Fine, Funky and For the People
Four Seasons Atlanta adds a profitable complement to its white-tablecloth image.
It could be jarring to see an F&B venue on a Four Seasons property’s website billing itself as a “funky community lounge.” But jarring is the desired effect of a restaurant the Four Seasons Atlanta launched in September of 2015. Bar Margot, named after Gwyneth Paltrow’s character Margot in the idiosyncratic Wes Anderson film The Royal Tenenbaums, isn’t your average Four Seasons fine dining destination, and they definitely want people to know it.
“Park 75 has been in existence as long as the hotel has been here,” says Yvette Thomas-Henry, GM at the Four Seasons Atlanta. She’s talking about the property’s fine-dining anchor, a three-mealer on weekdays, with brunch on Saturday and Sunday—not that there’s anything wrong with that. In fact, it’s an important presence. But what about all those non-guests, those Atlantans walking and driving past the Four Seasons? What would make them step inside the hotel for socializing other than special occasions?
“Quite frankly, it was time to do something different and exciting,” Thomas-Henry says. “We sat down and tried to redefine our F&B program to give it a punch with something creative, with buzz and energy. On top of that, we wanted to add someone from the local market, so that there would already be a known name with a local following, as well as add great culinary and a beverage program in an exciting space. That dialogue ultimately led us to Ford Fry.”
Fry’s name would certainly resonate in the area. The James Beard Award nominee was already well known for his successful chef-driven restaurants JCT. Kitchen & Bar; no. 246; the Optimist; King + Duke; St. Cecilia; the El Felix; Superica; and Marcel. The Four Seasons had already tapped New York City-based design firm Meyer Davis to take on the renovation of the space, which previously housed a bar/lounge that had been there more than 18 years.
“Lots of locals knew that space, but it had become just a hotel lounge,” Thomas-Henry says. “It no longer had a spark or a sense of place that tied it to what was happening outside in the Atlanta market.”
Design would also be important. “People in Atlanta go out, but they only go back for great food in a space they feel comfortable in,” Thomas-Henry says. “The bar happens to be stunning, so you walk in and have a visual experience immediately. Meyer Davis did a great job with blending the colors of the room.”
As for the cuisine, Fry began spitballing ideas with the hotel’s F&B team, including then-Executive Chef Robert Gerstenecker and Jomo Morris, the senior sous chef. Thomas-Henry says that though chefs in general have “a strong point of view and sense of pride for their product,” the collaboration of outsider Fry and hotel chef Gerstenecker didn’t cause friction. “They got into the kitchen together, cooked together, and discussed their passions,” she says. “They each have a strong point of view, but they also both believe in the freshest food and how to put different flavors together. Each time they came together, it just got better and better.”
“Ford definitely has his finger on the pulse of what’s going on in the city, as well as one who shapes the trends,” says Morris, who has played a key role at Bar Margot, acting as chef de cuisine. Morris spent his first three months during the Bar Margo development working at “most of Ford’s restaurants” in Atlanta, “just to get a feel of what his particular vibe was like,” he explains. “The menus were chef-driven, and the focus was on the food first, more importantly than the space it was in. That allowed us to come back to the Four Seasons and say, ‘We want things put on the menu that a chef would like to eat, and then develop the story behind that.’ People connect with that.”
Bar Margot would be a complement to, not a replacement for Park 75. “When people think of Four Seasons as a brand, they think of luxury and high-end, five-star dining—not necessarily a place that would have our boots on the ground,” says Morris. “We have a fantastic rooftop garden and bees on our terrace, but we were missing that piece of the puzzle to bring everything together. We still obviously wanted to maintain the position of being a brand that’s a little above the rest,” Morris stresses, “but we wanted to reach out to anyone who wants to enjoy good, hearty, wholesome, locally sourced food created with chefs who will come out and talk to you.”
Fry sought to bridge the divide between guests and locals with the menu. An important daypart in which to accomplish this would be lunch, where the menu “would fit the working lunch crowd,” Fry explains.
Besides sales figures, social media has been the best indicator of the biggest menu hits, and Fry’s seen a clear leader. “It’s tagliolini cacio e pepe, a very simple pasta they make themselves with cheese, butter, and cracked pepper. It’s my favorite,” he says. The most popular cocktail is the Gin Margot, a version of the gin and tonic that includes sherry.
In juxtaposition from the Park 75 atmosphere, Bar Margot would use visual cues for guests that while fun and cocktails are definitely flowing, it’s not just a bracer before dining elsewhere.
“Looking at the room, I typically like two aspects of theater in a restaurant, one being the bar and one being some sort of a food component,” Fry says. “My first request was to put a small kitchen in the dining room with a little bit of cooking going on.” This visible kitchen would have required vent hoods and created headaches, so Fry decided on a charcuterie/raw bar station. “So, you see the meats, the slicer, the cheeses, and a cool refrigeration unit on the wall. It speaks to people and makes them think, ‘Hey, I’m not just here to have a drink; I’m here to get something to eat as well.’” Morris says the charcuterie/raw bar station, with its highly visible Berkel slicer and chef, have been a big help in communicating the culinary team’s approachability.
The Royal Bottom Line
Bar Margot achieved its objective of breaking the ice with locals and putting the Four Seasons in their dining dialogue, but just as importantly, it’s a rushing revenue stream.
“In the first full year of Bar Margot—from a covers standpoint and from a profit standpoint—it was a win,” Thomas-Henry says. “And it proved the case for new energy bringing in new customers who had not been to our hotel before. It certainly elevated what individuals in the local market, as well as our guests, could expect in F&B at our hotel.
“Top-line, we did at least 20% more than we had done previously in the lounge. The fourth quarter of last year was the first time we were completely comparing ourselves against our previous results, and what’s interesting is that we did exponentially better than we projected and beat our achievement from the previous years. I see it growing by an additional 20% in year two. We’re still continuing to evolve with trends, staying close to what flavors are freshest and most exciting in the market.”
The Four Seasons Atlanta got its initial word out to Atlantans about Bar Margot with an opening party, and social media flew. “Social media is a great way for customers to tell us what they love and enjoy, so we use that to find ways to have beverage programs or events or specials,” says hotel GM Yvette Thomas-Henry. “The Gin Margot, for instance, customers love it because it’s delicious but also the look of it and how it ties into the theme.” Margot’s chefs and bartenders also make a point to get involved in local events, so new customers can taste what Margot has to offer.
Local culinary thought leader Ford Fry’s involvement was heavy at the beginning, tapering later from daily visits to weekly to biweekly to monthly. Now, Bar Margot is on its own. Going forward, says Senior Sous Chef Jomo Morris, Bar Margot will look at new opportunities with its charcuterie program, to feature more of it on the menu. Morris also hopes to use more produce from the garden terrace on the hotel’s fifth floor, “which would be a good talking point,” he observes. “It’s the chefs who determine what’s planted up there. The highlight of that is having the tomatoes or peas or cucumbers on the menu, even if it’s a short run. You can talk about it with the guest, and they can even come upstairs and see it, and then try it in the restaurant. Developing our story going forward is something we will really be focusing on.”—TW