Looking back on 20 years of Canoe

Co-founder George McKerrow: “We were farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool”
The original building before the renovation

Courtesy of Canoe

This month marks 20 years of riverfront dining at Canoe, the beloved Vinings restaurant that opened in 1995 under the direction of chef Gerry Klaskala and business partners Ron San Martin and George McKerrow (who is also the founder of LongHorn Steakhouse and Ted’s Montana Grill). From the beginning the team set out to replicate what Alice Waters had built in California at Chez Panisse: a seasonal, farm-to-table restaurant dedicated to fresh, local ingredients. “We were farm-to-table before farm-to-table was cool,” McKerrow says.

Lunch on the patio is often the best time to take in the scene, when the picturesque garden is in full bloom and the fog is just rising off the Chattahoochee. The river has also been a source of tragedy. In 2009, it flooded the restaurant after a rainstorm; the staff had to rebuild everything from the kitchen to the 1,800 square-foot vegetable garden.

We recently sat down with San Martin, McKerrow, general manager Vincent Palermo, and current executive chef Matt Basford to discuss the restaurant’s 20-year history—and where it fits in Atlanta’s dining scene today.

Was there ever a point when you thought, “We’re not going to make it?”
San Martin: I don’t think so. This place was busy from the first day. When we had the opening party, traffic backed up to I-75. Because of George’s reputation, Gerry [Klaskala’s] reputation—everybody was looking forward to this restaurant. We never really had a doubt that this was going to be successful. The longevity question is different.

Looking back, what were some of the tough points?
San Martin: The toughest was the flood. It was also during the recession. The flood was in 2009. You had ’07 and that was booming and then in ’08 everything started going down. We follow the economy here, and it had flattened out. The flood, while it was a disaster, [brought] a lot of attention to Canoe. We probably kept 75 to 80 percent of the staff. We hired them to help clean and helped them get jobs elsewhere in the meantime.

Palermo: We were shut down for 60 days. We all came to work every day and worked in horrible conditions, cleaning, and, scrubbing and moving. It brought us all very close together. If you could take something positive away from that, it was that.

You’ve had just three chefs over the course of 20 years. What was the transition like when Carvel [Grant Gould] left in 2013?
San Martin: We’ve always hired from within and felt that if we have people who have been in this kitchen for a long time, then they should have the opportunity.

McKerrow: We weren’t looking for a celebrity chef. Carvel opened the restaurant as sous chef and worked her way up, and Matt [Basford] came here as a cook in 2005 and got promoted in 2013. We could have [looked at outside candidates] if we thought the restaurant needed the buzz, but we don’t think Canoe needs that. We think Canoe speaks for itself—that the atmosphere, location, level of hospitality and service matches up with the farm-to-table food. Canoe is bigger than one person. It’s not the chef that’s driving the success. They’re all contributing factors.

Basford: As far as the restaurant goes, it was very smooth. It was just taking the next step up in the ladder. I was still doing all of the same things—I had a lot of input in the menu in the previous four years so it wasn’t a complete shock to the system.

George and Ron, you both have a track record for building restaurants that last. Where do restaurateurs often go wrong from a business standpoint?
McKerrow: Ill-conceived concepts are a real detriment, [as are] a lack of financial discipline and funding. Most people don’t understand that you’re not going to be an overnight success, and you need some cash reserves to handle that. If they aren’t doing the business they expect and aren’t getting the money they need, they panic and start to over-analyze and change.

San Martin: When people open a restaurant, they don’t always realize all that it takes to operate one. They’re a chef, and they know how to work the kitchen, but they don’t understand the front of the house, all of the administrative stuff that has to happen. And so you get bogged down with that and don’t have time to do what you should be doing. 

What are the challenges of running a restaurant that’s been open for 20 years?
McKerrow: We’re not in Buckhead or in Midtown. We have to bring guests over here. Second of all, we’re competing against the latest new hot concepts. We have to make sure we’re catering to the next generation but not lose sight of the loyal regulars who have been here. You don’t want to come to Canoe and find out we’re doing sushi and steaks. While the menu changes all of the time, the fundamental foundation of the menu is about the same.

Matt, do you feel this dual pressure as a chef wanting to make your own mark on this restaurant but also wanting to respect the history and roots of the place?
Basford: It’s more of an honor than a pressure. It’s just doing what we do and doing what I’ve been doing for the last five or six years—and that’s producing quality food and making sure guests get the culinary experience that they’re looking for.

How easy is it to push your customers? How do they react to new dishes?
Basford: The regular guests we have are [open] to trying new things. There are certain things we don’t do because it’s not the restaurant we are, but the box that I work in is extremely large.

Palermo: We’re not here to educate people. We’re here to give people memorable experiences. It’s what we’ve been doing for 20 years. Generally it’s not about forcing people into areas [where] they’re not comfortable from a culinary point of view or a wine point of view or a service point of view. 

How have you seen Atlanta’s taste buds evolve?
McKerrow: The maturity level of the dining public has grown dramatically. I came here in 1976. Buckhead Life and Canoe and other long-term fine dining restaurants have changed the public perceptions, [but] the public has [also] gained tremendous knowledge. [Still], fundamentally, I still think we’re a meat and potatoes town. Look at the 14 steakhouses along Peachtree Road.

Is there anything about Atlanta’s dining culture that bothers you?
San Martin: People always want to go to the hot new place—and we do too to see what’s out there. But they tend to go back to the place where they’re more comfortable and where they feel like they’re taken care of.

McKerrow: I think that some food journalists tend to discount long-term, consistent players. They overrate the newcomers. I can name a dozen restaurants that are brand new and within the first six months got four- or five-star ratings. I don’t know how you can rate [a restaurant] that high without consistent delivery over a long period of time. And then you turn around and take restaurants that have been successful for 15 years and they get one or two stars because they aren’t new. The whole city could use a more sophisticated approach to the way we discuss the real contributors to the culinary scene in Atlanta.