When Doug McKendrick heard the voice of Karen Bremer, the executive director of the Georgia Restaurant Association, on the other end of the line, his thoughts immediately flashed to the future. He’s 72 now, with a career that dates back to the days when disco was still king, and yet the moment didn’t quite feel right. “My first thoughts were, ‘Are you asking me to retire? I’m not ready to quit yet,” McKendrick says with a laugh.
On November 1, McKendrick, the owner of the Atlanta landmark McKendrick’s Steak House, will receive the Lifetime Achievement Award at the 9th Annual GRACE Awards. Such a moment, he admits, comes with a certain level of reflection.
During the past two decades McKendrick’s has operated from the Park Place Shopping Center in the Peach State’s Dunwoody suburb, things haven’t changed much. Truthfully, that’s understating it. The single-unit operation looks, and feels, just like it did when the doors first opened in 1995. Out of curiosity, McKendrick recently asked for a breakdown of the average tenure of his employees. The result: 16 and half years. McKendrick marveled at the thought. “I have a lot of respect for people,” McKendrick says. “I played sports in high school and college, and what really made things work was the team working together. Everybody has some flaws and some faults, but you know what? The key is for them to show up on time and love what they’re doing; enjoying the customers, and knowing who they are, and they’ve made a good life out of it.”
A small sample: managers Carol Conway and Rick Marianacci have been there for more than 18 years. The cleaning crew, Charles Ramsey and Fletcher Griffin, have been helping out since 1980, before the property even became what it is today. “Since 1980,” McKendrick repeats. “Same two guys, and they’re probably the most trustworthy people I’ve ever met in my life.”
To drive home the point, McKendrick explains that in all those years, there have only been three keys to open the restaurant. Ramsey, Griffin, and McKendrick each have one. Tracing back, it’s remarkable, McKendrick adds, that he’s even arrived at this nostalgic juncture. He did not begin as a restaurateur. McKendrick holds Bachelor’s degrees in economics and accounting from Rice University, a MBA in finance and accounting from the University of North Carolina, and spent time in the Navy aboard the USS Dixie [Ad-15] before even arriving in Atlanta in 1972. Naturally, that led to a career in accounting, working as a CPA with Arthur Andersen, and then as vice president of finance for Mimi’s and Max’s Restaurants—formerly of the Omni Hotel in downtown.
In 1978, the property that would eventually house McKendrick’s began to develop, and his interest sparked. He opened élan, a disco-themed club, in 1979, and had a successful nine-year run. Then came Mi Spia and Park Place Café piano bar. A nearby concept in the shopping plaza, L&N Seafood, didn’t fare as well, and the developers asked McKendrick to think up another plan. He leaned on his childhood growing up in Ottawa, Illinois, where the dining staples—the restaurants that seemed to outlive residents—were always steak houses.
It’s now 20 years later and McKendrick’s was recently named one of the top 10 steakhouses in Atlanta by gayot.com. “It’s been very, very rewarding. I really feel honored,” McKendrick says. “But somehow, the honor needs to pass on to the employees that we’ve had there for the last 20 years, some the last 40 years. I think my wife [Claudia] has a lot of contribution into this. She does everything.”
McKendrick eats lunch at the restaurant nearly every day, always ordering salmon, coleslaw, tomatoes, and asparagus, and dinner a couple of times a week. The repetition doesn’t bother him in the slightest. “If something is great,” he asks. “Why change it?”
That’s yet another McKendrick’s backbone. The executive chef, Thomas Minchella, has been with the restaurant since it opened, leaving from 2001 to 2005 before returning in 2007. The food and the décor have stayed steady during that span. The restaurant tacked on a patio, which, McKendrick admits, “Was a real big thing for us.”
The fact McKendrick has a financial background has helped operations as well, he says. “Most people don’t understand the financial aspects of the business,” McKendrick explains. “Then it gets crazy because they don’t know if they have money in the bank or not. We’re out there now and we’re starting our 21st year in that same location, and we have no debt, no personal guarantees on the lease.”
When the GRAC Awards Gala takes place at the Foundry at Puritan Mill, McKendrick isn’t sure if he’s going to be asked to give a speech. He assumes, at some point, that he will be handed a microphone and asked to say a few words. McKendrick has a pretty good idea where he will begin. “I know what I’m going to say already. I don’t know if I should keep it a secret it or not,” he says. “Basically, I’m going to honor the people that have been with us for a long time. They’ve been the key to all our success, from the start.”