He doesn't come across as hard-nosed - his demeanor is too laid-back - but there's something fierce underlying Steve Palmer's approach to service and hospitality.
What he said
Here are a few thoughts from Steve Palmer about Charleston's food and restaurant culture:
On the Wine + Food Festival (he has been on the board for three years):
"Transition creates uncertainty; that's a natural byproduct. Gillian is just now getting started so ... it wouldn't be fair to judge her on this year's festival. Look at where the festival stands next year and I think you'll have a good sense of where we're going."
"If you look at the guest chef list every year, these are James Beard-nominated chefs that are working in their kitchens, they are in their restaurants, they are not on the Food Network. And that was a very clear choice that Angel (Postell) made, and I hope that we stay that course. For those visiting chefs it makes the festival a lot more legitimate."
On the F&B life:
"Fifteen or 20 years ago, the restaurant business is what you did while figuring out what you wanted to do. Now it's a legitimized career in our culture."
Why chefs stay in Charleston:
"I think it's this community of chefs. Sean's first cooking job was at Peninsula Grill. I was there managing the day he started making salads. Now you see the Sean Brock zeitgeist, and look at what that's done for Charleston in general."
Charleston's next cluster of restaurants?
"Wagener Terrace and North Morrison."
On his strengths:
"I think I'm good at inspiring people. ... I'm working very hard on it if I'm not."
He planted that flag more than 20 years ago when opening Blossom Cafe, the sister restaurant of Magnolias, unfurling his "Fourteen Elements of the Guest Experience" manual to the new trainees.
Remarkably, time has not dulled Palmer's enthusiasm for what he calls the "thrill of the restaurant," dating back to his dishwashing job in a Chinese place as a 13-year-old in Atlanta. "Even at a young age, I loved the notion of taking care of people," he says.
In an industry where career longevity is more the exception than the rule, Palmer has made a good, long life of it so far, though he's had his share of hitting bottom.
At 44, Palmer is atop one of Charleston's most prominent restaurant groups as managing partner of Indigo Road. The company got its start with Oak Steakhouse in 2009; Palmer has since gone on to open O-Ku, the Cocktail Club, The Macintosh, The Oak Table (Columbia) and last year, Indaco. The latter's name is Italian for indigo, the blue plant dye with deep historical ties to South Carolina.
Charleston and beyond
Palmer has opened or been a part of opening 28 restaurants since his teen years, starting with Atlanta's first Fuddrucker's where he was a line cook at age 16. He came to the Lowcountry in 1989 as a business major at the College of Charleston, a path that soon veered off into Charleston's brewing food and beverage scene.
He was hired in his early 20s as a waiter at Magnolias. The job turned on a "lightbulb" for Palmer, thanks to his boss and mentor, Chris Goss.
Goss was the visionary behind Magnolias, the restaurant he convinced his uncle, Tom Parsell, to open in 1991, Palmer says. Goss ran the front of the house.
"He said to me, people don't go out to eat to eat, they go out to eat to have an experience," Palmer recounts. "I was 22 years old. I was so impressionable at that point. That's the first time I saw the dining experience as more than just eating food. It kind of transcended that; we're creating memories for people."
After Magnolias and then Blossom, new opportunities began opening up for Palmer: He was recruited in 1995 by Canoe in Atlanta, which nabbed a James Beard nomination in 1996 as Best New Restaurant.
Over the next 13 years, Palmer bounced in and out of Charleston. He ran a consulting business for luxury restaurants, including Peninsula Grill and Hank's Seafood. He went west to Ritz-Carlton St. Louis, where he co-created the chain's largest private dining wine cellar. He became managing partner at Peninsula Grill and helped it attain a prestigious Relais & Chateaux designation.
Palmer looks back at the job that most challenged him. "Working for the Ritz is like the Marine Corps of hospitality," he says with a wry smile. "It's starched white shirts only ... a very, very conservative environment. But it taught me when you can create a certain culture for thousands of employees, it's very powerful."
Palmer left Peninsula Grill in 2003 and went to work for the Ginn Clubs & Resorts, a large developer of hotels, residential golf resorts and vacation properties in the Southeast and Caribbean. It was a big job for a big company. "We had 5,000 employees at one point," he says.
