By John Schaffner

Communication is a major ingredient to running a successful restaurant and ensuring happy customers who have enjoyed their dining experience and will come back.

That was the consensus among four leading Buckhead restaurant owners who participated in a recent panel discussion before members and guests of the Buckhead Business Association.

The panel consisted of one of the deans of Atlanta restaurant owners, Dante Stephenson, owner of Dante’s Down the Hatch On Peachtree Road; Niko Karatassos, director of operations for Buckhead Life Restaurant Group which owns 13 restaurants; Bobby Donlan, owner of New York Prime steakhouse on Peachtree Road, and Tate Clements, owner of Soleil Nu Bistro on Maple Drive.

The panel discussion was moderated by Kevin Jenkins, who along with chef Fred Genovese, co-hosts the “Chef and the Fat Man” weekly radio show on Business Radio 1160 AM WCFO.

Jenkins started out by stating restaurant owners “are the most daring and brain dead” of business owners. The reasons he cited were the intensity and long hours demanded by the business and the failure rate among restaurants.

The latter was backed up by BBA board member and Georgia Restaurant Association President Ron Wolf, who pointed out the members on the panel are survivors with over 100 years of experience in the restaurant business.

However, Wolf pointed out that 60 percent of all restaurants in the United States will close. Last year, he said, 57,000 opened and 27,000 closed. But he added that in Georgia 30 percent to 40 percent close each year.

“We have almost a family tree of dining (in Buckhead),” Wolf said. “They all started working for Niko or Dante and they are the offspring, if you will. They make the Georgia restaurant business what it is.”

Jenkins challenged the four panelists with questions that ranged from what goes into the idea for a restaurant, to service and how to deal with customer complaints, to how the owners deal with VIP’s when they are booked up.

Karatassos said all of the credit for creation of the concepts of the 13 very different restaurants in the Buckhead Life Group goes to his father, Pano. He said you have to understand Atlanta, focusing on the food side, on trends and on what will work in Atlanta.

Stephenson said a successful restaurant “blends eating with an experience,” which was echoed by the youngest and newest member of the panel, Clements.

The four-year veteran in the business, Clements said it is a people business. “Above the quality of food, it needs to be a pleasant experience.” He was among the first to mention the word communication in relation to interacting with the customers as well as the staff. “It is all about communication,” he said, explaining that he often will take over a table from a server if he feels there is a problem between the customer and that server.

Stephenson explained that he still walks the floor in his restaurant every night. “I love walking the floor,” he said. “Sometimes the wait staff doesn’t see the looks on the faces of the customers when they are upset because the staff is so busy. I think we have been around so long because get feedback for the staff.”

Stephenson added, there are those quiet customers who don’t always tell staff of a nice restaurant there is a problem. That quiet customer is difficult to deal with, he added.

Donlan agreed, saying, “The quiet customer is something we can’t handle.”

Asked how important it is to deal immediately with a dissatisfied customer situation, Karatassos stated bluntly, “It is a big deal. Give them their money back. Absolutely zero excuses. If you make a mistake, do too much for the guest. You want to express to the customer that this is a big deal to you. It takes action,” he added. “What upsets people is inaction.”

In dealing with upset customers, Donlan said “You have to be honest with your people when they walk in. They have a 9 o’clock reservation and it is 9:20 before you can get them seated. You have to communicate with that customer and give them a free drink or appetizer,” he explained. Stephenson offered a word of advice to those attending the BBA breakfast meeting. “ I don’t go to a restaurant where the owner or manager are not present.”

Continuing with his advice to the group as customers, he said, “If there is a problem, please let people know. If you have a wonderful experience, ask for the chef and compliment him. Don’t sit there and take it.”