Ten years ago, the husband-and-wife team of chef Linton Hopkins and sommelier Gina Hopkins opened Restaurant Eugene in Atlanta's Buckhead neighborhood only to see it devastated by a flood less than a year later. Fast forward to today and Restaurant Eugene is still going strong. Hopkins calls it the flagship of his growing restaurant group, which now includes Holeman & Finch, H&F Bread Co., and H&F Burger at Turner Field. And there's much more on the horizon, including an H&F Burger opening at the highly anticipated Ponce City Market and a just-announced cafe and restaurant at Atlanta's Botanical Garden.
In the following interview, Hopkins looks back at the beginnings of Restaurant Eugene and how expansion initially cost him top talent, even though Holeman & Finch just across from Restaurant Eugene. Hopkins also explains the role that nurturing his staff has played in his company's growth, whether in how he treats Restaurant Eugene "like a school" or in creating a corporate culture that values family over work. "There's a history, unfortunately, of chefs with shattered lives and an endgame I do not like," says Hopkins. "Non-happiness, complete sacrifice for cuisine and that's not me."
Congratulations on the 10th anniversary of Restaurant Eugene.
It's funny. A lot of people don't understand about Restaurant Eugene. Every business growth we have is to protect Restaurant Eugene.
Can you tell me more about what that means?
Gina and I built Restaurant Eugene 10 years ago. Just us. No partners. Money we made from selling our house in Virginia. Landlord, tenant improvement allowance, a third of it and we had a SBA loan with my name on it.
We had a flood in our 11th month. We'd just gotten profitable and I walked in that Saturday morning to all the ceilings smashed around. Over a third of a million dollars worth of damage and here I am, a chef. My wife, a sommelier. Two kids under five. We're doing everything right. Getting good reviews. We finally turned a profit. It can all be taken away and that scares me. It's not that the restaurant business is risky. It's that every business is risky, every small business.
So Holeman & Finch really was built because the landlord was going to let in a national pizza chain across the street from our jewel box restaurant. We had rights of first refusal on that space in our lease. We had a great bartender that became our partner. We're able to control the front door of Restaurant Eugene. The bakery was to build bread for Restaurant Eugene. We had a baker that we wanted to incentivize. We made him a partner in our bakery and now that's grown into its own business.
"People are saying fine dining's dead. I would argue that, in fact, it's more necessary than ever."
Everything started out of Eugene. It still does. That's the R & D thought place that trickles through everything we do. The economics is, how [do] we continue to strive towards fine dining when there's not many fine dining restaurants? A lot of people are saying fine dining's dead. I would argue that, in fact, it's more necessary than ever to have a place that explores cuisine and service and hospitality at the highest level.
It's named after my grandfather. It's our first place. We have tiles in the kitchen that my kids had painted on. We had to use the business as needed to help fine dining survive, to allow us reinvest and have it last forever.
Does it feel like 10 years ago?
Feels longer. We've been married 17 years. It's like dog years because we work together so maybe it's like 50 years, but it's a long time ago. I've changed a lot as a chef. In a lot of ways I haven't changed.
I run the basic values and the structure of it, but I've learned that it's a place to allow people to grow. It's almost like a school for me now, where we train people and allow them to shepherd what is Restaurant Eugene. We're very open with allowing our team to help continue to define what that is.
I love it. It's right on a road that was a dirt road when my grandfather was a boy. I love that it's part of the Atlanta fabric. I feel really proud as an adult, being in the city I grew up in. I think a restaurant needs to be part of that fabric the same way New Orleans is, like Antoine's or Commander's. I want it to have that kind of long-standing impact on what a restaurant should be in a community.
Did Atlanta diners and critics get what you were going for right when you opened or did you feel like it took a little bit of time for it to click?
I still think it's taking a little time. I think the whole restaurant review world sees the restaurant business in a different way than I do. I think food's really important and that's what I do. I don't think I invented food. I don't think restaurants invented food. I think food invented us in a way and so we need to be humble about that.
I think food reviewers see this game of restaurants more than what is really important about a restaurant, this game of what it means to be a chef and this whole world. Even Eater, it's part of this world of interest around our business, but it means a lot to me and I think they're still trying to get that understanding of why I'm even in this business.
" I don't like how the restaurant business can make food small and mean and competitive."
In a lot of ways, I don't like the restaurant business. I don't like how the restaurant business can make food small and mean and competitive and more about the game of getting diners and not transforming a community and really being at the highest levels of why we even interact as human beings. That's why I have a restaurant. I love pursuing my own journey through food and what it means to be a chef.
In a way, I'm only 10 years old because I'm a chef/owner. And I know that that will continue to change and the only thing I can ever promise you at Restaurant Eugene is change and a commitment to these ideals, these values that I have, but I reserve the right to change the menu, even during the course of an evening. I'm not interested, again, in making it small.
