Atlanta restaurateur and Eater Young Guns semi-finalist Ryan Pernice opened Table & Main, his Southern tavern and bourbon bar, in August of 2011. Now, at 27, the owner/operator has another restaurant on the way — Osteria Mattone — this one Italian instead of Southern. Both are housed on a small stretch of historic downtown Roswell called Canton Street in the suburb north of the city in which Pernice grew up. Before coming home after attending Cornell, he helped open Danny Meyer's Maialino in New York, all the while hoping to one day have a place of his own. Says Danny Meyer of Pernice, "He pioneered a restaurant row and had immediate success and is already in the process of opening his second place. He's got the full package: food, service, hospitality, entrepreneurship, smarts, everything." Below, Pernice talks about what it's like to be a young entrepreneur, plans for his next restaurant, and more.
How did you get start?
I started working at a restaurant called the Roasted Garlic when I was thirteen. It's a very vivid memory—we were there for my mother's birthday, and I kind of joked with the owner about wanting to work in a restaurant, and the next thing I knew, I was starting the following week. Not as a dishwasher, but as a cook. I was at a grill. It was totally illegal, but my parents were cool with it and the restaurant was cool with it. We had a lot of fun. I grew up in those [Castellucci Hospitality Group] restaurants all through high school.
And then you studied Hospitality Management at Cornell. You knew you always wanted to work in the industry?
I loved restaurants— I dabbled in finance and consulting for a hot minute but I always came back to restaurants as what I wanted to do. I always had that thread.
How did Table & Main come about?
I was working at Maialino in New York, and I always knew I wanted to open a restaurant. I would come back from college to Roswell and visit Canton Street, which sort of grew in fits and starts for a while, and then it became this weird little nightlife destination. I grew up in Roswell, so it was weird to see my hometown as this little engine of restaurant and hospitality talent. While I was at Maialino, the opportunity to open a restaurant at 1028 Canton Street presented itself, and I thought, you know, I don't have a wife, I don't have kids, I don't have a mortgage, let's just do this. Let's take the risk and just jump in.
Did you expect to get the accolades that you have?
I think Ted [executive chef Ted Lahey] and I set out to do something great and to aspire to that, so that it has happened, I will confess that there's still a little part of me that— I can't believe it. It feels really great. We worked really hard to get here. We definitely set out to be a draw for Roswell while offering that level of experience to bring people in from all over.
How was the first year and a half? Were there any major challenges?
How long do we have? Opening a restaurant is an incredibly difficult endeavor. I think Ted and I were both prepared for how long it would take, how many hours and the emotional investment of it, but it's one of those things where you don't know until you know. Seeing the boundaries and learning what that geography looks like was a long-running challenge. I think it's part of that learning process. You either learn it or you don't, and the outcome follows.
You started Table & Main when you were 25. What is it like to be such a young entrepreneur?
Well, I don't think 27 is that young anymore. I don't feel that young. But I think it's beneficial in a lot of ways because you get a lot more freedom to just do what you want. This has demanded the whole of me; I'm just focused on Table & Main— especially right after we opened. It's just the restaurant, that's all I have. If I had a family, if I had these other obligations, I wouldn't have been able to devote my all to it. Other people have done it and it's worked out fine, this is just me. But it allows me to be, in a word, selfish. I can say this is what my life is about, this is what I need to make happen right now: making this person happy and this table happy. That's my focus. Being able to wholly devote myself, that's been enormously helpful. That's the biggest benefit of being young.
What are your future plans?
[Forthcoming restaurant] Osteria Mattone is sort of filling my whole field of vision right now. I think that with restaurants, you do one and then there's sort of momentum to get you toward the second one. We decided we want to do it, and to me, it's a personal quest to prove that lightning can strike twice. We had great success with the first restaurant, and now my mission is to prove that it wasn't a one-off. We're good enough to make it happen again, and we're going to offer something great enough so that people are going to want to come again. And different enough, because it's five doors up the street, so it has to be. It's Italian versus Southern, but the feeling needs to be the same. And it works out really well that there's no other Italian on Canton Street.
Danny Meyer always says there are three things you need to start a restaurant: chef, concept, and location. With Table & Main, I had two, a location and a concept, so I had to find a chef. With Osteria, I had a chef and a location, and Ted and I have to back into the concept. It's a very different way of thinking, and that's why being a restaurateur is fun, because it's different than being a chef/owner, it's different than being a beverage guy, it's different than all these things. You've got to synthesize and focus on and have an awareness of everything, and that's what I love about being a restaurateur. You've got to do everything. Not to take anything away from anything anybody else is doing, but it's a lot. It demands the whole of you, but it's fun.
Are you getting ready to open?
No. Every time I go in there, it gets bigger. It's huge. If I was giving advice to young entrepreneurs, it'd be this: Don't wait until you're ready. Just do it. You either get ready, or you don't. With this second restaurant, I don't think we're ready. But I think we'll get there, and I think when the doors are open, people are going to have an amazing time. And that's what we say yes to, that's what makes us say that we can do this.
So. Are you the next Danny Meyer?
I'm still shocked and amazed that Danny Meyer knows my name. I would be lucky to be the next Danny Meyer. I think we have a different enough spin on things, but you want to talk about a learning experience? Maialino was an incredible boot camp in how you open a restaurant. My experience at Maialino helped me get Table & Main to where it is, and I'm tremendously grateful for it. There's a debt of gratitude and thankfulness that I owe to him. I don't know that I'm comfortable saying that I want to be the next Danny Meyer, but I sure hope that we give as great as an experience and have as awesome a track record as Danny does. I would aspire to match his record, but as to claiming that I want to be the next Meyer?that's a lot. I will confess that my parents jokingly refer to my next restaurant as "Ryalino."
How do you feel about Young Guns? Do you want to be one?
I do want to be a Young Gun. This is a cool thing, and I think what's funny is about restaurants is that this is supposedly the most fiercely competitive industry in the world, and I don't know any other industry that's more supportively internally of each other, so I love that about the industry and I think this is a cool illustration of that. It'd be neat. And I'd love to leave Table & Main for a weekend and go to LA.
— Interview by Sonia Chopra