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Haute Interview: 50 Eggs Restaurant Group CEO John Kunkel

John Kunkel_Headshot_850

Ahead of Tuesday’s opening of Swine Southern Table & Bar in Coral Gables, Haute Living caught up with 50 Eggs Restaurant group founder and CEO, John Kunkel. While Kunkel may not be a household name, his recent restaurants, Yardbird Southern Table & Bar, Khong River House and Lime, the cute, casual-Mex restaurant chain he sold to Ruby Tuesday in 2010 for $24 million, certainly are. Foodies are on the edge of their seats with anticipation at the opening of the Atlanta Georgia native’s latest restaurant, Swine Southern Table & Bar. They are expecting what they’ve come to love about 50 Eggs’ restaurants: delicious, well prepared food, chic, but unfussy interiors, correct pricing and excellent service.

What can I say? 50 Eggs restaurants are hot.

I don’t have the luxury of a “soft opening” anymore because the expectation of walking into [a 50 Eggs restaurant] has grown just that much more after Yardbird [and Khong’s] success.

 

That’s a lot of pressure.

Yes, but its great pressure for my whole team.  Because it’s really on. Right now we take an extra week or two for training and make sure that we have our act together before we open up.

 

Miami restaurants seem to always have issues with service.

Well everybody has an opening training crew.  You know, every hotel, everybody has their openers they bring in.  But they leave, and then it’s gone.

 

So what do you do differently?

We have a culture that kind of breeds excellence in the sense that you don’t survive on my wait staff team if you don’t know your menu. It’s a team.  And that’s a cultural thing in any business where you have people that know their job and love their job and they are giving 110%. I don’t care if you’re in law school or medical school, when you step through the doors I want everything you got, because we are not doing this for a hobby.  And everybody’s livelihood, 350 people, depends on our success.  Not to mention, the pride factor with me has to gone to about the hundredth degree.

 

It’s serious business.

Yes, it takes a full focus and effort from everybody, especially during the opening weeks and months. People expect to see me there, they want to see me there, so it’s important to be there during the peak periods and touch tables and say “Hello” to folks, and “Thanks for coming in.” So, right now, it’s definitely 12, 14, 16-hour days,  6-7 days a week, but that schedule fades off as I’m able to hand it off to our team and make sure that we are where we need to be. The quality of service and quality of food, consistency of the dining experience, all of that is so important. Everybody’s trying this out for the very first time, so they’re making up their mind within one or two times of being there.

 

Everyone always seems to have great experiences at your restaurants, but what if they don’t?

If somebody has a bad experience I don’t care if you they are Yelper or a blogger, or just a customer with no voice as far as being out there on social media, it kills me.  I mean, I hate to know that somebody’s had a bad experience and there was something we could have done about it.

 

You’re really passionate about it.

If you don’t have the need to serve others, to throw a great party and have everybody walking away going, “Wow that’s amazing I want to come back,” then you have to find something else to do. I didn’t come from another trade and then find success at this.  This is all I’ve done my whole life and I love doing it.  It is so much work, you have to love this business.  I wasn’t a real-estate attorney or a developer that decided,  “Hey, I’m going to get into the restaurant business.”

 

Is there a recipe for success?

Anybody who has been successful with restaurants in Miami or elsewhere, probably has some sort of level of detail or personal touch they bring to it.  For me, service was paramount.  As a customer in Miami, my wife and I go out to dinner on Lincoln Road and you want to pull your hair out because you can’t get basic service and your paying a price you wouldn’t expect to pay.  I’m sensitive of that.  We charge the lowest prices we can, not what we can get away with.

 

So I hear you are opening cool new offices on Biscayne.

We bought an old MiMo Hotel on 7350 Biscayne, right across from the Vagabond.  On upper floor is where the agency and the restaurant group are going to be held and on the bottom floor, something we call “test-kitchen”.  The Test Kitchen is going to be half community outreach and a partnership with James Beard, and Johnson & Whales, and Common Threads, a wonderful charity organization.  It’s going to be open for free to local chefs to come in and work with other chefs and have a little sense of community and get an opportunity to create, and it’s a very positive thing that hasn’t existed, and doesn’t really exist anywhere.  And then a couple nights a week we are talking about doing destination high-end, ticketed dinners with guest chefs traveling in.  And again, a lot of those are going to be for a specific charity, raising scholarship money for James Beard, or raising awareness for Common Thread, or our money.

 

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New York February / March 2014
New York February / March 2014