Now, I know a lot of the earlier reviews were about how old our clientele was. I remember we got called a Republican restaurant once because we're in this Buckhead area of Atlanta, which is like saying you're [on the] Upper West Side [of Manhattan]. That doesn't mean that I'm Republican. That doesn't mean I'm Democrat. I'm a hospitality guy that wants to cook you good food. This is beyond religion, this is beyond politics. This is about just I want to serve you good food and we're going to build a business to do that in a very simple way. We want to be part of our community in a powerful way and so our clientele was a lot of friends of my parents. It was a lot of older clientele. I remember one review wrote a lot about the age of our clientele, wrote about the politics, like somehow I am this wealthy Republican person. I'm like this isn't about that at all. It's not about societal status and class. It's about good food.
What changes have you seen in the Atlanta dining scenes since you first opened?
Well, there's a lot more access to local farm goods, which is great.
I think you're seeing a lot more chef owned restaurants. This was not the big thing. Smaller restaurants are more personal, you're seeing a lot more of [that], which is great. It is not the big investor-splashed $8 million cost uber-chef restaurant. It's small little mom & pops and chefs and restaurateurs that want to build places, build their own future, their own last job and I think that's cool.
Holeman & Finch was obviously a major opening. What was it like to learn how to manage both places at once?
Changed me completely because I'm a proximity person by nature. If I'm here with you, I can't really be anywhere else. I think that's inhospitable to you and it's also I'm really big just being where I am.
Holeman & Finch is so close you would think there'd be very easy to manage. But we lost some good people during that process who couldn't learn and survive and manage both at the same time, too. Food costs were starting to go out of control. Consistency of food, we started seeing more swings in that. Again, I couldn't just run faster.
"We're still in that process as we grow to build our future growth without losing our past."
We've always had to just work on how do we create these individual cultures and build a stronger team that knows how to manage that effectively. That's saving time. We're still in that process as we grow to build our future growth without losing our past.
Right now, I think Eugene's the best it's ever been with team, people who are passionate about it, consistency of food. I love it. I think we're more open with allowing people to be part of that creative aspect of writing the menu. We've got a great guy, Brian Jones, there now. He's tremendous quality talent.
What are your strategies for maintaining your vision and quality across the different restaurants as you continue expanding?
Well, I love the word corporation and I want to change that definition that somehow corporate is like this above think pushing directives down. What we look at as a corporation is like a soil ground level, pushing individuals up.
How do we celebrate the individual, celebrate the individual business, allow it to find its own identity? That's an important thing because even going to that kind of thinking challenged a lot of our employees with maybe we're too corporate top down.
We had to say no, no, no, this is different. You're even more free to do what you want to do. We just want to be included in the conversation. We're going to have a culture where we're actually nice to each other.
The things I'm going to enforce are protect the relationships I've built around good food ... It's teaching them this culture of food relationships. To teach a chef, you just can't get on the phone and place an order. You're actually going to have to call people. You're actually going to have to go to the market and talk to them. You're going to have to start reading seed catalogs and planning. That's an important thing.
"Letting people be amazing people and just being a witness to that conversation is the absolute key."
Hiring is key. I think we're getting very good strategically at how we bring someone on board in leadership. We have a new gentleman with us, Ryan Butler, formally the Dinex Group and he knows the operational things that have to happen to ensure integrity and brand transparency across all the brands. Hiring and training is everything. Letting people be amazing people and just being a witness to that conversation is the absolute key and then creating a very strong value-based system.
I really believe in being a person of faith, not in this world of religion and division, but are we going to believe that we can actually get better. What is the foundational, philosophical beginning of excellence? What's allowing someone to strive through their own vision of what that should be for themselves.
How we find, now the company's bigger, there's a lot of advantages to growth because now we can find someone who thought maybe they wanted to be happy being a chef. In this kind of restaurant [or] maybe they were better in this way, [or] maybe they want to be a baker.
So there's a lot of movement between the restaurants?
Yeah. A lot of cooks finding their way. Are they going to start in our commissary kitchen, the Eugene kitchen and they're going to move up and do some garde manger work at Holeman & Finch. Eugene's our flagship. We want the best trained, the finest craftspeople, the highest commitment to excellence. They're going to earn their right in there so that's why it's like a school. They're going to find their ways and Eugene is really the post-graduate kind of work. It really requires a skill level. We want to empower them.
You were saying you want to creat a kitchen culture where people are nice to each other, which is the opposite of what most people think of in kitchens. Was that challenging to cultivate?
I find that you're right. When people come to us that are from the restaurant business, we have to get past some basic assumptions that they've been trained in, which is distrust. If you're back of the house, you're distrustful of the front of the house. If you're front of the house, you're distrustful of the back of the house. The whole intent. I don't like that division at all and I think a lot of real restaurateurs hate that division. They don't encourage it...
