Bringing a Local, Chef-Driven Concept to a Luxury Hotel

By Jim Stormont, President, Stormont Hospitality Group, LLC

In the restaurant industry, good isn't good enough. People no longer seek out the best ingredients, menus and experiences; they expect them. There's a reason why Panera Bread has vowed to remove artificial ingredients from its food by the end of the year, and it's no surprise that Darden Restaurants - which owns Olive Garden, LongHorn Steakhouse and, until recently, Red Lobster - is floundering. People are asking: "Why overpay for a mass-produced pasta dinner with processed meats and cheeses that's also available at over 800 identical restaurants around the country?"

The so-called "foodie revolution" is in full swing, with burger lovers choosing Shake Shack over Big Macs and patrons going out of the way to try the latest restaurant from a local chef. And it's not just the oft-mentioned millennials who are placing a renewed importance on food. Gen X parents want to feed their kids wholesome meals and expand their palates at a young age, and baby boomers are making healthier choices by choosing to eat smarter. Whether through sharing calorie counts on menus, sourcing local goods or creating dishes that tell a story, restaurants must adapt to this generation-spanning paradigm shift or they will fail.

In Atlanta, a city of moderate size but with a rich culinary history, we're in the midst of a restaurant renaissance, where heavyweights like Linton Hopkins of Holeman & Finch, Anne Quatrano of Bacchanalia, Ford Fry of the Optimist and Steve Simon of Fifth Group Restaurants are unveiling a bevy of new concepts all over the city, in both established, posh neighborhoods and newly emerging hotspots. One could argue that the foodie culture in Atlanta, fueled by both a native population known for BBQ and fried chicken and a collection of food-focused transplants from places like New York and California, is competitive with much larger cities. Atlanta chefs are constantly among the ranks of James Beard Award winners and many can be seen making the rounds on Top Chef and Food Network. Sean Brock, who owns and operates restaurants in both Atlanta and Charleston, even had his own season of Mind of a Chef.

Just in the past five years, not one, but two major food halls - Krog Street Market and Ponce City Market - have opened their doors in the city, with offerings rivaling that of New York's Chelsea Market or Boston's Faneuil Hall. Atlanta's West Midtown, formerly a blighted neighborhood with high crime and abandoned industrial sites, is now the city's food Mecca, with restaurants by Fry (three, in fact), Quatrano, hospitality legend Steve Palmer, Beard award finalist Steven Satterfield and rising star Guy Wong dotting the main artery.

And then there's Avalon, the vibrant, 86-acre mixed-use community that has attracted over a dozen first-to-market and chef-driven concepts to Alpharetta.
Much like Palo Alto, Plano and Jersey City, Alpharetta is Atlanta's major suburb, a tech hub with start-ups galore and an affluent population located 25 miles North from the city's core. So when North American Properties (NAP) - known for the turnaround of Atlantic Station, a landmark mixed-use community in the heart of Atlanta - decided to develop in the Alpharetta submarket, the NAP team knew it had to create something special. Alpharetta needed a "third place" - after home (first place) and work (second place) - where guests could dine, drink and commune without traveling into town. In 2014, Avalon opened to the public with a curated mix of best-in-class retailers like lululemon, Anthropologie, Drybar, Flywheel Sports and Whole Foods Market. In addition to shopping and entertainment, one of the biggest draws to Avalon is the restaurants: a stunning assembly of eateries from Atlanta's top chefs that were lured to the suburbs and the opportunity to serve a new, eager to eat market. Fry and Palmer have a presence at Avalon with three restaurants, Fry's The El Felix and Palmer's upscale sister restaurants, Oak Steakhouse and Colletta. Popular Midtown spots Farm to Ladle, Bantam + Biddy, Bocado, LottaFrutta and Antico Pizza have also made the trip up north to Avalon.

Avalon has brought much-needed public leisure space, unique restaurants and high-end retail to the submarket, but still, one thing was missing.
Alpharetta and North Fulton County is home to 24 million square feet of occupied office space, but severely lacks full-service hotel rooms. While Buckhead, a populous intown district with plentiful shopping, dining and gleaming skyscrapers, boasts 3,571 full service hotel rooms, including a Ritz-Carlton, Mandarin Oriental and St. Regis among others, Alpharetta and all of North Fulton County only has 719. The affluent community desperately needed a luxury hotel for corporate meetings, association meetings, weddings, staycations and more. The region is vastly under supplied with quality meeting and ballroom and function space.

