For thirty years, Fifth Group Restaurants (FGR) has been serving Georgia a mix of seafood, Italian, European, Mexican, and Southern cuisines across its locations. The enterprise’s name refers to the five groups of people that it strives to care for: staff, guests, communities, purveyors, and investors, in that order. Food Chain sits down with Stuart Fierman, Vice President of Operations and Operating Partner, to discuss being in the right place at the right time and putting people at the top of the agenda.
“We started as two guys opening a restaurant, and really plucking all the right chords at exactly the right time,” Stuart begins. “There were no contemporary southern restaurants in the region before we opened up in Midtown Atlanta. We were among the first casual fine-dining restaurants as the area was becoming the city’s central hub for arts and culture. Working in the restaurant industry in the 90s was different. You might have had a pot thrown at your head or a knife launched across the room in anger, but South City Kitchen, our first operation, had a different essence. I always recall how we had three holes mistakenly drilled into the backs of our chairs there, and once when a customer asked about them, my business partner said ‘those three holes represent care for the community, the environment, and each other.’ We adopted that, what we referred to as the three-hole philosophy, and it became the driving force of our entire culture.
“We were very fortunate, and experienced a strong period of growth, but we were inexperienced, and didn’t know how to make the transition from running a restaurant, to becoming a restaurant company. Fortunately, we were introduced to a consultant who helped us define our culture, as well as a roadmap to where and what we wanted to be. Here we are today with ten restaurants that we own and operate, another four through various partnerships, and a full-service catering and design company that has been voted one of the best in the US.”
Stuart found his way into the industry when he was trying to save money to fund a trip to New Zealand. Little did he know that what had presented itself as a means to make a quick buck was actually going to turn into a long-standing, passionate career. “I opened the third FGR location when we were still a very small company,” he explains. “The timing of which, arguably led to me becoming our first director of operations, and ultimately a partner. My quest has always been to work out how we continue to do what we do, while striving to do it better. I’m not big on blame. Mistakes are a key part of learning, and I always say ‘don’t let a good screw up go to waste.’
“Another key focus of ours, is supporting our people through their personal growth and development. This could mean they are promoted from a server to a manager, or a cook to a chef. It could also mean that they develop away from the industry by putting themselves through nursing school. The latter is equally rewarding, when a decade later somebody comes back with their family to share the place that played a key role in their formative years. I love that aspect of our industry, people achieve their dreams both inside and outside of restaurant walls, so we are purposeful in helping them succeed. We strongly believe that if you are growing your employees, the business will flourish around them.”
The emphasis that FGR places on its internal relationships is reflected in the importance with which it holds its external ones. In operating a two-way-street mentality, Stuart states that the business recognizes the necessity for mutual success. “We consider our suppliers to be partners, and value tenure of service over the introductory discounts of cold callers. A recent example of creating a win-win relationship involved us reducing our delivery days with a
long-standing supplier. They were able to pass on the savings that they made by only sending trucks three days a week, as opposed to seven.
“In terms of our working culture,” he continues, “and describing our purpose, we ask ourselves ‘why do we put on our restaurant pants every day?’ Our answer is ‘to passionately move people and provide the opportunity to experience joy.’ It links to our idea of forming connections with people, to understand how to deliver the service that best suits their needs. Four of our core values are integrity, respect, success, and generosity. We strive to bring these values to life in the way that we train and develop our employees and managers, and how we act outside of our working environment too.
“These values speak for our involvement in the broader community,” Stuart concludes. “It’s a symbiotic thing. We feel we have been successful and wish to share it with those around us, so they in turn can succeed as well. Whether you call it karma or care, by being generous with the Atlanta Community Food Bank, for example, we are directly helping others on their way to our level. We feel we have to support the communities that support us, because it’s the right thing to do. The last three years have been about surviving, both literally and as a business. But we feel we’ve made it to the other side of a very dark time. We also believe strongly that it is our commitment to our culture, our people, and our communities that has allowed us to remain standing, and those will be the very things that drive our success as we begin growing again this year.”