An Interview with John Metz, Jr. of Sterling Hospitality

An Interview with John Metz, Jr. of Sterling Hospitality

Food & Drink

An Interview with John Metz, Jr. of Sterling Hospitality


John Metz Jr.
John Metz, Jr.

Title: President/Executive Chef/Co-founder

Age: 42

Concept, Headquarters Location: Sterling Hospitality DBA Aqua Blue Restaurant & Bar, Marlow’s Tavern and Sterling Spoon Culinary Management; Based in Atlanta

Check Averages: Aqua Blue $40, Marlow’s Tavern $21, Sterling Spoon $5

Number of Units: 1 Aqua Blue, 7 Marlow’s Tavern, and 9 Sterling Spoon Café’s

States: Georgia

Newest Ventures: Marlow’s Tavern, East Cobb

Hometown: Harvey’s Lake, Pennsylvania

Education: BS Hotel Restaurant Management Penn State, AOS Culinary Institute of America

First Restaurant Job: Higby’s Brass Apple Kingston Pa, dishwasher 13 years old

Heroes: My father (John Metz), Drew Nieporent, Richard Melman and any entrepreneur

Most Exotic Dish Eaten: 100 Year old egg in China, and The Uvo Ravioli at San Domenico in Imola, Italy

Pick Your Final Meal: Toss up between Wendy’s Double Cheese Burger, Fries and Frosty or a 15-course dinner prepared by Chef Daniel Boulud

First Dish Prepared as a Child: Hand made, hand breaded Mozzarella Sticks

Favorite TV, Movie, Music: TV Shows: Currently Modern Family and Saturday Night Live; Movies: Old School and Predator; Music: Grateful Dead and Pink Floyd

Favorite Part of the Job: Coming up with food that people discover they really enjoy and creating growth opportunities for all of the people that work in my company

Guilty Pleasure: Plain vanilla ice cream

Best Stress Management: Tanqueray & tonic

Career Highlights: Working and going to culinary school in Switzerland; Working in NYC at 21 Club and Tribeca Grill for Jerome Berns, Drew Nieporent and Robert DeNiro; Becoming executive director of R&D for Carlson Restaurants Worldwide; Creating 3 New Concepts ——Front Row Sports Grill, Italianni’s and Samba Room; Opening 24 restaurants internationally; Starting and opening my first restaurant and company — Hi Life Kitchen & Cocktails before I turned 30; Co-creating 3 of our own concepts — Marlow’s Tavern, Aqua Blue and Sterling Spoon and growing our business in Atlanta; Working with my partners and family to create great restaurants and cafés for people to enjoy;  Being elected to the board of the National Restaurant Association and becoming the chairman of Distinguished Restaurants of North America. 

Best Advice Ever Received: Salt and Butter equals flavor

Best Advice Ever Given: Never wise up a dumb guy

Favorite Book: Cookbook Larousse Gastronomique

Hobbies: Water Skiing, Snow Skiing, Working Out, Travel


Q & A:

With so many operations in your stable of restaurants and onsite operations how much time do you spend in the kitchen these days?
The short answer is not as much as I would like.  As our business continues to grow and my time is focused on our growth and building a sustainable company that can grow long into the future, I now have to pick and choose the right time to be in the kitchen.  My main focus is to lead our culinary team to develop and promote our new seasonal food & beverage menus each year.  The second culinary priority is to travel through our cafés, restaurants and taverns to teach, coach and support our chefs and cooks. That job is to support our teams and inspire our passion for top quality food, beverage and service in every aspect of our business.  I really want people at all levels of our company, from our dishwasher to our partners, to really be aware of the tiniest details and how important they are to creating our great food. We need to think like a collection of neighborhood restaurants, not a chain. That will be hard the more we grow, but I am going to try as hard as I can.

