Executive chef Marc Taft was happily running Chicken and the Egg, a farmstead restaurant in Atlanta, when First Hospitality Group (FHG) President Robert Habeeb made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Habeeb said FHG had big plans to ratchet up its food and beverage profile, and the company was interested in Taft’s culinary approach. Prior to opening the popular independent restaurant in 2011, Taft spent most of his long career in hotel restaurants.
Habeeb said the Chicago-suburb-based management company, which had a strong reputation in the select-service category, was taking on more and more full-service properties and wanted to develop a chef-centric approach to its F&B offerings. Taft was receptive to Habeeb’s vision, so he accepted the role of corporate F&B director in April with the intent of bringing the sensibility of Chicken and the Egg, which emphasizes the cycle of life and sustainability, to FHG’s properties. “As the company was moving into full service, the leadership team wanted to have the same kind of reputation in delivering on F&B,” Taft explains. “Instead of just trying to jump in themselves, they went out and found someone to help them—and I admire them for that.”
Taft lives in Atlanta and continues to run his restaurant, but he now spends a lot of time in and around FHG headquarters in Rosemont, Ill. The group operates about 50 properties under multiple brands, mostly in the Midwest. Taft’s mission is to help the company with its F&B strategy shift, and he certainly has the background to do it.
A native of Tennessee, Taft grew up in Alabama and took his first restaurant job at age 15 in Montgomery. He worked in the front and back of house, first as a server and then doing kitchen prep. “It was one of those things that you think is temporary but turned out to be in my blood,” Taft says. “I graduated from the University of Alabama with a B.A. but only because my parents were hoping I would get a ‘real’ job. I worked in restaurants throughout school to pay the bills.”
Taft was drawn to the world of hotel restaurants early on. He served in a succession of corporate and property F&B positions, most recently with Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. He ran three restaurants for the company in Washington, D.C., before opening Pacci Ristorante at what was then Kimpton’s Hotel Palomar in Atlanta. He also ran AltoRex Rooftop at the property. (The hotel was converted to a Renaissance in 2011.)
The fact that FHG has a multi-brand portfolio will pose challenges for Taft, but he’s up to the task. “You’re educating managers who, in the past, were left to figure out F&B on their own,” he says. “Their brand might have guidelines for how a restaurant should operate, but that doesn’t mean the GM knows how to deal with vendors, sourcing, and all the other elements of running a successful food outlet.”
Despite these hurdles, Taft has a firm direction he wants to take at FHG’s restaurants that involves localization. For instance, he has been spending a lot of time in Peoria, Ill., where Table 19 at Peoria Marriott Pere Marquette is being positioned as a destination for the community. “We hired a chef to drive that menu, and he’s leading the way toward sustainability, gluten-free options, and other initiatives,” Taft says.
As FHG builds F&B concepts, it’s important the company grows into them, he says. “We’re establishing standards, but we’re trying to avoid standard operating procedures. We have to slowly build a culture, and while we’re hiring F&B talent, we need to get support in some cases by finding the right partner.” For example, FHG has partnered with Bob Amick, of Concentrics Restaurants Group, on several restaurants, including a Hilton Garden Inn in Louisville, Ky. It also has partnerships with David Burke, one of the top chefs in the industry.
Taft’s new mission comes at a time when F&B is really evolving. “Diners are more educated on what they’re eating, and expectations have risen.” However, he cautions against just following the latest trends. “Trends are funny. They’re trends because they’ve already been seen. We spend a lot of time worrying about them, but if we’re going to satisfy guests, we should know the trends before they happen.”
While the farm-to-table movement was dismissed as a fad or trend, the local food movement has really taken off, Taft says. He stresses the importance of using fewer preservatives and chemicals. Restaurant menus will continue to feature gluten-free, raw, and paleo dishes, he adds, as well as more socially driven menus. “The restaurant is now being built for the social experience. That means larger tables, small plates being shared, and so forth. It even means more electrical outlets as people bring their devices and apps to the table.”
Looking ahead, Taft says, “it’s all about building an F&B culture that matches the overall company culture. One thing you want to avoid is going in and telling people everything is going to change. You have to know how to build a new piece of a culture that already exists.”