"Hospitality is no barriers. Hospitality is transparency."
There should be no division. I want to remove as many of those false barriers we have between people because they have no room in hospitality. Hospitality is no barriers. Hospitality is transparency. Hospitality is kindness and we're going to make a million mistakes.
I like to tell people I'm going to make a million mistakes because I want to be good and I want to be honest. I want to be transparent. I want to be nice. Now, could I get a team to a level of consistent excellence by driving it in a very maniacal, I'm never home, kind of way? Absolutely. There's a history, unfortunately, of chefs with shattered lives and an endgame I do not like. Divorce, drugs, alcoholism. Non-happiness, complete sacrifice for cuisine and that's not me.
Food came out of family for me and so I'm at home with my children, cooking them food because that's how I grew up, with a meal at home. I find right now a lot of our cooks have no history of meals and homes. In a lot of ways, we're having to teach them how to eat, like what does tomato taste like. They're wanting to jump right to Spanish cookbooks and they have no history of food that would even allow them to understand these great chefs in Spain or France, who grew up around the food in their family.
It's an interesting balance. I find I'm more effective with my teams during the daytime than being this driven chef during service yelling out on table 23. That was not my endgame at all. I don't want to give up my life, my wife, my kids for the restaurant. Family and the way food plays in my life, are much more sacred than standing at the pass doing that world of food.
You don't often hear people in this industry say that.
Well, they love saying cuisine first. I hear it all the time. It's not cuisine first. What life are we living? I'm a cancer survivor. Are stars more important than the look in my children's eyes, the relationship I build and a life with people? Absolutely not.
"The sacredness of who we are as people together is much more important than the business of food."
I mean let's get our act together. We didn't invent food. It's bigger than us. Food is bigger than the restaurant industry. The sacredness of who we are as people together is much more important than the business of food.
I want us to get our priorities right. Now I love cuisine and I love chefs. I love Ducasse and Joël Robuchon. I love crazy, maniacal Jean-Louis Palladin, over-the-top, crazy anger, temper tantrum. I get it.
I don't necessarily want to be friends with them, nor do I want to work in their kitchens, but I appreciate their real craft bordering on art within food. I just know what I want out of my personal life and that's just a calmer, long-term, multi-generational world of food. That's how I think about food and community ...
Family is first for everybody. We say this is not family first for Gina and Linton. This is family first for everyone. It's a way we even rethink the word corporation. How do we have those places? We need to get work done. We have bills to pay. We need people to be paid.
Gina's been great at working with our wellness culture, with how do we allow people to have their lives. You have a death in your family. You go make it right for your family. We're okay. The part of the beauty of growth is now we don't have to be so desperate around one individual. Me included.
How are things going at H&F Burger at Ponce City Market?
It's going great. At the end of this month, we've got one of the last formal pictures from the architect. We built this restaurant using a buddy of mine's assistance, who had worked within the Wendy's organization helping design kitchens, so we're using a lot of that forward-thinking fast food design with bringing in our fresh food.
It's amazing, the quality of griddles. There's a steam-jacketed griddle, where it's a surface of steam under the griddle iron. It's more consistent. It has a faster recoup time. So it's been this access into this world of really griddle technology...That just is better and so we're designing everything from the kitchen core for speed and efficiency to really make it good on our employees and good for speed of product. Then protect integrity product, we're going to grind all our own meat there, which is fun.
I look at H & F Burger almost like a butcher shop that sells burgers on a counter. We're going to look at the health stuff. You'll have our bakery right next door, H & F Bread, a little bread kiosk so you'll be able to buy our hamburger buns. You'll be able to buy our condiments that we all make in-house. We have little jars out of our ketchup, mustard, and pickle. I'd love to be able to sell you the meat you could grind at home. Or I could even sell you the patties. I like giving away recipes for free, not hiding things because that's part of the fun, too. You should be able to cook these burgers at home.
"We're close. It's probably going to be a May opening."
We're close. It's probably going to be a May opening. March is when we're told the parking deck will be open. That means April ... We'll be ready. We'll have full designs and permitting ready to go, where I could start construction probably December 1 so we'll see how that develops. Yeah, it's fun. I'm going to be real excited with our first place.
It's going to have counter service. I think a lot about, when I walk into a restaurant, a lot of places don't even know how to pour Coca-Cola properly, because I love Coca-Cola. I like the balance with good ice and the right fizz, what they say the pause that refreshes ... We're going to have Coke where we do the old soda fountain, where we pour the syrup in. Then the soda and we stir the ice. We're going to get some of the old glasses. We were talking with them that have the syrup line still on it. They sent us some of their ice studies from the '30s so that we can look at how they were training these pharmacies on how to mix a Coke. I think that's going to be a lot of fun.