Aqua Blue Bar
Aqua Blue Bar

What was the catalyst to open your first restaurant and why did you decide to settle in Atlanta?
The first real goal of my life was to open my first restaurant before I turned 30 and Hi Life Kitchen & Cocktails was that restaurant. We wanted to create a great neighborhood restaurant with chef inspired food in a casual local spot, in the suburbs of Atlanta (from us these crazy transplant chefs from New York City.)  We chose Atlanta at the end of 96, when Atlanta was coming off the Olympics and we hoped there would be some fall out. In addition I was coming from Dallas at the time and I had become a converted “southerner,” but I wanted to get back to the East coast. At the time it was Atlanta and Charlotte. Atlanta was much more cosmopolitan and felt like a big little city to me. It really felt right when we came here to do our market research. I am happy we chose Atlanta. I really love this city.

Why did you decide to expand and get into onsite foodservice with the opening of Sterling Spoon Fresh Culinary Management?
Well, as you know that segment of the industry is in my blood. I was raised traveling to different accounts around the country with my father since I was old enough to travel with him. It is an interesting business and there are some very big opportunities in Atlanta as it relates to onsite dining. We are taking a little different spin on it and only focusing on corporate dining right now. We would like to become that niche player in the Southeast to provide restaurant quality food and service to offices at very reasonable prices to our clients and their employees. I actually started that business when we first moved to Atlanta 13 years ago, and we had one account — a small café at Emory University. We primarily focused on catering and it grew from there.  We did business with Home Depot and a few others. Originally it was not a business that I focused on intensely, but a few years ago we really stepped it up a notch and brought in a new partner — Robert Schmitz as chief operating officer — to help us grow at a much faster pace. We are currently up to 9 contracts and plan to open several more this year.

Where did you learn the most about the restaurant industry? 
I am still learning every day actually. It is amazing what you can learn when you surround yourself with talented individuals that are motivated to be successful. Our team is so bright and focused and that helps keep me sharp and on my toes. They are so important to our success. I was also very fortunate to attend two great hospitality programs the first at Penn State and then the Culinary Institute of America. I learned a great foundation of management and culinary skills at these schools. I grew up in this business. Watching, following and working with my father has really helped me maintain my focus on hospitality. It is the number one value in our company and all decisions are based on it. And I have learned from every great boss I had and every cook or waiter I worked next to. The on the job, day-to-day education of life and business is the most important learning a young person needs to gain inside perspective on their industry.  It is so fun to learn and discover things as a team. That teamwork has helped propel our business forward so we can get to the next level.

What are your biggest challenges on a day-to-day basis?
People, People and People! Attracting, retaining, recruiting, training, developing, maintaining, representing, motivating, helping, leading, understanding and energizing our people every day is and always will be the most important and hardest thing we do every day. The world is moving fast and we have to be ready for all of the changes and opportunities that come at our teams and at us so we can guide, help and foster a culture that people want to be associated with.

How do you market your various operations?
In the beginning of 2009 we actually put out an RFP to find a new marketing partner. It was the best thing we could have done at the time, and really helped us get organized at a time that if we did not could have been a very rough couple of years. Once we made the selection the team was instrumental in helping us organize, consolidate and put together a plan to promote our brands separately and together through various locally based initiatives. We do some seasonal promotions, event-based promotions and local individual restaurant based promotions to take care of the neighborhoods that support us.  It has been one of the best things we have done as a company and I would always recommend spending money on marketing in an organized way to really impact your business.

What characteristics do you look for in your new hires? 
We look for people who exude great personal hospitality. It is our most important value and we want to make sure that our teams have it both front and back of the house, because we can always teach the right people how to do what we do, but you can’t teach someone hospitality.

You are involved in numerous industry organizations. How do you find time for all your activities? 
It is a challenge for sure. The great news is that I have an excellent team of people and partners around me that are very engaged in running their businesses. Without them there is no way I could spend time on some of the industry related things that I do. I feel it is very important to give back to the industry and to my community as it has helped me and my businesses become what they are today. There are many great opportunities as I travel to various meetings and engage with new people in and out of the industry. You never know who you are going to meet or how you could help them or vice versa. It is an incredible industry and city that I live in.

What are your goals for your company during the next decade? 
We have some very big plans for our companies. We are looking to grow to about 25 Marlow’s over the next 5 years and we are looking to grow our contract foodservice company in the Southeast to about $50 million in managed volume over the next 5 years. And you never know — we may do another concept or two just for fun. 

