George McKerrow Jr. logged decades in metro Atlanta’s complex and challenging — especially lately — restaurant environment. But he has his own variation on what some might call the KISS (Keep It Simple, Stupid) Principle: offer great food, great service and great attitude.

That focus guided him as he rose from bartender and busboy to regional manager of a popular restaurant chain. After he opened the first Longhorn Steakhouse in Atlanta in 1981, some credited him with having created a new, casual dining segment in the marketplace by providing fresh, hand-cut steaks, a Texas roadhouse atmosphere and an “Urban Cowboy” vibe.

In 2002, McKerrow and another Atlanta visionary — CNN founder Ted Turner — partnered to found Ted’s Montana Grill, which debuted in 2002 on Peachtree Road. He’s guided the private firm through the Great Recession and more recently, the continuing COVID crisis as CEO. 

With accolades such as a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Restaurant Association and involvement in such efforts as the No Kid Hungry campaign, McKerrow has become an icon of the local restaurant business. Atlanta Senior Life talked with McKerrow recently about his life, career, and recent challenges to the dining industry.

Q. What got you started in the restaurant business?

A.  I got a job when I was 16 for gas money way back in the 60s. Then I went off to college and studied to be a lawyer and work for the Ohio Attorney General’s Office. I graduated [from Ohio State] in 1972. I applied to law school and then had second thoughts about going to law school. I thought I’d get a job temporarily; I got a job as a bartender and busboy at a place called the Smuggler’s Inn. And I never looked back.

Q. You came to Atlanta in association with a now-defunct restaurant chain called Victoria Station and later left that company to give birth to Longhorn Steakhouse. How did that come about?

A. If you go back to that era, you had what I would call family steakhouses — half cafeteria and half casual dining restaurant. They were highly successful. I had worked for them, and I started to see issues with it. Also, if you go back to 1980, you had a fascination with country music and the western motif. 

I was introduced by a friend of mine to these Texas honky-tonk saloons called the Hoffbrau. It was a very limited menu and a roadhouse atmosphere. So we had only seven steaks, one potato, salad, and bread and butter when we opened. It was a big risk in hindsight, and I thought it was a good idea.

Q. You left that company after changes, including a sale in 2001, and founded Ted’s with Ted Turner the following year. How did that come about?

A. I was trying to help Ted Turner’s family figure out what to do with all the bison they had. I wrote a paper and introduced it to Ted through his daughter and son-in-law. I had a concept in the back of mind to build a gourmet hamburger place, sort of what you see at Ted’s. I said the best way to introduce bison to America’s table is at a restaurant and to cook it properly, and then the consumer will go out and demand it at the grocery store.

Ted liked the idea, and we shook hands in May of 2001. Six months later, in January of 2002, we opened the first Ted’s Montana Grill. Then we took off and started building restaurants.

Q. How fast was the expansion?

A. Ted had a ferocious appetite, you remember 20 years ago, to grow things big and fast. We did grow 56 restaurants in 72 months and that caused us some heartburn, but we also had the Great Recession in 2009 and 2010 and we stopped growth after that.

Q. How has the COVID pandemic significantly challenged you?

A. We were fortunate in that we were pretty conservative with our finances, so we had a relatively healthy bank account. We shut down 100 percent of the restaurants for six weeks when the shutdown first took place in March of 2020. We began to re-open the restaurants for to-go only and we rewrote our menu and our business plan, and our strategy, and we simplified things. But we kept our restaurants open as early as May of 2020 and we continued to open restaurants throughout.

Q. What kind of resulting operational changes came about?

A. We made a lot of adjustments to the business formula. We cut overhead and we asked people to do more work and different kinds of work. Our biggest problem right now is getting people to come into the industry that want to work there. We are extremely short-staffed. And we’re starting to see, over the last three weeks, a withdrawal of guests’ willingness to come out to the restaurants as they begin to worry about the latest numbers on the disease.

Q. What’s behind the short staffing?

It’s a combination of things. Number One over the last 15 to 18 months, we’ve taught a lot of people how to make a living at home. If you don’t have to get dressed up and fight rush-hour traffic, why would you? Second, I think young people coming into the business today are fascinated about the “gig economy” over what I call the “labor economy.” 

You’re on stage every day when you’re a cook, or bartender, or food server in a restaurant. It’s physical labor and mentally challenging. And let’s face it, people have gotten a lot of outside support and stimulus from the government. So, it’s pretty lucrative to be unemployed for the last 18 months.

Q. What’s in the future for the industry? 

A. I don’t think it’s over. I think it’s a long way from over and I don’t know when we’re going to stabilize the work force, if ever. That’s going to turn people to different ways to deliver the food. Robots and all sorts of technology eliminating the need for so many human beings

Q. How are you coping with these unprecedented circumstances?

A. I get up on the sunny side of the bed every morning and find positives in anything I can. I am a problem solver and our team at Ted’s is problem solvers. But I will tell you, this is the most difficult environment I’ve ever worked in over 50 years in this business.

Mark Woolsey is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.