In a city where new restaurants open almost every week across metro Atlanta, Fifth Group Restaurants celebrates 25 years of its inaugural concept, South City Kitchen. Known for its Southern cuisine and signature dishes, the original South City Kitchen still is housed in the same renovated Midtown bungalow in which it opened on Crescent Ave. Its surroundings have improved, the buildings around it have grown taller and the food has evolved to match its guests’ more sophisticated tastes. The concept itself has spun off into locations in Vinings (2006) and Buckhead (2016) and, this year, Alpharetta’s Avalon development.
But the restaurant and others in its parent company enjoy steady business in a city that often thrives on trendy and new.
“Even when we were 25 or 26 years old and opening these places, we took a long-term approach,” said Steve Simon, who, along with Robby Kukler and Kris Reinhard, are Fifth Group Restaurant’s partners. “We never wanted to be the coolest guys in town or the hippest restaurant. Being trendy and of the moment is sometimes fun and sexy and exciting, but if it only lasts for a year or two or three, that becomes a lot less fun and sexy and exciting.”
Today, Fifth Group owns eight restaurants, including four licensed concepts, three of which are at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. The company’s catering and design entity, Bold Catering & Design, handles some 1,200 events per year. With about 800-900 employees depending on the time of year, Fifth Group is one of the largest restaurant employers in the metro area.
Kukler attributes the company’s success to the partners being methodical, thoughtful and knowledgeable about industry trends and customers. “We don’t rest on our laurels. We don’t coast as a company,” he said. “We’re always looking to change and evolve.”
The evolution of Fifth Group began in the summer of 1990 in Charleston, S.C., where Simon and Reinhard met while working at Magnolia’s restaurant. Reinhard, a Charleston native and Penn State student studying restaurant management, was a line cook. The two also worked with Chris Goss, whose childhood friend Kukler was in Atlanta in the restaurant business. An uncle of Goss, an investor, encouraged the young entrepreneurs to open a Southern cuisine concept similar to the famous Magnolias.
Atlanta seemed an up-and-coming city, said Reinhard. The partners scoured for a location and fell in love with the old bungalow, taking about a year to renovate and repurpose the property. In 1993, as South City Management Group (SCMG), Reinhard, Simon and Goss opened South City Kitchen. Kukler joined the trio a year later.
“We spent a lot of time building a culture that would promote our ability to retain staff, educate them, show them they were in a real professional career and really invest in those people,” said Reinhard. “That led us to retain those people and have more connected service, and [their happiness] translated to the guest experience.”
There was little by way of “food scene” in 1993, let alone knowledge of the “farm to table” concept. However, Kukler recalls how South City staff would drive halfway to Blairsville, Ga., to meet the grits farmer coming from the farm itself – they would pull over and the grits would be transferred from car to car. “No one wanted to pay UPS,” Kukler laughs, “so we would literally buy them on the side of the road.”
In 1999, Fifth Group opened its second restaurant, La Tavola in Virginia-Highland.
Since its early days, Fifth Group creates its concepts and searches for locations in a strategic fashion, said Simon. “For the first 15 years or so, often we found locations or parts of town that we were fond of, and we’d say, `What’s missing?’ and create a concept to fit those locations,” he said. “Then at some point, we said we should probably be prepared with some concepts we know we want to create and at least flesh them out to some degree, because we are presented with about 10 opportunities a week [from developers].”
While establishing new concepts is key to growth, Simon said duplicating popular brands also works. “We want to create a company that continues to grow in value, and one way is with some level of concepts that are demonstrated to work in more than one location.”
This philosophy has led to the new South City Kitchen restaurants, as well as the licensed Ecco and El Taco restaurants in the airport, he added.
As pleased as the partners are with 25 years of steady success, they said they look forward to bringing fresh concepts to many of what Simon called “microneighborhoods” throughout Atlanta.
“Growth for our company is important and we want it to be at a modest, reasonable pace,” he said. “We dont want to outgrow or oversaturate a market that is pretty close to being oversaturated, especially in certain areas. We want to have the right amount of new brands or new concepts, and expand those that are tried and true.”