Since opening Makan in Decatur last summer, partners Michael Lo and chef George Yu have been busy. Located in the Courtyard Decatur Downtown hotel, the restaurant takes in guests and a steady stream of locals, hosts ramen festivals, and participates in local culinary events across Atlanta year round. Here now, Lo and Yu detail Makan's first year and what the future might hold.
Are you happy with the location being in Decatur? Was that location the right choice for Makan?
Michael Lo: Yeah. I think originally when we looked at locations, we targeted a few. I think Decatur was definitely one of the locations we wanted to be at because of the fact that it had a really robust and advanced culinary scene. I think the diners of Decatur, the local community knows a lot about food and drink and is definitely more adventurous and they're willing to try new things, et cetera. We definitely picked Decatur for a reason, besides the fact that I live locally and really love this community. It's definitely been a good decision to pick Decatur because the community has just really been welcoming of us.
What's been the biggest challenge in the first year, or maybe the most surprising challenge?
ML: I think the biggest thing for us was the space that we're in. We're in the lobby of a hotel. The reason we chose this location was it was such a great location with a great patio, high ceilings, all those things and literally a block from Decatur. I think that it comes from two ways. Sometimes you get the folks that will come in and expect it to be a hotel restaurant. By that I mean they expect a cheeseburger and a salad, neither one of which we serve. There are folks that will want room service, will try to take the glassware up to their rooms. Things like that, I said you just expect from a very basic hotel restaurant that people just go to when the travel.
Because of the fact that we're definitely not your typical hotel restaurant and just educating the front desk staff of the hotel and then the hotel guests what we are and things like that had definitely been an interesting component of this restaurant that I guess other stand-alone restaurants don't have to deal with.
Have you found a pretty good reception from guests at the hotel? Do you get a lot of traffic from that or is it mostly Atlanta locals dining at the restaurant?
ML: I think the majority of our guests still are from the local community, and a smaller percentage are from the hotel. You definitely have your individuals traveling alone, going to the bar, things like that that you would expect, but we kind of expected that because the hotel is in downtown Decatur. There are hundreds of choices in downtown Decatur, so I think they have access to all those, but we just focus on being a good bar for hotel guests to hang out at and for individual diners that are interested in having a meal, with folks looking for our specific kind of chef-driven Asian cuisine to really surprised and happy here. The vast majority of our business and the focus for us is definitely the local Decatur, Druid Hills, East Atlanta, Kirkwood, Avondale community, the eastern part of town.
Opening a restaurant is certainly never easy, but has anything been easier than you expected, or have there been any pleasant surprises?
ML:I think the biggest surprise for us was definitely the Atlanta, well, specifically the Decatur restaurant community and just the Decatur community at large. By that I mean the city of Decatur and the mayor, the commissioner, the folks that work for the city development offices, things like that as well as a local PTAs and local business associations. I think within one year, we've gotten really ingrained into a lot of the community things, and they've been extremely welcoming.
The folks at the city, working with us to host events here and doing things like we're doing an event for the Decatur Education Foundation which is a not-for-profit and raises awareness and money for the Decatur schools, the Decatur City Schools. Things like that, plugging us into the community and being very welcoming and inviting of that. I'm not sure that that happens in every community in Atlanta, where it's bigger and the city government's not as involved, et cetera, so I think that's really a thing that's unique to Decatur.
What sort of adjustments have you made to the menu since Makan's opening?
George Yu: I've really evolved the menu based on customer feedback since we've opened and guests telling us what they love and didn't. Also working with local farmers, I've been able to fine tune ingredients and components of dishes based on what I have access to. For example, we kimchi'd apples and tomatoes in the summer and apples recently and they've turned out great. The biggest surprise was the learning curve for most of my cooks that previously didn't have experience with Chinese and Korean foods. There were ingredients that a lot of my staff and most of our guests have never heard if before; though it's fun introducing them to it.
Have you been surprised by the popularity of any particular dishes? Have there been any dishes you really liked that didn't connect with diners?
GY: I put wontons in chili oil on the menu when we opened as a homage to my mom and that is definitely one of our most popular dishes. Almost every table ends up ordering one and really enjoys the subtle sweet and spicy poached garlic chili oil.
The beef tendon salad in a spicy chili oil was definitely one of those dishes that my staff and I all loved, tried to introduce the guests to it, but generally the public didn't connect with. I was getting this great tendon from Brasstown and we made this great spicy, crunchy, savory dish, but we rarely got many guests to try it. One day it might make its way back on the menu. I'm told beef tendon will be the next pork belly.
Looking back on how the first year has gone, is there anything that you all would have done differently?
Michael: Changes we would have made. I'm not sure. I think everything happens for a reason and we roll with the punches and whatnot, but I don't know. We've talked about this a lot and it's been a really good year. There were some surprises. I think, to go back on answering your challenges question, I think definitely spending the time on the staff. I know now publicly there's a lot of talk about increasing the minimum wage for restaurant workers and then the shortage of cooks and chefs and things like that. All those things are definitely dynamic things that are going on in terms of running and owning a restaurant.
We still have a lot of staff from our opening team but obviously with any restaurant situation, there's turnover et cetera. I think it's important to really focus on just hiring folks that get it and just have great ability and then training them and then doing everything we can to retain them, motivate them.
It seems like Makan has been pretty well received with generally positive reviews on social media, but you received a pretty negative review from the AJC early on. How does that affect you? How do you respond to that?
ML: I think that was definitely a surprise. I think there were things in there that we didn't agree with and things in there that obviously for a three-month-old restaurant at the time, things that we were, if we were to acknowledge it as things that we were working on and improving on. I think it's to take the proper part of the criticism correctly and utilize them as feedback that you would take from any diner and use positively, to evoke positive change. That's what we do with that and I think that we do get a lot of feedback and positive reviews elsewhere, and I think it was just one person's opinion at the time.
You take that for what it's worth in terms of that, but at the time it was definitely a tough review in terms of we didn't feel it was reflective of what we were doing and what the general consensus feedback on what we were doing was.
What does the future hold for Makan? What do you see happening at the restaurant and how's it going to evolve over the next year and the coming years?
ML: Yeah, I think we have certain things that we've done from day one and been certain things that we are kind of really well known for now, if you will. The pork bun has become kind of like its own thing. It recently won a top 10 in terms of Georgia Tourism Bureau in terms of dishes that locals love and things like that. Ramen being a really big thing. We created the first Ramen festival. We've done three of them now. All those proceeds benefit The Giving Kitchen. That's super exciting for us.
GY: We are definitely starting to see the evolution of our menu as our guests and the dining public gets more familiar with Korean food outside of just kimchi and barbecue, as well as authentic regional Chinese foods, not the Chinese-American foods we've all eaten in the US the last half century. I see that continuing and accelerating over time.