKerrow Jr., founder of the Longhorn Steakhouse chain and a partner with Ted Turner in the Atlanta-based Ted’s Montana Grill chain, says Karatassos was ahead of his time in fine dining and set a new standard for Atlanta.
“Atlanta was just a small restaurant community, and Pano’s uniqueness put us on the map as a destination,” McKerrow says. “His family is the fabric of Atlanta, and, in fact, the most recognized family in the city. They are like Camelot.”
Since 1979, when Karatassos opened his first restaurant, Pano & Paul’s, he has built a thriving restaurant empire, which he oversees to this day with a keen eye.
“Running a restaurant is not a big thing; it’s just a thousand little things,” Karatassos says. “I know we’ve made a statement in the city of Atlanta, but to me it has been a great learning and humbling experience, and I have been surrounded by many great mentors and staff members. Being recognized with this [Fine Dining Legend] award speaks to me of the American dream.”
Karatassos, who is of Greek descent, grew up working in his father’s import food business, Pano’s Food Shop, in Savannah, Ga. He credits his father with giving him a strong work ethic and making him a perfectionist.
“Being immigrants, our parents could keep an eye on us if we worked in the business,” he says. “They didn’t know what babysitters were back then.”
He adds that he knew what he was supposed to do all of his life. “Growing up in it, the food business became part of my blood,” he says. “Everyone I knew was thinking they would be a lawyer or a doctor, but early on I learned to love the restaurant business. I always knew it was where I wanted to be.”
Following an apprenticeship at the Greenbrier Hotel in White Sul fur Springs, W. Va., he went on to hold numerous 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.
He says that his time in Switzerland was comparable to a Ph.D. program.
“It just capped everything off,” he says. In addition to his father, Karatassos says his two biggest mentors were Hermann Rusch from the Greenbrier and Joe Amendola, his former instructor at the CIA.
“Both were very influential,” he says. “Rusch was internationally known and a big showman and a great, great chef. Joe, who recently passed away, was a pastry instructor and later became the head of the school. I was taught by the best.”
Following years of working for others, along with then-partner Paul Albrecht, Karatassos opened Pano’s & Paul’s in 1979. Many others followed, including The Fish Market, 1981, which relocated and was renamed Atlanta Fish Market in 1993; 103 West, 1982; Pricci, 1985; Buckhead Diner, 1987; Chops, 1989; Chops Lobster Bar, 1996; The Club at Chops, 1999; Veni Vidi Vici, 1993; Buckhead Bread Company and Corner Cafe, 1994; Nava, 1995; Blue-pointe, 1999; and Kyma, 2001.
The Buckhead Life Restaurant Group also is a partner in Atlanta’s Philips Arena’s premier sports catering division with Larry Levy, chairman and chief executive of Chicago-based Levy Restaurants. Until recently, Karatassos’ growing empire was confined to Atlanta and its environs. But in March 2007 Buckhead Life opened a Chops Lobster Bar in Boca Raton, Fla. Karatassos envisions a national expansion of that concept, and site negotiations are currently underway for additional locations. His plan is to open two new restaurants every 18 months, he says, explaining that given the current economic slowdown and because there are no outside investors, the company has to be “on its game” in every aspect.
“We are looking for a grand slam,” he says.
Karatassos is opening another seafood eatery in Boca Raton after last summer purchasing Pete’s Restaurant, which is considered the largest restaurant in the city. The 15,000-square-foot waterfront site is undergoing renovations and should be opened in October. The eatery’s working title is Boca Fish Market, and the upscale seafood establishment will seat approximately 400.
In about nine months, Karatassos also plans to open Pano’s Grand Cafe, an 8,500-square-foot lunch and dinner venue, with breakfast under consideration, on Peachtree Street in Buckhead across from Atlanta’s Financial Center.
Karatassos hopes his employees will play bigger roles in the company’s expansion.
“We have good longevity with loyal people who believe in the culture, and they make it happen on a day-to-day basis,” he says. “They are my best friends, too. An important part in a growing company is to show them they have security. If I worked for someone, I’d be concerned about that.”
Known for being generous with local charities, Karatassos is especially focused on ending hunger.
“Those of us who make our livelihood in the food business are obligated to help those who need food assistance,” he says.
To that end, for the past 20 years the chef-entrepreneur has been the chairman for Atlanta’s Share Our Strength Taste of the Nation event. Karatassos says Mariani is the one who urged him all those years ago to help get the annual event underway.
“I just thought he was the kind of person who not only had the power and grasp of doing something on a widespread playing field, but I also knew if he devoted himself to the program it wouldn’t be lip service,” Mariani says.
Under Karatassos’ watch, Atlanta’s Taste of the Nation event has raised more than $7 million, and Karatassos projects that this year the event raised between $750,000 and $800,000.
