Eater Interviews BG Member Todd Mussman

Eater National’s One Year In series explores the state of affairs after a year of the sometimes harrowing beginnings of a restaurant. We were so happy to read about the good year that our Atlanta member, Todd Mussman, and his partners have had with their second restaurant, Local Three.

 

Local Three: Chris Hall, Todd Mussman, Ryan Turner

Thursday, January 26, 2012, by Jennifer Maley

Welcome to One Year In, a feature in which Eater sits down for a chat with the chefs and owners of spots celebrating their one year anniversary.
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Owners L-R: Chef Todd Mussman, “Business Dude” Ryan Turner, and Chef Chris Hall
[Photo: Justin Phillips/4squarephotos]

In December of 2010, Chef Todd Mussman, “Business Dude” Ryan Turner, and Chef Chris Hall brought a whole lot of love—Local Three Kitchen & Bar‎—to the former JOËL space off Northside. Todd and Ryan, who have run Vinings favorite Muss & Turner’s for seven years, met up with Chris and, several years plus “a few beers and cooked hogs later,” Local Three was born. We stepped into their world of velvet Elvises and pig art to talk about local food and authentic hospitality—leave your preconceived notions at the door—about their first year (akin to “drinking from a fire hose”) and what lies ahead for these Georgia Restaurant Association “Restaurateur(s) of the Year.”

What made you decide to open Local Three? Did the JOËL space availability factor into the decision and planning?

RT: We had plans to open a restaurant with Chris—for approximately three years, we’d been talking about it. The question of location is always a secondary one for us. It was [about] finding the right partner. Eventually, we ended up in a discussion with the landlord here about JOËL and the space, due to previous discussions on moving into another building in this development that was being worked on in 2008-09. So, we got a call and the rest is history.
CH: From our perspective, when someone offers you one of the top kitchens in the world, it’s kind of…It’s pretty amazing. It’s an extraordinary space. It fueled me. I grew up around the corner and I always thought a restaurant would work here. When it first came out that we were moving in here, people had their doubts, it fired me up.
TM: It was also, kind of scary at the same time. Like “Here’s a brand new Lamborghini for free,” but then you realize the oil change is gonna cost you a thousand bucks, tires cost two grand a piece…there’s nothing free about it.
RT: A year later, a lot of people are willing to tell us about their skepticism and how they were nervous for us, but now that they perceive us to be doing well, they’re willing to tell us what they really thought. That’s always interesting to hear. Our whole philosophy has never been tied to having the quintessential, typical restaurant location. We want the ball in our court. We need to deliver an exceptional experience and hope that people respond the right way and come back and tell others. If there’s, hopefully, enough parking then we’re good. We love to have the pressure on us to deliver. And it happens every day. We’re only as good as the guests’ most recent experience. You can’t rest on your laurels. And having a location like this doesn’t allow it, because nobody can just drive by and say, “there’s a restaurant, let’s go in there.”

How did opening go?
RT: Opening could not have gone any better, from every perspective. The worst case scenario is you open your doors and no one shows up. Second worse is everyone shows up and you can’t handle it. We had a perfect scenario, which is a tremendous amount of people came very quickly, and Chris and his team were ready and handled it incredibly well. In the first week, we hit sales that we were projecting for four months in. And we never looked back.
CH: Because it took us a while and we had tried to open something for a while, there was kind of a groundswell of support. We had a great deal of our guests, friends, everyone that comes to Muss and Tuner’s who pushed that wave.
RT: When we opened, we had no website and the telephone wasn’t working.
TM: It still said, “Thank you for calling JOËL.”
RT: So, [it was just] Facebook and OpenTable…it made us take a hard look at certain mediums that everyone thinks are critical to get the word out.
TM: We definitely had our hurdles: it was freezing, super loud, nobody could find us.
RT: Thankfully, that’s gone. Now, we’re very fortunate. It’s not that big of a restaurant, so it’s hard for last minute diners to get in. Now, we hear that more than anything. But most people are very genuine and happy for us. They say that with a smile—it’s the best problem we could ever imagine. But it’s still a problem because we want to accommodate everyone.

