Interview with Chef Kevin Rathbun of Rathbun’s - Atlanta

October, 2007

Antoinette Bruno: When and why did you start cooking? What inspired you to pursue cooking professionally?
Kevin Rathbun: My mother was a maitre d’ in Kansas City. She worked in fine dining, so I was exposed to it at an early age. Our family was always having people over to eat, too. When I was 14 I started working at Sambo’s.

AB: Where have you worked professionally as a chef?
KR: I was a sous chef under Bradley Ogden at The American Restaurant for three years. I was also a sous chef at Brennan’s of Houston, where Emeril was the corporate chef. Later I worked for Emeril at Commander's Palace. I spent six months at Baby Routh in Dallas before becoming chef there, and I stayed on for another seven years. Later I opened NAVA and started Bluepointe with Pano Karatassos, my partner at the time. I become the corporate chef there and continued working with Pano for nine years.

AB: What did you study in school? Did you go to culinary school?
KR: I went to Johnson County Community College and studied hospitality.

AB: When did you open your first restaurant? How did you know you were ready to own and not work for someone else?
KR: Rathbun’s is my first restaurant. I opened it in 2004 when I was 41.

AB: What was the deal? How’d you get the money? Did you have partners?
KR: Clifford Bramble and Kirk Parks are my lifetime partners. I want them to be financially successful. We bought the building together.

AB: Who are some of your contemporaries? What restaurants concepts/restaurateurs do you respect in your city?
KR: I’m a younger Drew Nieporent – I aspire to be like him. Bobby Flay is another – I worked with Bobby at Baby Routh when he was a young kid. He took the fast track, I took the slow track. Jack McDavid – he bought real estate – was another great mentor.

AB: What’s your ownership structure?
KR: If you base a restaurant on somebody who is not vested, you can lose. They can take your clients and set up shop. So the key is to vest them and really give them their worth.

AB: What’s your concept?
KR: I still cook. As I roll out new restaurants, I also give my sous chef more freedom. My sous at Rathbun’s has great work ethic and a young businessman’s savvy. He could end up a partner.

AB: How do you inspire yet retain your employees?
KR: I surrounded myself with talented people. My partner, Kirk Parks, worked for me as my pastry chef throughout my career. Cliff Bramble was the opening general manager of NAVA. I like to drink and have fun, while he is dependable – no nonsense.

AB: What is your customer service philosophy?
KR: Whatever the customer wants the customer gets. I shake a lot of hands and kiss a lot of babies.

AB: Choose a range: under 2 million; 2-5 million; 5-10 million; 10-15 million; over 15 million.
KR: 10-15 million.

AB: What are your top three tips for running successful restaurants?
KR: 1.Your employees and peers are number one. You need to have good people to serve your customers. If you take care of your employees you have low turnover. If employees are treated well, it’s a testament to a well-run company.
2. You must be bottom line oriented – the financial aspect is important.
3. You have to have experience – no restaurant can be based on Mama's red sauce. You get that experience working for someone else. It took me thirty years to do that.

AB: What's your 5 year plan? Do you want to conquer the city or maintain your empire?
KR: We will be three restaurants in three years, with each having a different goal. The steakhouse is opening soon. Next I want to roll out a fast and casual concept. I have 100 employees – I want to be financially independent.