In an interview with Eater National's Hillary Dixler, chef/restaurateur Linton Hopkins discusses how he built his restaurant empire, the Atlanta dining scene, and what's happened in the 10 years since he opened Restaurant Eugene. Hopkins also dishes a few juicy tidbits on upcoming eateries at Ponce City Market, the Atlanta Botanical Garden, and a possible partnership with Chick-fil-A.
Hopkins says to expect Ponce City Market outposts for H&F Burger and H&F Bread Co. to open in May.
It's going great. At the end of this month, we've got one of the last formal pictures from the architect. We built this restaurant using a buddy of mine's assistance, who had worked within the Wendy's organization helping design kitchens, so we're using a lot of that forward-thinking fast food design with bringing in our fresh food.
It's amazing, the quality of griddles. There's a steam-jacketed griddle, where it's a surface of steam under the griddle iron. It's more consistent. It has a faster recoup time. So it's been this access into this world of really griddle technology...That just is better and so we're designing everything from the kitchen core for speed and efficiency to really make it good on our employees and good for speed of product. Then protect integrity product, we're going to grind all our own meat there, which is fun.
I look at H & F Burger almost like a butcher shop that sells burgers on a counter. We're going to look at the health stuff. You'll have our bakery right next door, H & F Bread, a little bread kiosk so you'll be able to buy our hamburger buns. You'll be able to buy our condiments that we all make in-house. We have little jars out of our ketchup, mustard, and pickle. I'd love to be able to sell you the meat you could grind at home. Or I could even sell you the patties. I like giving away recipes for free, not hiding things because that's part of the fun, too. You should be able to cook these burgers at home.
We're close. It's probably going to be a May opening. March is when we're told the parking deck will be open. That means April ... We'll be ready. We'll have full designs and permitting ready to go, where I could start construction probably December 1 so we'll see how that develops. Yeah, it's fun. I'm going to be real excited with our first place.
It's going to have counter service. I think a lot about, when I walk into a restaurant, a lot of places don't even know how to pour Coca-Cola properly, because I love Coca-Cola. I like the balance with good ice and the right fizz, what they say the pause that refreshes ... We're going to have Coke where we do the old soda fountain, where we pour the syrup in. Then the soda and we stir the ice. We're going to get some of the old glasses. We were talking with them that have the syrup line still on it. They sent us some of their ice studies from the '30s so that we can look at how they were training these pharmacies on how to mix a Coke. I think that's going to be a lot of fun.
We're going to have a good vegetarian burger. We're working on a vegetarian burger that is as craveable as a meat burger. I'm real proud of it, I think we hit the recipe. It's a ... I won't give you the recipe. I'm pretty closed on this one right now ... It's barley based. We've got mushrooms in there, for your umami. We use beets. It's gluten-free. It's got Sea Island red peas in the mix. I found that so many vegetarian burgers were like big bean patties so I needed it to have some granularity and crispy edges. We're going to build it the same way. It's not a big thick burger, like our stack...I think the secret I really want about H & F Burger is that actually it's not about the burger at all. We're going to have a salad that I want to be really just one of the great salads, like "I go to H & F Burger for the salad."
...I'm excited we're going to have hand-churned milkshakes, the old churn milkshakes. High Road Craft Creamery, the local ice cream place is...going to deliver ice cream daily for us.
Linton's at the Garden, his restaurant that will open at the Atlanta Botanical Garden, will be helmed by executive chef Justin Van Aken out of Ket West.
That just got announced ... Why have food at a botanical garden? It's the same question I had for Delta. Here we are on a plane. Why do you have food on a plane? Let's figure that out.
Why have food in a botanical garden? Well, what is the history of botanical gardens? It's the world of physics that it came out of. It's part of curating a collection of making an urban garden. Well, of course food should be tied into that. Families are there, people are there. They're there for a long period of time. They need refreshment.
How do we build a partnership that's not me as a vendor? Even the legal documents, I was like I will never be known as a vendor. I don't want to go into the legal words that talk about lowest common denominator. I want to talk about a legal language that talks about the highest common aspirations.
The partnership with them is really this new entity, to build a new idea [around]: why have food there? So we're taking over the current Blossom Café. We've rebranded to Linton's. The Café at Linton's in the garden. It's first restaurant I put my name on, which is very scary.
I know that it means I've got to be better because I have to stand for something. We're just choosing what the first menu is right now. I look at the world of what a crudite has the possibility to be, which is beautiful, fresh, shaved vegetable salads ... They already have on the wall there "plant to plate" and we want to make that the truth.
It'll be all the same farmers, the same artisans, the same culture of cooking from scratch. We've hired an amazing young man to be our chef there, which we're proud to announce, you'll be the first person we ever told. Justin Van Aken out of Florida. He believes in integrity and he believes in all food service should be the same in that level of integrity, whether I'm building a little salad or even if I'm making a PB & J for you...
Then they're building this café and restaurant that we get to be a part of the design. Danny Meyer is such a hero of mine ... We're able to blend how do you feed people very quickly with the elegance that every human deserves so where you don't feel like you're just in a feed lot with hospitality and service.
We're testing the recipes right now. We start in November. It's going to be very fast so we're going to see how it goes. I can just tell you we're going to make a lot of mistakes. Have sympathy for us, but just know that we're going to work on really doing the right thing. I'm going to have to get there and learn how to cook for people there because each space is different. People have different expectations of what food should be.
I just know we're going to get rid of a lot of the disposables. I want to serve things on plates with plate-ware and hand you a glass. I want to get past everything being a cafeteria. I want it to be a personable café. I like the word café. I want to defend it.
Hopkins has been talking with Chick-fil-A about H&F Bread potentially supplying buns for the chicken sandwich giant.
I've gotten to know Dan [Cathy, president of Chick-fil-A]. Dan's big focus is how could he be the food of American families and that's really important to him. Regardless of all the stuff around definition of family, he really wants to have good for American families and since they're an Atlanta company, they had asked me to look at our bun.
Where it goes I don't know, but we, I believe ... I'm here to help any company that wants to talk about good food. When you say you want to go farm to table, like Emory University did. I'm part of their little committee on good food. We sell our bread there.
Yeah, we just had the first little discussion with them on here's what a sandwich tastes like on our bread. Well, how do you roll that out in a company that big? That's crazy. It's very hard to do. You got to take baby steps. What I've learned from Chik-fil-A, we went to their innovation center they just opened up. They have the most amazing way they innovate. Now it may be slow, but I can't tell you what's going to happen, but I just love being part of the conversation with them about possibly. I like that. I like the word possible.
I don't know if it's probable yet, but I know that they want to be part of good food for families and I think that's important. I want to be part of good food for families, too, so why can't we find a middle ground to talk about what that is.