Jackmont Hospitality puts its secret sauce to work appealing to foodies
The job of a leader is “to stretch people,” believes Daniel Halpern, president and CEO of Jackmont Hospitality, the TGI Fridays operator striving to create independent restaurants, too.
Andrew Thomas Lee
Soft scrambled duck eggs with black truffles are on the menu this summer night at One Flew South, celebrating its tenth anniversary with a special three- or four-course tasting menu in a stunning setting dominated by a wall-sized mural of towering Georgia pine trees.
Chef Todd Richards—author of the cookbook “Soul” who believes “food is a religion of its own,” a James Beard Award nominee for best chef in the Southeast and an “Iron Chef” competitor—and his chef de cuisine Cedric McCroery are presenting the dish with duck jus made with Uncle Nearest 1856 whiskey, named after the enslaved man who purportedly taught Jack Daniels his craft.
For dessert there’s cardamom cake with frosting and miso caramel ice cream. And the setting for this high-end restaurant where black-outfitted servers glide about, diners sit at Cherokee Marble tables and the couple at the end of the bar celebrates their anniversary at the place where they met?
Concourse E of the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, to be exact, the busiest airport in the world and named after the late Maynard Jackson, first black mayor of Atlanta who served three terms starting in 1973. He also co-founded Jackmont Hospitality with his wife, Valerie Jackson, his daughter Brooke Edmond Jackson and the friend she met at Cornell’s hospitality school, Daniel Halpern.
Today Halpern helms Jackmont Hospitality, the unlikely owner of this high-end establishment. Jackmont is better known as an operator of 36 TGI Fridays restaurants, many in enviable locations in airports gained by the owners’ considerable political might.
Along with a second concept that Jackmont launched in 2016, Chicken + Beer in a joint venture with Ludacris the rapper and also in the Atlanta airport, the two independent concepts are the leading edge in Jackmont Hospitality’s bold—some would say risky—bid. Halpern & Co. plan to transform the company from a rock-solid but prosaic franchisee of one of America’s most mainstream concepts, which makes up nearly all of its $170 million in annual revenue, to a company that’s half independent concepts it will develop and half chain restaurants.
As CEO Halpern puts it back at the office, after presenting two bottles of Uncle Nearest whiskey and pouring an amber glass for himself and his guests, the goal is “50 percent us and 50 percent chains,” and he thinks both sides of that business, operating and innovating, are worthwhile. “I think they’re both exciting. When we open a new restaurant it’s a huge sense of satisfaction,” whether it’s One Flew South or TGI Fridays or Slapfish or one of the half-dozen others in the Jackmont mix.
But innovating is special. “The people on our team particularly enjoy creating something from nothing,” he said, citing as an example Craig Hacklander, recently promoted to vice president of strategic operations and in charge of innovation at Jackmont. Halpern marvels at the unique challenge of running franchised restaurants on one hand and feeding the foodies on the other.
Hacklander was a general manager for a TGI Fridays before taking his new role. “He was Bud Lite,” Halpern says with a laugh. “Now he’s a craft beer snob and likes foie gras and pork belly. He’s a Fridays guy that became a foodie. How’s that for transformation?”
And how’s that for Jackmont’s challenge in a nutshell? Can a crackerjack operator of the struggling TGI Fridays chain, down a painful 7.8 percent in systemwide sales last year along with other limping casual diners, create new concepts quickly and successfully enough to transform their own future?
Can a Fridays guy like Halpern become a foodie feeder?
1. Chef Todd Richards in Chicken + Beer at the Atlanta airport. 2. Jackmont Hospitality chefs aim to blend soul food with tastes from around the world.
Fight and grit
June 23, 2003. That is Halpern’s immediate answer when asked to name Jackmont Hospitality’s worst day ever. “We were traveling,” he recalled, he and Maynard Jackson, when Jackson “had a massive heart attack in the middle of the airport.” All at once his mentor, the larger-than-life politico who ruled his city for three terms and was the “rainmaker” for Jackmont Hospitality, was gone.
“There were people that apologized, said they were sorry we would be out of business,” Halpern recalled, thinking they couldn’t possibly run Jackmont without Maynard Jackson. Halpern said he and the others felt a responsibility to continue, the same responsibility he says the senior team feels to this day at Jackmont. He cites “fight” and “grit” to explain how they carried on, with about $9 million in annual revenue at the time and condolences pouring in amidst the shock. “That was my expectation,” to keep the business going.
