On November 2, the restaurant industry gathered at the eighth annual Georgia Restaurant Association Crystal of Excellence (GRACE) Awards Gala to recognize and pay tribute to the leaders who have made outstanding contributions to Georgia’s restaurant industry.
Lifetime Achievement Award Winner: Hal Nowak
“I grew to like this city and the progressive thinking of all the businessmen,” he recalls.
At the time, the real estate industry was struggling in New Orleans, and he found himself returning to Atlanta more and more. “One day I woke up and drank some of that New Orleans coffee, that chicory, and I said, ‘I’m moving.’”
He packed his bags and left the next day, and never looked back. Once he got to Atlanta though, he noticed there was something lacking.
“In those days, there was Pano’s and Paul’s, or there were mostly chain restaurants,” he says. “I traveled over the years to New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago, the oldest cities, and they had single-owner, quality neighborhood restaurants that were very successful. I saw a void in that here.”
So in 1990, Nowak opened Hal’s on Old Ivy just off Habersham Road in Buckhead. The only experience he had in the restaurant industry up to that point was eating in them.
“I spent a lot of money in a lot of restaurants,” he laughs. “I grew up with parents who dined out a lot, and I was in a business that required a lot of travel, so I would eat in different cities all over the country.” His experience in the business world also helped the restaurant succeed. “I was fortunate I was a businessman before I was a restauranteur, and I understood overhead, insurance and taxes.”
But diners don’t come back to a restaurant because it’s run well. They come back because of quality service and consistent, delicious food.
“I believe a great restaurant is a restaurant that a person has a meal in and that they get a craving to come back in a week, two weeks, three weeks and have that same meal prepared the same way,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s a hamburger, if it’s a steak, or if it’s a bowl of spaghetti. If you can develop a [menu item] that is better than most and is great, then people are going to want it.”
Hiring good people is important, too.
“And of course, there’s good service. I like to say we hire professionals to deal with professionals. We also believe in a lot of training,” he says. “I have some people who have been here for 20 years.”
Nowak admits it’s a hard industry, but he discovered early on he was in the right place. “I found out immediately that I loved it,” he says. “To be successful, you have to love this industry, and you have to love people. You have to be able to talk to a chairman of the board of a big company, and you have to be able to talk to people who are in the back of the house, cleaning and stacking dishes, and peeling your potatoes. So you have to love people. It was just natural for me.”
Most of the menu, from steaks to seafood to pasta, was developed by Nowak “from my favorites at different restaurants around the country … things that I would go back for. If you can put out a dish that people are going to want again, you’re putting a hook in them.”
Nowak believes in giving back to the community and sits on the board of the Atlanta Convention & Visitors Bureau and is a founding board member of the Hospitality Business Network Foundation, which this year has designated the Navy Safe Harbor Foundation and the Shepherd Center “SHARE” Military Initiative as its primary charities.
“We’re all here to help other people,” Nowak says. “That is one of the greatest parts about being successful. Being able to give back.”
Over the years, he’s seen the state’s restaurant industry change and grow.
“The restaurant industry as a whole has grown tremendously over the last 10 or 15 years, and it keeps growing more as more people eat out,” he says.
“We’re a close-knit group. I think we all have respect for each other, because it is a hard industry,” he says. “I love the people who I’ve met through here. I’ve met the finest people in the world, and I’ve become friends with so many. … Everybody in the industry are just good people.”