What is the creative process like between the three of you?
CH: The creative process is interesting. All of us have very definitive roles and we’ve been able to work within those. We’re really honest with each other, which oftentimes, if you’re an outsider when you meet us, it looks contentious. It’s not, we’re just willing to speak our minds to each other. That creative process is super inspiring and enjoyable.
RT: We’re all very, very, very different from a lot of perspectives, but philosophically, we may come up with different ideas from a creative standpoint, but we’re all rooted in the same belief that everything needs to have a level of authenticity, a level of integrity. When we talk about food, furniture, decor, or anything, it’s never “what is going to make us the most money?” It is “what is going to be something that will have an impact on someone beyond the transaction?”
TM: I’m more of a food guy, Ryan is definitely the business guy, and Chris is a great combination of both. So, I think we have a pretty good balance. We try to learn from each other, for sure. We all have a lot of passion for what we do, and sometimes the passion gets a hold of us in the heat of it. The creative process is fun…It’s really good, everyone knows what they need to do.
RT: I will say a big part of the creative process is that we allow those that are on our team and in our family to actually be a part of that. That will tie them to our restaurants from an intangible perspective in a way that no paycheck ever would. That level of connection and fulfillment. Our whole goal is for everyone to want our job, but we’re willing to be transparent and guide them to the point where they could take the job. To hold it all to yourself doesn’t make sense to us.
CH: There’s no “that’s my dish.” It’s really not like that here. It’s a collaborative thing [with us and our sous chefs]. We work with each other. Two or three or five is always better. Your legacy…you can choose to make it your restaurant or you can choose to make it the twenty restaurants that people under you might open and the lives you might open for them, the opportunities you can give them. It’s about teaching the things that someone took the time to teach me.

What was the review process? Were you pleased with the response?
RT: Define critic, cause right now everyone’s a critic.
TM: They [traditional critics] don’t make a difference as much any more. That’s one person, but when you get a hundred people on Yelp giving an opinion and those are the people coming in here spending their money, that means way more to us than any critical review.
CH: We had a really interesting thing happen. Amanda Heckert from Atlanta Magazine embedded with us for five months when we opened the restaurant. I thought her piece captured everything that went into this. It was very real and very honest. As far as traditional reviews go, they were fine. I think people have a hard time classifying what we’re trying to do. I don’t know if people understood what we were trying to do, but the reception’s been great—I derive more from the people that are eating here and my staff and their reviews than I do from any outside source. That’s not to say, I mean, a good review makes you feel great, a bad review makes you feel terrible. Let’s be honest about it. But in the end, it’s the people that dine here and are going to sustain us and the people that work here, those are the reviews I’m hungry for.
RT: What we share are reviews from OpenTable and Yelp to the whole staff. And we actually will take the time to respond to the people who took the time to let us know how their experience was, good or bad. What I think people are looking for now, more than a critic saying the food’s good, the food’s not good, is do these people [restaurant’s] care? What are their intentions? Are they trying to do the right thing, give a great experience, sourcing food the right way, cooking it the right way. People want to know if they can trust an establishment. You can get a good meal in a lot of places now. And so, the social media aspect of people who are so passionate about blogging to reviews from OpenTable and Yelp is very powerful. People are looking at what 50 people said versus one person. And they should, frankly.
CH: What I said to everyone here throughout that whole [review] process is, “do it right.” You don’t need someone to validate you through a review if you know deep down that you’re doing it right and giving it everything you have. The whole Theodore Roosevelt quote about the arena is posted in my office.

Do you feel like the majority of critics understand the intent behind Local Three?
RT: No, because they’ve never sat down and asked us. And for us, to really get a good answer, is to say “what is your purpose?” “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” What would be interesting is they’d find out it’s nothing close to what they think it is.
CH: I agree with Ryan. I don’t think the majority of critics understand what we’re trying to do on a broader level—and it’s not just about food. And it’s not just about drink. I think it goes deeper than that. And I think that’s why we’ve been successful this year—because it’s resonated with this neighborhood and this community.
RT: People sense that there’s an intangible going on. You can call it whatever you want to call it—some people call it soul. There’s a certain way that people feel when they come in here and it’s because of the way our family makes them feel. You can sense that our intent is pretty pure.
CH: I’ll give you a very real thing that kind of sticks in my craw. People constantly categorize our food as Southern. But when you’re cooking with local ingredients and local farmers, you’re gonna have Southern ingredients on there. So you’re lumped into being that Southern farm-to-table guy. Don’t put me in that box. Nobody took the time to ask, “What’s your intent?” Our intent all along has been to have a great neighborhood restaurant.
RT: You can depend on the environment. You can depend on the hospitality. But the food’s always changing.