But then the recession hit, the real estate boom went bust, and so did Ginn. Palmer found himself out of a job in 2009.
"I was sort of in this place of what-am-I-going-to-do. At 40 years old, I wanted to do something more than just get another job. ... The partners at Oak (Steakhouse) called and asked me to come on board. So I moved back. It just kind of snowballed from there."
Andy O'Keefe, who lives in New York and is one of the partners in the Indigo group, says Palmer is very focused.
"Honesty and integrity are tops with him. I think that has a lot to do with his success. ... When Steve comes to us with an idea, we don't hesitate, because we know he's done his homework and we know it will be a success."
Palmer swears that Charleston is home, but it's apparent he has deep affection for his hometown of Atlanta. Bittersweet memories from his years there profoundly shaped his outlook on life.
His mother is still in the house he and his sister grew up in. It's the same house where his father grew sick and died when Palmer was just 10 years old.
"When you have a father in a hospital bed in your dining room hooked to machines ... at 6 or 7 years old, that alters the landscape of what it means to be a child," Palmer reflects. He watched as his dad, a doctor, physically fit tennis player and "a larger than life person," lost 100 pounds before succumbing to diabetes.
"I just had so much respect for him," Palmer says.
Palmer's granddad stepped in as the father figure. But only nine months later, he died of lung cancer. It was a very hard, transformative time for Palmer.
"It obviously changed my life forever. There is no way I would be the person I am today had all of that not happened," he says.
"Somehow out of all that loss came this desire to please people. The primary thing that drives me is making people happy."
Palmer believes that genuine hospitality, "how we make people feel," takes root within a restaurant's staff and their relationships with each other: That the happiness of employees is directly proportional to a restaurant's success.
"Our culture here is that we have to be hospitable to each other first before we can be hospitable to our guests. So the old adages of our business, the yeller-screamer chefs, the managers who lose their temper, all of the trappings of the restaurant business in the '70s and '80s, we don't allow it. And we talk about that all the time.
" ... If you're not coming into a compassionate environment every day, how excited are you to wait on the 150 people who are coming to eat? What I have found is that morale and financial productivity are absolutely connected."
One day at a time
To succeed in hospitality, and to build a lasting career in the business, Palmer had to learn to get real, and get happy, with himself.
Twelve years ago, he got sober.
"I'm not a poster child. The truth is, I got stuck, got into a place 12 years ago," he says, his voice trailing off.
"This is another one of those chicken-and-the-egg questions, does the industry breed alcoholics or do alcoholics find the industry? It's very accessible in our industry but I don't think it makes you drink."
Palmer says drinking affected his clarity of judgment and emotional stability. He went through rehab and AA's 12-step program. He's sober, "but I'm not cured."
"None of this, Indigo, would be happening if I weren't sober. A hundred percent of my success is because I'm up at 7 in the morning and I'm able to lead the team. It's a one-day-at-a-time proposition."
Palmer never really unplugs from the food-and-beverage world. Not only does he routinely work 15-16 hours a day, a vacation involves traveling and eating. He did that last fall, spending two weeks in Italy with Macintosh chef Jeremiah Bacon.
The two are three months apart in age and have both left and come back to Charleston. The friendship means a lot to both men.
"Jeremiah and I hooked up and that was really significant because he and I are cut from the same cloth. We're very different people; he's much more introverted than I am," says Palmer. "He's one of the best human beings I've ever met. And I mean that from a soul, integrity, honesty (standpoint). I say to him, I thank God every day that we met. And he looks at me like I'm being sarcastic."
Bacon shares similar sentiments about Palmer.
"He's great. He's very open and honest. If you surround yourself with good people, you're going to get good fast. He challenges himself every day with bringing the team together, building the team, keeping the team happy and motivating them. And that's a big job. I think the staff at all the restaurants respond to it extremely well."
Palmer marvels at still "feeling the love" for the business.
"I was washing dishes the other night because one of our dishwashers left. I still run food, I still bus tables. I've never lost the passion for it."
Reach Teresa Taylor at 937-4668 or firstname.lastname@example.org