Asked to name the best day at his company, he’s again quick to answer. “The same day. It made us grow up. It was the worst day because we had to grow up. It was the best day because we grew up.” He was 40 years old, and today, at age 56, the company has north of $170 million in revenue, a goal to double in size in the next five years, a nod from TGI Fridays corporate in 2019 as Franchise Group of the Year, and two restaurants with critical acclaim and in Chicken + Beer’s case, the potential for franchising.
CFO Pete McKnight is riding those accolades in an effort to bring in $10 million from equity investors, the first time the firm has sought outside funding in an era when casual dining has lost its shine.
“There’s a lot of interest out there in new brands and QSR. That’s where the capital’s flowing right now,” McKnight said, but he believes Jackmont’s reputation as a good operator that can drive incremental sales will help him win the day. “The challenge is to find the right partner in terms of someone Daniel can feel comfortable with on the control piece of it,” he adds.
Halpern often rubs elbows in Democratic political circles, serving as a member of former President Barack Obama’s National Finance Committee and as a trustee of the 2008 presidential inaugural committee. He serves as deputy national finance chair and executive committee member of the Democratic National Committee.
This summer Chef Richards, culinary director for Jackmont, was busy hosting campaign events for the double-digit roster of Democratic candidates vying for attention. Richards routinely creates special menus for each event, and Mary Elizabeth Kidd, Jackmont’s marketing director, hosts the parties at their restaurants.
Halpern himself feels out of step with the progressives of the party, he said, but he enjoys the mix and mingle and feels duty-bound to get involved. “I think it’s about staying engaged. As the Democratic party shifts to the left, I’m sure people think I’m a dinosaur,” he says. “I do believe people should have a fair shot.”
Halpern’s political roots go way back, he said. His mother is Iroquois Cayuga and was very active in tribal affairs, and his father ran for U.S. Congress in 1970 as an “ultra-liberal” candidate. His was a middle-class upbringing in San Diego as the youngest of four, but with a twist. “My parents were politically active. We had Dennis Banks, Angela Davis and Cesar Chavez coming through our house,” he said, adding lightly that with Maynard Jackson, elected mayor at 35, the first black mayor in any major city in the South, “those repressed adventures of my young years were rejuvenated.”
Jackson remains a powerful mentor in Halpern’s memory. “He was a guy who was extremely demanding but gave you a lot of space and pretty much expected perfection,” Halpern recalls. “He was a guy who would chew you out without using a word of profanity, and you’d walk out motivated to come back and be better.” As Halpern recalls the lesson: “You can yell at someone and they won’t listen to you but you can yell at them and they’ll listen if they know you love them.”
The most valuable words from Jackson? The job of a leader “is to stretch people. My job is to provide inspiration.” He believes the best part of Jackmont Hospitality is providing jobs. “We have to make people find out their personal aspirations. I tell everybody, I hope that when you leave that you’re in a better place in your development.”
As he tells every employee, “I try to explain, they’re better than they think they are. They have more to offer.”
3. GM Shawn Crenshaw relies on Bike Night among other events to pump sales at his TGI Fridays in Atlanta. 4. A drink made with Uncle Nearest whiskey plus more food at One Flew South and Chicken + Beer. 5. “There’s nothing better” when employees are recognized, says Reggie Evers, director of operations at Jackmont.
The disciples of Jackmont
Meanwhile, there are all those restaurants to run, 36 TGI Fridays plus nine more units in other brands in seven states, in a grind-it-out environment where a nearly 8 percent drop in top-line sales for the Fridays chain last year translates to an intense focus on profitability at the store level.
At the Camp Creek store in Atlanta on a June day, just before lunch rush, General Manager Shawn Crenshaw is corralling the usual chaos, taking calls about the latest crisis while also gamely trying to sit for a quick interview. He was the opening GM for Camp Creek from 2008 to 2010, became HR director for Jackmont but then left for an HR spot at another company.
Last year he came back. “I love Jackmont,” he says simply to explain why. “Our slogan says we’re one family feeding many. I consider myself a disciple.”
One of Crenshaw’s tricks to pump sales is Bike Night, every Wednesday when more than 300 customers show up on their motorcycles. “The testosterone, the pretty bikes, they show off and park out front,” he explained. “It’s a beauty pageant for bikes.”
Crenshaw calls Bike Night an example of the “boldness of the company,” meaning Jackmont. “We do creative things.” His goal is “identifying the niche communities” the restaurant can serve.
