Chef John Malik

a writer in a cook's body

The Restaurant Coach

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“Chef Malik, we’d like to talk to you regarding our new restaurant in Sumter, SC, and coaching us through our reopening.”

Sumter? Are they kidding?

That was my first thought. A fried chicken house in Sumter wanted to waste thirty minutes of my time with inane questions about canned green beans or instant grits. “Hey Amy, you’re not going to believe this one!”

Carolina Grove marketing photo courtesy Kailey Phillips and photographer Micah Green

My wife’s eyeroll wasn’t directed at the residents of Sumter, but at me. And deservedly so. I had assumed the worst, judged a book by its cover.

“Can you please call them and do not assume anything.”

You can see where this is going, correct? As I’m on furlough from the Table 301 Group the only thing I had on my agenda was yard work, twice monthly #QuarantineKitchen videos for IonGreenville, and yard work. So i picked up the phone and a few days later was on my way to Sumter.

Carolina Grove Restaurant at Sunrise. I took this photo at 6:40 am.

Jim Mayes, Jr and son Jim Mayes III, a recent Clemson graduate, wanted to go into business together. Their family goes back several generations in Sumter and as they pondered ideas for a new family business they kept coming back to a restaurant. Although neither had been in the business, they both realized it was something they dreamed about separately.  And in mid-January of 2020 they opened the 100 seat Carolina Grove. They’d done a lot right like hiring a consulting firm out of Atlanta, spending time at several of their favorite restaurants in Charleston and Kiawah, and setting their sights on cooking as much from scratch as possible.  They opened to a packed house practically every night and business was good until the pandemic forced all of us to close in early March.

Samantha slicing roast beef for our French Dip. We roast our own top round for this sandwich and it makes a huge difference.

However, the restaurant business can be a bucking bronco if not effectively managed. They suffered from complaints that showed a lack of consistency, had a high food cost, a lack of teamwork in their kitchen, and their clunky website did them no favors with respect to SEO and visibility. Upon closing in March they parted ways with their chef, then found me.  After spending an early April afternoon with them, we came to an agreement. The Mayes saw this as an opportunity for a second grand opening and we set a course of action. I would coach their kichen and its new chef, manage creation of a new website, work with their front of the house staff to achieve a higher level of service, and fine tune their wine and beer list to create something more intriguing, and show off South Carolina beers.

Our version of the Cobb Salad, the Poinsett Park Salad. When working with colors it is best to seperate them and that can really make your plates pop.

A large project like this requires a plan and goals. I broke down each area of improvement into five projects, set goals for each, then we brought in their team bit by bit and got to work.

My list of daily “To Dos”

They were already doing a lot right. Making their own pickles, their own sauces, their own dressings however their recipe book was unnecessarily complex. Indeed, the first recipe in their book was lemonade with water being measured in quarts, sugar in pounds, and lemon juice in milliliters. Three different measures to reproduce the easiest recipe in their catalog. Long sigh. That sort of misstep in the simplest recipe meant they probably had missed other innocuous cues in different areas of the restaurant.

A pimento cheeseburger isn’t diet food. It should ooze of excess and have a naughty side. Micah Green photo.

 Those are the sort of things that needed change and that’s where we went to work. Standardizing recipes, simplifying processes, shoring up marketing, and the biggest challenge was giving their menu a voice.

If one is going to create a successful restaurant that’s going to stand the test of time, the food must have a voice. Ideally it would carry a geographic and cultural pedigree that resonates with the community, the city, the state. Why not smoke our pork with pecan instead of hickory? Why not use local cucumbers to make our pickles? Why not use peaches, local onion, local pork if the price fits into our cost? And why not do something cool with Shaw Air Force Base?

Carolina Grove owner Jim Mayes III with our fried chicken sliders tossed in Viper Sauce. They were using hot sauce by the gallon and spending a fortune on it. So why not make our own? And we named it Viper Sauce after the pilot’s nickname for the F-16s stationed at Shaw Air Force Base a meer three miles away. It’s been a big hit with the base’s airmen.

Now for a halo dish.

Think about this. Suppose it was just the two of us, somewhere far away from your favorite restaurant. You’re blindfolded and I offer you a bite of something magical. Maybe a crab cake from the Augusta Grill, perhaps the shrimp and grits from Soby’s, how about the pulled pork from Henry’s on Wade Hampton, or the chicken liver mousse from Stella’s in Simpsonville. And in a second you know exactly what you’ve bit into.  And that’s what I challenged the Carolina Grove team to achieve. One dish, one bite, no question, it would be a Carolina Grove signature item.

We came up with several.

We roast our own beef top round for our French Dip style roast beef sandwich.

Macaroni and cheese. Made with a cream based bechamel sauce and finished with sharp cheddar, gruyere, parmesan and touch of cider vinegar.

Our sweet tea brined and pecan smoked pork chop with a serving of baked macaroni & cheese. Micah Green photo.

A sweet tea brined pork chop smoked over pecan wood and grilled to order. We serve it with a country ham red eye gravy and mashed sweet potatoes.

Our crab cake made according to Louis Osteen’s perfect recipe. Photo by Micah Green.

And a signature dessert of baked apple dumpling with a fire ant sauce. As we in Greenville have adopted the swamp rabbit as a city mascot, Sumter has fire ants. From the local college to many local businesses, they’ve branded themselves as fire ant this and that. The Carolina Grove team created a dessert sauce made from Red Hots candies and served that over our dumpling and the end result is a fire ant mound you can eat. Cool, right?

Apple Dumpling with Fire Ant Sauce and homemade vanilla ice cream. Photo by Micah Green.

Working with the Carolina Grove team from mid-April through mid-June we were able to revamp their marketing, the website, their social media, their menu, beer and wine list and the way their front of the house staff managed the dining room. A little thing here, a small change there and pretty soon we’re on our way to making the entire experience better. And to really get them moving I brought in my Table 301 teammate and marketing genius Kailey Phillips.

My teammate Kailey Phillips. She created marketing ideas and a schedule for the team at Carolina Grove. Photo by Micah Green.

We’re not done yet. I’ll return in a few weeks to spend another seven days with them and return once a month for three or four months. In the meantime, I’ve got individual team members responding to me five days a week on how we can be better. What can we do today as a team that will make the customer experience better tomorrow?

Jim Mayes III and yours truly

And the next time you’re in Sumter, SC, stop in and have lunch or dinner at Carolina Grove. And let me know what you think. And should you or someone you know be in need of a James Beard (Best Chef, Southeast, 2008) nominated restaurant coach, one that can bring a variety of skillsets to your restaurant, hotel, or catering operation, drop me an email at chefjohnmalik@gmail.com

Author: ChefJohn

Cook without tattoo, writer without a pen

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