“Atlanta has the highest-grossing Taste of the Nation in the country, by far,”
Karatassos says. “New York is No. 2, and it generates probably half of what we do.
So many times I wanted to opt out because of the time, planning, etc., but it is all about good people and helping others, so I’ve stayed.”
Karatassos also developed the country’s first freshly prepared food program for the hungry, versus the traditional method of offering leftovers or canned food. In addition, he is a prominent fundraiser for the March of Dimes.
“Whether it is community or family or his restaurants, Pano always sets a high standard in Atlanta, and he always does so with professionalism and warmth,” McKerrow says. “He cares about others.”
Over the years Karatassos has received many awards honoring his restaurants, business leadership and charitable activities. These have included the 2007 Cornerstone Humanitarian Award from the National Restaurant Association and the 2006 Great Oak Award from Share Our Strength. He is also a past recipient of NRN’s Golden Chain Award and received a Silver Plate from the International Food-service Manufacturers Association.
Karatassos and his wife, Georgia, have three children, Anne, Pano and Nicholas, all of whom have assumed leadership roles in the restaurant company. Aside from mentoring his three children, Karatassos is also known for inspiring rising chefs, several of whom have gone on to open their own successful restaurants. These include Kevin Rathbun, who now has three thriving restaurants in Atlanta; Sia Moshk of Sia’s and Mitra restaurants in Atlanta; and Hilary White, who recently opened The Hil, a farm-to-table eatery in Palmetto, Ga., approximately 45 miles south of Atlanta. White opened her restaurant after 12 years of working under Karatassos at 103 West, where she rose from sous chef to executive sous chef, to chef de cuisine and then executive chef.
“People asked me why I stayed at one place all those years, and the answer is simple: Because of the good graces of Pano I was able to not only learn at 103 West, I was able to go to the other restaurants, get support and education from all of the other chefs,” White says.
“It was an amazing opportunity to learn from the best, and Pano and his staff are always innovating.”
Much has changed during Karatassos’ career.
“It used to be you changed the color of the walls and the carpet,” he says. “Now, it’s marketing, PR, pressure to change the menu. There is a huge difference because people eat and live differently than they used to. They are health-conscious, and they eat to prevent diseases. If we did what we did 40 to 50 years ago, we might not be around today.”
Pano Karatassos BORN: Savannah, Ga.CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: working at the Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks as food and beverage director, when founder Harold Koplar gave carte blanche to develop two restaurants—the experience gave Karatassos the drive to open his own restaurant in Atlanta, which Koplar initially helped finance; chairing Share Our Strength Atlanta; growing Buckhead Life Restaurant GroupAPPROXIMATE ANNUAL COMPANYWIDE REVENUE: $70 millionMOST PROFITABLE FINE-DINING RESTAURANTS: Chops Lobster Bar in Atlanta and Atlanta Fish MarketHIGHEST REVENUE PER SQUARE FOOT: Chops Lobster Bar and Atlanta Fish MarketFAVORITE DISH: Pano’s filet au poivre—pepper-crusted filet mignon on potato confit with wild-mushroom ragoût, topped with a red-wine braised shallot with brandied peppercorn sauce and a port wine glaze—which is served in several restaurantsTHE HARDEST PART ABOUT GROWING BUCKHEAD LIFE: “When you bring people in from the outside, you have to try to find people from a similar culture or who can fit into the culture. It makes growing the company easier.”
BORN: Savannah, Ga.CAREER HIGHLIGHTS: working at the Lodge of Four Seasons at the Lake of the Ozarks as food and beverage director, when founder Harold Koplar gave carte blanche to develop two restaurants—the experience gave Karatassos the drive to open his own restaurant in Atlanta, which Koplar initially helped finance; chairing Share Our Strength Atlanta; growing Buckhead Life Restaurant GroupAPPROXIMATE ANNUAL COMPANYWIDE REVENUE: $70 millionMOST PROFITABLE FINE-DINING RESTAURANTS: Chops Lobster Bar in Atlanta and Atlanta Fish MarketHIGHEST REVENUE PER SQUARE FOOT: Chops Lobster Bar and Atlanta Fish MarketFAVORITE DISH: Pano’s filet au poivre—pepper-crusted filet mignon on potato confit with wild-mushroom ragoût, topped with a red-wine braised shallot with brandied peppercorn sauce and a port wine glaze—which is served in several restaurantsTHE HARDEST PART ABOUT GROWING BUCKHEAD LIFE: “When you bring people in from the outside, you have to try to find people from a similar culture or who can fit into the culture. It makes growing the company easier.”
Karatassos says that while his children continue to take on expanded roles in the business and are integral to the company’s growth, he has no intention of retiring any time soon.
“I am still young enough to do double shifts a day, and I love it,” he says. “People say, ‘When are you going to stop and smell the roses?’ Well, I say, these are my roses.”