‘Less is Better’ Means Big Business for Restaurant Holdings
Restaurateur Nick Koustis offers a straightforward recipe for stunning success: keep the menu simple, with finely honed choices that are fresh, creative and casually priced; insist on personal and engaging service; and provide a casually elegant, experiential ambience to appeal to Pittsburgh’s younger generations. While this culinary entrepreneur clearly knows how to build on a name — the popular Ditka Restaurants are also lodged under his Restaurant Holdings’ umbrella — it’s the hometown approach to serving Pittsburgh’s appetite for a memorable culinary experience that’s cemented his and partner Pat McDonell’s reputation. By evolving with the city and staying on the cutting edge of culinary trends, they’ve grown their brand into a multi-location, million-dollar business.
“With all of our restaurants, our intent is that less is better, every time a new item is added, one comes off.”
All operations adhere to an important concept they call Value of the Person, a practice applied from the CEO down to the dishwasher and everyone in between, that places the highest priority on ensuring each employee is treated with love, dignity and respect. All restaurants in the group are committed to menus that feature quality ingredients at a comfortable price, starting with carefully sourced products that must meet very high standards.
“With all of our restaurants, our intent is that less is better,” explains Koustis. “Too many restaurants start off with a specific cuisine and brand, and as they expand they grow their menu too much and too quickly, resulting in a watering down effect because they are trying to offer too many things. We have a very disciplined approach. There are 28 items on the menu and we want to keep it at that; every time a new item is added, one comes off.” The well-honed approach also allows Koustis to target menus to local tastes.
To continue to differentiate their eateries in a landscape burgeoning with popular chain restaurant choices, Koustis insists on creating an experience for the customer with exceptional service delivered in a cozy, home-like setting. “All our servers are required to complete a two-week formalized training to guarantee we present a well-educated waitperson who really understands the food and beverages, and also knows the right time to make upselling suggestions to customers,” Koustis explains. “Situational service” is taught, requiring servers to quickly assess their customer scenario and vary their approach accordingly ... four ladies at a monthly get-together may want to engage with the waiter and discuss specials, but keep the chatter to a minimum with the four businesspeople deep in conversation, he advises.
More than 75 years of brand strength
The name Atria’s has been well known in South Pittsburgh since the 1930s; first as a grocery store, then transitioning into a beloved neighborhood watering hole. Rather than make numerous changes, current owners Pat and Nancy McDonnell, who purchased Atria’s in 1999 from the original owner, decided instead to build on the brand’s strength. The upscale dinner house has expanded to include eight locations over the years. The slightly older, over 45 crowd, has made comfort foods like chicken parmesan and a signature pot roast nacho dish consistent best sellers.
Everything is sourced for quality, says Koustis, from fresh fish, to specially cut steaks, to fresh produce from local vendors.
One of the most hotly anticipated promotions each year is the Oktoberfest celebration, courtesy of an Atria classically-trained chef from Germany, who introduced traditional entrees such as “Paprika Handel,” “Jagerschnitzel” and “Ofenfrische Schweinshaxe” to diners, beginning in 1999. “It’s the equivalent of inserting a whole German restaurant menu into Atria’s, and all are authentic, family recipes,” says Koustis. Although tradition calls for an end to Oktoberfest by the first Sunday of the month, at Atria’s the popular dishes are served through the end of October.
The restaurant’s catering arm extends its reach to area galas and receptions, and as exclusive caterer to the National Aviary on Pittsburgh’s historic North Side, billed proudly as the country’s only independent indoor nonprofit zoo dedicated to birds. This menu too draws on the operation’s deep Pittsburgh roots, with hometown favorites like four cheese vegetable lasagna, rotisserie chicken Florentine, spaghetti and meatballs, and “The Pittsburgher:” classic pierogies, grilled kielbasa and wine sauerkraut with caramelized onions.
Wood-fired grilling and ‘a touch of cowboy’
Restaurant Holdings’ newest concept, Juniper Grill, targets the growing Millennial demographic with an upscale lodge-like atmosphere and “a touch of cowboy cuisine,” says Koustis. The restaurant opened strong and stayed strong, he says, boosted by stellar word-of-mouth recommendations. Their growing local footprint is earned by consistently delivering on the principles that built Atria’s brand equity — exceptional service, fresh, high-quality food and targeted menus — while forging a unique identity all its own.
Incorporating a wood-fired grill into the kitchen dynamic means foods are infused with a unique campfire flavor, and also add a much sought-after range of gluten-free choices to the menu. The southwest influence is reflected in bold choices everywhere on the menu, with fresh guacamole; a top-selling spicy shrimp flatbread appetizer; slow cooked brisket, marinated for 24 hours and then smoked overnight for another 12 hours; and the number one dish — fish tacos with bang bang sauce, mango salsa, drunken black beans and rice.
Research into beverage options revealed a previously untapped market for tequila, sparking Koustis to offer 16 varieties of the sipping kind on any given night, along with a signature margarita made purely from scratch using fresh, hand-squeezed juices. Non-tequila drinkers enjoy a constantly rotating selection of hard-to-find, local craft beers kept on tap and an extensive list of wines by bottle or glass.
It’s all about giving customers choices, says Koustis, and he’s about to expand those choices with a third Juniper Grill underway in Pittsburgh.