Stormont Hospitality Group and North American Properties have the honor of answering the call with the 330-key Hotel at Avalon in conjunction with the new 65,000-square-foot Alpharetta Conference Center, a public-private venture that will be the crown jewel of the award-winning, mixed-use community. The business-meets-pleasure facility is projected to bring 125,000 annual visitors, and is a grand reimagining of the resort environment, where guests are immersed in the timeless art of living well through graceful modern, southern hospitality and local flair in a walkable community.

Much like the food and beverage industry, hotel guests demand personalized services, integrated technology with plentiful charging ports, pool decks where one can see and be seen, allergy-free wellness suites and of course, innovative, exceptional dining options. As the chef-driven restaurant industry booms, hotels are faced with a harsh reality: a waffle-maker in the lobby isn't going to cut it.
At The Hotel at Avalon, an Autograph Collection hotel by Marriott, we knew we had to uphold Avalon's standard of attracting the best restaurants the region has to offer with our food and beverage program. It was a unique challenge: how can we offer locally inspired, chef-driven food on the scale that a hotel requires? How can we delight our guests while becoming a favorite spot for locals, too?
Few hotels in the Atlanta area have successfully implemented such a feat. Early last year, fine dining concept Atlas opened at the St. Regis hotel in Buckhead to much acclaim, largely due to an upscale menu (with prices to match) created by veteran local chef Gerry Klaskala and dining room with works from the likes of Picasso adorning the walls. Atlas is a venerable destination, a place to celebrate birthdays and impress clients.

The Hotel at Avalon's restaurant will also be a destination, but one where guests can both toast to a special occasion or enjoy a delicious dinner on a weeknight without breaking the bank. In addition to traditional offerings, our room service and catering services will be enhanced with local options from the restaurant's uniquely curated menu. The restaurant will provide light snacks at the bar to be washed down by local beer and handcrafted cocktails. And, it will be upscale enough for a party and a place to bring friends visiting from out of town, but also ideal for a last-minute dinner decision after relaxing at the pool all afternoon. This carefully selected brand will complement the culinary greats already established at Avalon, while elevating the guest experience for those who choose to eat in and drawing new guests to the hotel simply for the dining experience. Often when one looks to try a great new restaurant, a hotel is the last place you'd expect it: unless of course, you're dining at The Hotel at Avalon.

Finding a restaurant to fit this niche that also represents the essence of Avalon is no easy task. We are in the process of seeking a local mainstay to hand over the reins to our operations staff, who will take the regionally-inspired menu, and adapt it to fit our hotel needs and room service and catering needs. For the restaurant, the relinquishing of control is worth it: brides and grooms will munch on their distinctive hors d'oeuvres on their wedding day, then enjoy a hearty breakfast in the honeymoon suite the next morning. Their crafted sandwiches and salads will be passed around at business lunches, and hungry conference-goers from around the country will experience scrumptious snacks and desserts between sessions.

Because The Hotel at Avalon will be a new experience in southern hospitality with luxury flair, recruiting a restaurant that serves familiar dishes in an elevated fashion while using local, farm to table ingredients is a perfect fit. As an Autograph Collection hotel, we seek to create an experience "exactly like nothing else," and we can accomplish that with our innovative, locally driven food and beverage program.

Along with restaurateurs, hoteliers have realized that guests are looking for local community-driven experiences. Over the last decade, there has been a deluge of new soft brands - like Marriott's Autograph Collection and Curio by Hilton - coming to market. These brands are responsive to the guest's demand for an immersive, culturally rich environment, and offering a chef-driven restaurant concept is a natural extension of this commitment to delivering a local experience, and in fact helps create and define that very local experience so desired. As more soft brands open and continue to innovate, we believe that more developers will seek out local chefs to curate food and beverage programs that reflect the urban fabric of the hotel's surroundings, creating a one-of-a-kind destination for guests.

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