How’s business these days?
RT: Great.
TM: Off the chain.
CH: I’m humbled. That’s what I would say. It’s amazingly gratifying. I truly am humbled by the number of people who choose to come here every week and sit with us. It’s awesome.
RT: We’re just past a year, and so, at least for me, I have a fear of this honeymoon period. How long does the great exposure last? You really want to know: are people coming back? Are we busy still based on merit? Did we really earn it? We’re seeing a tremendous amount of repeat guests. If we keep doing our job and earning it, we can look at what’s real and what we can depend on.
CH: In a lot of ways, this year’s more scary than last year. Because last year, you knew they’d come and check us out. Now, they’ve kicked the tires. Now, they’re actually making a value judgement of “is that a car I wanna ride in?”
TM: Gotta keep it going.
CH: If anything, we’re pressing even harder to be better than we were.
RT: Complacency is our greatest threat.
CH: This is a key year for us.
RT: Making sure that those who have been coming to us multiple times know that we notice, that we appreciate them genuinely. Last year, it was very, very busy beyond what we imagined—it was like trying to drink from a fire hose. So now, how do we stop for a second and make sure we stay humble, stay appreciative, and genuinely connect with people one at a time? That’s what builds long-term loyalty and trust.

Looking back over the past year, what would you do differently?
CH: I’d take more time to enjoy it. I’d take more time to reflect back and just watch it all unfold. I said when we opened that I wanted to create something lasting and worthwhile that brings value to people’s lives, not just in a transient way when you come and you eat, but also for the people that work here. And the people that dine with us. Just to sit back and enjoy that more would be what I would change.
TM: I’m not sure what I would change. Operations stuff…but as far as the way that we laid the restaurant out, the food that we serve, the bar program that we have, I don’t know that there’s much I would change. I feel pretty happy with it.
RT: I feel kind of like Todd does in that we’re so far from being really good at what we’re doing here. I wouldn’t change anything because I learned a ton, and I’m very appreciative for the opportunity that we had to learn. That will never go away. We’re going into year seven at Muss & Turner’s and we’re still learning more than ever. So, to wish things came about differently? Sure. But I don’t know that we would have the wisdom that we have now if they had. I’m more of a future-oriented guy, anyway.

How is this restaurant different from any other you’ve been a part of? How does it compare to Muss & Turner’s?
CH: The DNA of the two restaurants is the same. You know, Muss & Turner’s is the older child, a little more formed, a little stronger, able to pull themselves up. But the DNA is the same. I was fortunate enough to work at a lot of great restaurants—4th & Swift, Canoe—worked with some really, really amazing people. You know, you take chunks of that knowledge and apply your own spin to it. Here, what makes this place special is that we spend a lot of time with those who’ve chosen to work with us and they know we genuinely care about them on a level that’s deeper than, “is that fork in the right place or is that steak cooked properly?” There’s a level of connection to them and with our guests that’s open, genuine, and authentic. That’s what makes this place different for me.
RT: This is a whole different ballgame than Muss & Turner’s in that M&T is a neighborhood joint and is thriving better than ever, it’s wonderful. And it’s because of our connection to the community. This, though, we intended it to be a neighborhood restaurant and we felt great about the neighborhood, but we didn’t realize it would turn into more of an Atlanta restaurant in a lot of ways. The volume was beyond anything we imagined or expected, but what remains the same, like Chris said, is what matters—it’s how people feel about what we’re trying to do and about us, and is there internal hospitality going on? If the people in here cooking the food and executing on the front line believe in what we believe in and believe that we truly care about them…For me, personally seeing that work at M&T, and seeing how it’s worked here in a very different restaurant has been wonderful.

Do you think this is going to be your last Atlanta restaurant?
TM Hell no. How about that? Did that answer it, guys?
RT: No, we hope to open many more restaurants, but we’ll never open just for the sake of growing and opening. Our goal is to build brick houses that stand on their own. We love what we do. We don’t talk about retiring. The whole idea of retirement to us is to stop doing something that you really love. For us, it’s a matter of maintaining a level of fulfillment for each of us, and that means something different for each of us. And like Chris was saying earlier, to give other people the opportunity to feel the way we feel, and experience a level of growth—professionally, personally, financially—that they would maybe never experience working in another restaurant model than what we’re putting out there. And so, our whole growth is dependent on finding the right people.
CH: It’s not about more restaurants. It’s all about, “What’s our motivation?”
TM: It’s a passion for what we do. We love it.
CH: It’s a passion for what we do and about providing opportunities for others, creating things that are lasting and worthwhile.
TM: And Atlanta’s our home. We want to see it get better.
RT: Would it be cool to say, “Next week, Monday through Sunday, I’m going to visit a different restaurant that’s owned and operated by a different person who’s really happy with where they are each day of the week?” That would be pretty cool.

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