Was the tasting menu to blame for Staplehouse’s slow start?

Chef Ryan Smith reflects on the last four months and the challenges up ahead

Courtesy of Andrew Thomas Lee

Staplehouse is the most anticipated restaurant to open in the last five years, maybe even in the last decade. But if you had walked in for dinner shortly after it opened in October, you wouldn’t have known it. When I sat down one Thursday in November, I was just one of four parties. And as I heard from friends, a slow evening like that wasn’t uncommon.

The empty tables were puzzling, especially given the anticipation that began building all the way back in 2009, when the late Ryan Hidinger and his wife, Jen, hosted sold-out supper clubs from their house, with dreams of opening their own restaurant. Then, in December 2012, Ryan was diagnosed with cancer. Seemingly overnight, the restaurant community rallied, eventually raising $275K for his treatment. Ryan passed in 2014, but by then the Giving Kitchen, which assists restaurant workers in crisis, was already going strong. And when Jen held up the building permit for Staplehouse at the Team Hidi 3.0 fundraiser last January, the crowd raised another $300K in a high-stakes auction for the Giving Kitchen (Last week’s Team Hidi 4.0 raised closer to $400K).

The struggle once the restaurant opened was especially puzzling to Ryan Smith, Staplehouse’s chef. We sat down in November, when the restaurant still had the look and feel of a new car, and Smith acknowledged his bewilderment. Where had they gone wrong? Where were the people? Maybe it was the ticketing system. Staplehouse is the first restaurant in Atlanta to require diners to pick a date and foot the bill, tax and tip included, before you’ve eaten the five-course prix-fixe menu (Today, the system is much more flexible, plus there’s a generous a la carte option for walk-ins). Without alcohol, that comes to $110 a person. This system isn’t new to cities like New York, Chicago, or San Francisco, but Smith wondered whether the novelty was an impasse for customers. Or was it the location along Edgewood Avenue? The conclusion at the time: Let’s just make it through December and go from there.

I sat down with Smith again in mid-January for another update. Below, Smith discusses how business is better (much better), how Staplehouse has evolved, and whether tasting menus can work in Atlanta.

When we last talked, you said you were hitting around 20 or 30 tickets a night and you wanted 40 to 50. Are you’re getting closer to that number?
With number of people, yes. With tasting tickets, no. We never wanted to be unattainable. We wanted to be accessible, but no one’s done tickets in Atlanta, so that’s the first thing people want to talk about. It put us on this pedestal that we didn’t want to be on. We learned quickly that doing a la carte over here and tasting menus over there—it was too much and too confusing. Now you can come sit down as a walk in, make a normal reservation or buy a ticket if you want to do a tasting. It’s been really, really good.

Now you have two menus—the tasting menu and the a la carte menu—whereas before it was tasting menu, bar menu, and patio menu?
Kind of. The bar menu was the tasting menu, just priced a la carte. Trying to open two concepts at once was not a great decision. If you go to Roberta’s [in Brooklyn], it’s a perfect example. A little rock and roll, you know, and then you’ve got the higher-end Blanca. But they did that in stages. They created this pizza joint and built from it. We came out swinging with both concepts and two separate kitchens. Now everything comes from one kitchen. Both the a la carte and the testing menu are executed inside.

What’s happening with the kitchen out back? [A secondary kitchen in a shed, equipped with two Big Green Eggs, was originally intended to serve guests on the patio.]
Prep. In the spring I think we’ll be back out there using those grills more. Once we have patio season, we’ll being doing more dishes from the patio.

So as soon as you switched to this more approachable format, you had more walk-ins?
Yeah, more walk-ins, more a la carte. A lot more a la carte. I am still hopeful for the tasting menu. I want it to kind of take over, but we’re going to be patient.

