In the course of researching today’s earlier feature on the newly re-opened 5&10 in Athens, Georgia, Sprudge.com had the particular pleasure of interviewing the restaurant’s proprietor, Hugh Acheson. Known for his multiple James Beard nominations and wins, Mr. Acheson is inarguably one of the United States’ most important restauranteurs, perched in the cat bird seat at some mythically delicious dining table, co-mingling American Southern culinary tradition and the modern foodie scene. We hesitate to plaster the “fine dining” epaulette to his lapel, because while the dining at Acheson restaurants like Empire State South (Atlanta) and The National (Athens) is indeed fine, these restaurants maintain an air of unstuffy delight. Check out this recent prixe fix menu at 5&10 – we dare you to eat cheaper and better within the James Beard pedigree stable.
Best of all, at least for our purview at Sprudge, is the fact that Hugh Acheson loves good coffee. Lost within the din, clang, and shade that pervades the discussion around specialty coffee’s “restaurant gap” is the fact that not all chefs are coffee dunderheads, content with Nespresso mediocrity or, at very best, searching out the darkest stuff imaginable to “get out of the way” of their desserts. Hugh Acheson resolutely enjoys and cares about good coffee, and his restaurants – and his ongoing partnership with Counter Culture Coffee – are high-standing monuments to that.
Hugh Acheson, a busy dude if there ever was one, recently sat down with Sprudge for the following interview.
The main thing we want to ask you is “why?” – why do you, as a restauranteur, care so much about coffee?
I have always adored coffee and in the last four years the influx of great coffee roasters, the ability to brew in a number of different ways, and the basic coffee knowledge has grown a lot to make it a more viable restaurant offering. I also firmly believe in the idea that a restaurant experiences should have bookends: Great cocktails and fun wines to begin, and great coffee to finish. For so long coffee seemed like such an after thought in fine dining but I think there is a nerd movement afoot and nerd movements mean that no stone goes unturned, everything is looked into to be better. Coffee a perfect subject for the nerd world: so much nuance, so many different possibilities.
This basic question has been a pretty serious underlying query for the specialty coffee industry around the world for the last few years: How do we make restaurant coffee better?
We convince restaurateurs that there is a market developing for better coffee offerings. Convince them that people are not afraid to spend money to end their meal with something better than a luke warm cup of machine dripped pre-ground brown liquid. Sadly we get used to markups in the restaurant world. Markups like wine that begets an industry wide 35% cost but that nothing has to be done to, except fancy glassware, a decanter and a sommelier. But even there you see people who pay close attention to making their wine programs stellar and then people who just slap a bunch of overpriced names on a list, know nothing about the product, and call it a program. Anyone can create a wine program in Word, but truly creating one that people notice takes training, education, time, and ongoing commitment. Same for coffee.
It is still funny to me that people complain about a $3 cup of coffee from us yet forget that they spent $4.25 on a non-fat, hazelnut Venti latte just four hours earlier. Luckily that is changing.
How do we make “food people” care about coffee like “coffee people” do?
It’s changing. Really fast. It’s just a hard commitment on a spreadsheet. We sell $4000 in wine in a night and the next line is $400 in coffee. It’s difficult for some of us to view them with the same importance… but they are both important. The last five years have taught me that everything is important at the restaurants.
Training is key but is fed by excitement. It you are not excited about serving great coffee, please stay away. It will be a waste of the investment.
Was there “a moment” for you that made you care about the coffee in your restaurants?
Not really. Maybe having an espresso at the old 5&10 and realizing it was really bad. (Sorry…)
Were you always into coffee?
Started drinking coffee when I was ten. Never looked back.
How has your relationship with Counter Culture helped shape service at your restaurants?
Amazingly well. They have been really supportive and great at training and equipping. They are also a really caring company when it comes to sourcing and give us the narrative we need to sell great offerings.
What’s your approach to delegating coffee service within your team?
One great barista flanked by many happy learners. That’s enough for a restaurant. Empire State South, our Atlanta restaurant, has a bigger need because they have a full coffee shop in the venue but the other two spots have smaller coffee areas. Still well tended, though!
Official websites for Empire State South, 5&10, The National, and Mr. Acheson's personal blog, Hugh Cooks Food.
Top photo by Taylor Oxendine.