His boss, Director of Operations Reggie Evers, is also on site, in charge of seven TGI Fridays in all. He’s been at Jackmont for almost four years and before that was a “brand excellence manager” for TGI Fridays corporate, meaning he used to check up on stores on behalf of the franchisor but now does so as part of its most-awarded franchisee.
“I’d never seen a company so committed to their people and developing them. That always blew me away,” he said about why he switched sides. Now one key value he insists upon is recognition, and for one example he cited an award given to a dishwasher who had served for a quarter century. “What an honor to go, ‘Oh my gosh you’ve devoted 25 years to Jackmont and TGI Fridays.’ He started to cry,” Evers said about the employee. “There’s nothing better than that.”
John Faison is Jackmont’s director of operations for Northeast TGI Fridays since 2007, after the franchisee bought existing stores in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. In a company full of inspiring leaders, as interviews with a half-dozen of Jackmont’s management team showed, Faison stands out.
He holds boot camps with general managers, kitchen managers and bar managers, “to teach them the nuts and bolts of the business.” They’ll break jobs down to their individual parts. “We execute cooking, going over recipes, they’re making drinks, they’re doing pours. We teach them the draft system, how to pour beer. Everything you need to know as a bartender or bar manager to succeed in your role.”
The reason for the boot camps? “People fail because they don’t know. If they don’t know we want to educate them on the don’t knows, so if they can’t do the job we can try to put them in a different role. But if you don’t care that’s the part that we have to change out that person, because you won’t be a fit with Jackmont if you don’t care.”
Faison believes his and Jackmont’s biggest test was in Baltimore in 2015, when the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who was in police custody, caused mass protests at the mall where TGI Fridays had just broken ground.
“We stood firm there. Some businesses left the area, businesses were burnt down,” Faison recalled. “We did all of our training and interviewing at that mall. We were able to talk to some of the young folks that were actually involved with that riot, we gave them jobs.”
He said the community is underserved, and he talked to “people 23 years old or 24 years old and never had a job before. They didn’t know how to read their paychecks. One said, ‘I didn’t sign up for FICA,’ why is that on the check? It was touching, to teach these people how to conduct themselves and be in the hospitality business,” he said.
“It’s very rewarding being that I’m a person that grew up in the projects. I didn’t grow up with a silver spoon in my mouth. To see these things happen in my market and seeing folks and say, ‘Hey look, you can do it.’”
Faison started as a dishwasher for Fridays 36 years ago. “I was having my first child and I had to buy a crib and I got a dishwashing job on New Year’s Day,” he said. “I can relate to what these guys are going through and I’m very passionate about our team members, our managers.”
And just like that, it becomes clear: What seems like the mundane part of Jackmont Hospitality’s business, operating TGI Fridays restaurants, is more inspiring even than black truffle duck eggs and all that other fancy food.
Director of Culinary Todd Richards, above, at One Flew South with Executive Chef Josh Lee, below, at Chicken + Beer.
For Chef Todd Richards, ‘food brings people together’
As explained in the introduction to his cookbook “Soul: A Chief’s Culinary Evolution in 150 Recipes,” Chef Todd Richards writes, “it’s crystal clear to me that food brings people together if we choose to use it that way. It starts with honoring our culinary heritage.”
For proof, you can just taste his offerings at Chicken + Beer, the joint venture between Jackmont Hospitality, which employs Richards as director of culinary, and Ludacris the rapper at the Atlanta airport.
There’s black-eyed pea hummus, salmon croquette sliders with zucchini slaw and green tomato chutney and potato wedges, short rib mac & cheese, and Chicken + Dirty Rice Egg Rolls with whiskey-infused hot mustard.
The fried chicken skins are the most addictive, but when Chef Richards sits down he wants to talk more about the atmosphere than the food. “Chicken + Beer is about having a great time. I can’t be mad at you” while sharing a snack at the restaurant, he said. “Our job is to take the stress out of travel.”
At One Flew South, just a concourse away at the Atlanta airport, “we got into a refined place,” he said. Running a fine-dining restaurant in an airport where the clock is always ticking isn’t easy. “In my career I’m used to doing things never done before,” Richards said.
Josh Lee, executive chef at Chicken + Beer, said he joined Richards because of Richards. “I want to one day surpass him. He keeps raising the bar.”
As Jackmont Hospitality CEO Daniel Halpern says, “We’ve kind of met in the middle of where the artistic endeavor meets” the business side. Is that a challenge? “It takes a lot of Uncle Nearest,” he says, gesturing to the two bottles of whiskey on the table.