Why did you decide to start your career in New York City restaurants? 
The old cliché, if you can make it there you can make it anywhere, is something that comes to mind, but really at the time I wanted to get the best culinary and restaurant on-the-job training in a very high end environment that I could. There is no better city in the world than NYC. I am a huge big city fan, so I really wanted to experience living in a huge city for part of my life. Actually I was very close to going to NYU before I settled into Penn State.

What is your cooking and menuing philosophy? 
My plan for our menus varies from season to season based on which of our concepts I am working on. But in general, I have always tried to keep the food simple and approachable for people. I want customers to try and take risks with something they may not otherwise try. I like to keep the pick up or plate up as easy as possible. I also like to have fun with our menu names and descriptions to try to create a sense of adventure and fun with the items.

Where do you get your inspiration?
Originally I got my inspiration first from my father. He has a real passion for people, quality and fun. Today I still use him but also I travel and visit restaurants, leaders of the industry and great new concepts around the world to learn and study from. There are no new ideas, just great spins on old ones or as we like to do, reinvent certain trends and make them new again. Also, I get great inspiration from our teams. It is amazing to me that our employees can show up every day as focused as they are on great quality — from the bar to the kitchen. That really is the life blood of our business.

How do you devote enough time to all your operations now that your company has grown so much? 
It is all about our people. We continue to add the right people at the right time to keep the company in a well-supported position as we grow. My partners in the operations really understand what we are looking for and how to get there. They have helped shape our visions and philosophies as if they were their own. It really makes a difference and can keep me focused on the big picture. My goal is to be in our operations at the right times to make the best impact.

What is the mistake you have made that has taught you the most? 
In the beginning of our business I took on too much day-to-day responsibility. I was very hands on and I feel it really delayed our growth for that period of time. Call it two or three years that I would like to have back that could have propelled our company that much further ahead for today and into the future. I was working in the forest and I think I got bogged down and was not looking forward at that time. The good news is I got out of that rut and we are moving forward at a good pace. I feel that we are gaining momentum and the sky is the limit.

Do you think the restaurant industry gets enough credit from the public at large? 
No, actually I wish everyone had to work at least a day or a week in the industry. As you know everyone goes out to eat at one place or another during the course of their lives. And we see some of these people with no understanding during a crisis or in the case of a restaurant having a bad day.  No matter what is happening that day, I can promise you at least in our restaurants, that the staff and management does not want to be making the mistakes or messing up our guest’s experience, but it can happen from time to time. I wish all people could understand that it is definitely not our intent.  We want nothing more than to give them great food, beverage, service, hospitality and a great time. We do not mean to make it take too long or for them to be served overcooked or undercooked food. It is just a mistake. I think almost everyone makes mistakes. That is how you learn and grow. I certainly wouldn’t go to their offices and make them feel bad.

How do you think business will be going forward in the next two to three years? 
I am cautiously optimistic on the next several years. It is a very different world we live in and people are behaving differently, and that’s ok. We just need to react to the customers’ new habits and find a way to cater to the patterns and their comforts. We are working on that daily.

How often do you eat in your restaurants and how often do you eat in other peoples’ restaurants? 
I eat out almost every day for one meal or the other. I eat in our restaurants every week, rotating between cafés and restaurants, and I try to visit our competition weekly to see what is going on in the market. I love to learn from us and our competitors. It is fun and it means I have to work out a lot to keep up.

How and when do you decide to raise prices in your various restaurants?
I am very sensitive to price increases in our concepts, sometime to a fault.  We normally try to see what the competition is doing for a similar item, and even then we try to understand the guest’s perception. We look at the sales of the item, the impact on costs and its relative value to other items on the menu. It is tricky and there is no real science since we are trying to give a great value with the best ingredients. Sometimes we have to price it for what we can afford to sell it at. 

How has the Atlanta dining scene changed over the years?
I have been here for the past 14 years. It is finally a restaurant city. When I got here there were many great restaurants, but now with the guidance of Pano (Karatassos), George (McKerrow, Jr.) and a few others the city has spawned many great chefs, managers, concepts and restaurateurs. It has been fun to watch and fun to be a part of the restaurant, food quality and concept quality growth, that has been seen in our city. Come on down and we will show you around.


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