Bacchanalia dropped its tasting menu, which is a pretty big move. What is it about tasting menus in Atlanta? There aren’t many left.
I don’t know. For me, it’s the way I want to cook. It’s the utmost way that somebody can express themselves as a cook. It’s complete surrender as a guest, and I don’t think it can get more personal. Every chef wants to be able to cook what they want to cook. I don’t know if it’s always going to be the most realistic thing, but I don’t know why it’s not embraced more. You have to trust us and have faith because you’re pre-paying, you don’t know what you’re going to get, and you don’t get a choice between each course. It’s like going to a wine dinner. Since that hasn’t really happened in this city, that might be a big hurdle for some people, but for me, I think it’s important for people to step out of their comfort zone.

We have more control over each person’s’ dining experience with this system. There’s less variable for error in my mind. We spend so much time sourcing ingredients, planning menus, and prepping food but then when you open the flood gates, all these people show up and order at the exact same time and you have to make sacrifices. It’s the worst feeling I’ve ever experienced, and I never want to feel that again. I want people to have the food the way it’s supposed to be.

Maybe we’re just not comfortable trusting chefs?
Yeah, I get that. It’s a lot of money up front and the difference between how we’re approaching a tasting menu compared to Eugene, those were like prix-fixe with a huge menu and you design your way through it. Here, you’re not going to make a decision. Of course, if you have dietary restrictions we’re happy to accommodate. You’re allowing us to pave your path.

When we last talked, you weren’t sure why business was so slow. Was it the location, the format, the price? Do you feel like you’re narrowing in on what you need to do to make the restaurant operate the way you want it to?
That’s a tough question. I think I’ll know more in the spring. It’s every chef’s dream to have as much control as possible. When you start taking away all those little pieces, you are slowly losing all of that control. I’m not saying we’re sacrificing quality, but if we were doing 40 tasting menus every night, we’d have to the ability to hone in on timing, execution, attention to detail, and the precision that we want to achieve. We’ve never been able to hone in on that.  We’re still proud of the food we cook, even for the a la carte menu, but the goal, it should be memorable. There has to be some kind of element in each dish where people are like “That’s kind of cool” or “how the hell did they do that?”

Our kitchen isn’t setup to do an appetizer and entree kind of experience. We don’t have the ability to time out eight people that sit down on one table, like everybody ordering their individual thing. It’s really hard to execute that and plate it all at once and time it. So there’s all these little things we’re still working on, of how we break those barriers, because people have a type of dining experience set in their minds when they go out. They want to sit down, order their appetizer, order their entree, maybe they’ll share a dessert.

I want tasting menus to work. What do you think you have to do to push people along?
I think just be patient. Right now, we’ve got to just push through it and push ourselves. Again, my goal is to get this place to where we’re doing mostly tasting menus. I want it to be tasting menu heavy and a la carte light…I have an idea of running a longer tasting menu that’s a journey of my Atlanta career. Each dish is a homage to someone I’ve worked under, so people like Anne Quatrano, Linton Hopkins, and Hugh Acheson. It’s one dish I learned from them but interpreted my way. When the dish is dropped off, there’s a little story. I think I want to launch it early February and run it for a month and see how it goes. I really need to get some thought into it. 

How many covers are you hitting a night, at this point?
Oh man, it’s great. Wednesday and Thursday, our reservations are around 30 and 40 consistently. But then we get a ton of walk ins; it’s great. We’re starting to get a lot of regulars. And then the weekends are just bananas. I know we’re growing into what we can do. We had a very nice article from the AJC, and I think we did great after that. We ended up having to turn people away. We didn’t have enough food. We’re just trying to make sure we have enough to get through the weekend, and we’re trying to get ahead. They’re good problems. 

Those are fantastic problems. When we last talked, it was not the same situation.
Last time we talked, it was more of like, “How do I preserve food?” It was out of necessity. Now I’m trying to preserve food because I like to do it, but I can’t buy enough to preserve it because we’re selling it all. Things are going great. We’re just trucking along and figuring it out as we go. It’s really great to see people come back in here.