We're going to have a good vegetarian burger. We're working on a vegetarian burger that is as craveable as a meat burger. I'm real proud of it, I think we hit the recipe. It's a ... I won't give you the recipe. I'm pretty closed on this one right now ... It's barley based. We've got mushrooms in there, for your umami. We use beets. It's gluten-free. It's got Sea Island red peas in the mix. I found that so many vegetarian burgers were like big bean patties so I needed it to have some granularity and crispy edges. We're going to build it the same way. It's not a big thick burger, like our stack...I think the secret I really want about H & F Burger is that actually it's not about the burger at all. We're going to have a salad that I want to be really just one of the great salads, like "I go to H & F Burger for the salad."
...I'm excited we're going to have hand-churned milkshakes, the old churn milkshakes. High Road Craft Creamery, the local ice cream place is...going to deliver ice cream daily for us.
Is this quick-service concept something you're thinking about repeating?
Sure, yeah. I love the idea ... I want every H & F Burger, if there are more, to always be unique to its own place. I really believe in the terroir of location, the story of what it is, the architecture. The menu should always change to reflect where it is.
I'll tell you what I've also loved about food, is how expanding it is fun. I really believe good food is for all. I really believe in the word artisan and I don't see anywhere in the definition of artisan that it says small or that it says big. It has nothing to do with size. It has everything to do with philosophical intent. So I love that Danny Meyer's expanding good food everywhere. I really want everyone on the planet to be fed good food...
Our Atlanta editor heard a rumor that Chik-fil-A is going to start using H & F buns. Is there any truth to that?
I've gotten to know Dan [Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A]. Dan's big focus is how could he be the food of American families and that's really important to him. Regardless of all the stuff around definition of family, he really wants to have good for American families and since they're an Atlanta company, they had asked me to look at our bun.
"I'm here to help any company that wants to talk about good food."
Where it goes I don't know, but we, I believe ... I'm here to help any company that wants to talk about good food. When you say you want to go farm to table, like Emory University did. I'm part of their little committee on good food. We sell our bread there.
Yeah, we just had the first little discussion with them on here's what a sandwich tastes like on our bread. Well, how do you roll that out in a company that big? That's crazy. It's very hard to do. You got to take baby steps. What I've learned from Chik-fil-A, we went to their innovation center they just opened up. They have the most amazing way they innovate. Now it may be slow, but I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I just love being part of the conversation with them about possibly. I like that. I like the word possible.
I don't know if it's probable yet, but I know that they want to be part of good food for families and I think that's important. I want to be part of good food for families, too, so why can't we find a middle ground to talk about what that is.
And what's going on with the botanical garden restaurant?
That just got announced ... Why have food at a botanical garden? It's the same question I had for Delta. Here we are on a plane. Why do you have food on a plane? Let's figure that out.
Why have food in a botanical garden? Well, what is the history of botanical gardens? It's the world of physics that it came out of. It's part of curating a collection of making an urban garden. Well, of course food should be tied into that. Families are there, people are there. They're there for a long period of time. They need refreshment.
"I will never be known as a vendor."
How do we build a partnership that's not me as a vendor? Even the legal documents, I was like I will never be known as a vendor. I don't want to go into the legal words that talk about lowest common denominator. I want to talk about a legal language that talks about the highest common aspirations.
The partnership with them is really this new entity, to build a new idea [around]: why have food there? So we're taking over the current Blossom Café. We've rebranded to Linton's. The Café at Linton's in the garden. It's first restaurant I put my name on, which is very scary.
I know that it means I've got to be better because I have to stand for something. We're just choosing what the first menu is right now. I look at the world of what a crudite has the possibility to be, which is beautiful, fresh, shaved vegetable salads ... They already have on the wall there "plant to plate" and we want to make that the truth.
It'll be all the same farmers, the same artisans, the same culture of cooking from scratch. We've hired an amazing young man to be our chef there, which we're proud to announce, you'll be the first person we ever told. Justin Van Aken out of Florida. He believes in integrity and he believes in all food service should be the same in that level of integrity, whether I'm building a little salad or even if I'm making a PB & J for you...
Then they're building this café and restaurant that we get to be a part of the design. Danny Meyer is such a hero of mine ... We're able to blend how do you feed people very quickly with the elegance that every human deserves so where you don't feel like you're just in a feed lot with hospitality and service.
We're testing the recipes right now. We start in November. It's going to be very fast so we're going to see how it goes. I can just tell you we're going to make a lot of mistakes. Have sympathy for us, but just know that we're going to work on really doing the right thing. I'm going to have to get there and learn how to cook for people there because each space is different. People have different expectations of what food should be.
I just know we're going to get rid of a lot of the disposables. I want to serve things on plates with plate-ware and hand you a glass. I want to get past everything being a cafeteria. I want it to be a personable café. I like the word café. I want to defend it.