Originally posted on OneHundredTables on MAY 14, 2014 0 COMMENTS

Q. Hi Michael, thanks for taking the time to talk with One Hundred Tables today. Do you have the coolest job in Atlanta or what? And what exactly do you do?

A. It’s funny you say that. I’m always telling my friends and family exactly that: “I have the best job in Atlanta.” My job description actually requires me to eat great food, drink delicious wine and socialize with amazingly interesting people. You simply can’t beat it.

As for what I do beyond that, I handle all the marketing activities for Fifth Group Restaurants including seven restaurants (South City Kitchen Midtown, South City Kitchen Vinings, La Tavola, Ecco, El Taco, Alma and Lure) and Bold American Events, our catering and design divisions. This includes traditional marketing, event promotion, community outreach, public relations, graphic design, copywriting and brand and community management (15 Facebook pages and 9 Twitter accounts!). I definitely wear myriad hats and juggle several projects at once, but that’s what makes it so rewarding and fun; no two days are every the same.

Q. How long have you been at Fifth Group?
A. I have been with Fifth Group Restaurants since July of 2006. In fact, it’s the longest I’ve been at one single job consecutively in my whole life and there’s good reason for that as I’m surrounded by amazingly talented, dedicated and funny people. I’m a lucky man.

Q. I remember when La Tavola opened years back. Today La Tavola is a mainstay in the Virginia-Highland area of Atlanta. How does the menu stay current over the years or does the clientele here ask for the staple dishes year after year?

A. We definitely have dishes that our guests would revolt if removed from the menu because they’re so beloved. The grilled calamari and spaghetti and veal meatballs (which was voted one of the 100 things to eat before you die by Creative Loafing) are perfect examples.

That said, because Executive Chef Brent Banda has developed a menu that is so completely on point, he’s been able to introduce a variety of new dishes that have been as equally embraced by the public; the black squid ink pasta being a perfect example. You have to be careful as Italian food is, at its core, comfort food and people don’t want their comfort food messed with. The current balance between traditional and contemporary is perfect.

Q. While I love all of your restaurants, I feel a personal pull to Ecco for some reason. I love the room, the bar, and the civil approach to eating simple honest food. Do you sense a different crowd in each of your restaurants or does the clientele crossover a lot?

A. That has always been one of my main goals: to reinforce the fact that if you love one of our restaurants, you’re sure to have an equally as enjoyable experience at one of the other six. Our approach to tangible, connected service is nurtured in all of our units, so you’ll notice small personal touches that run throughout and in between each concept. That said, we have die-hard loyalists, which is just fine with me, too. They are the cornerstones of what we do every day and we can’t be more thankful for their continued patronage.

Q. The room is Alma Cocina is beautiful. I love that high-end Mexico look. Who comes up with the designs for your restaurants?

A. It’s a completely collaborative experience. We have been fortunate enough to work some of the best designers around like Peace Designs, The Johnston Studio and ai3. Honestly, I’m not involved in this area of the business, so I see it as it develops just like everyone else, but I can tell you that it’s a passionate process that requires a great deal of compromise and ingenuity—it’s the ultimate marriage of form and function.

Q. Who are one or two of the more interesting bartenders across your restaurants and are they known for any particular concoctions?

A. We have such an amazing staff of passionate, dedicated people that I hate to single out individuals. But I don’t think it’s any surprise that Alli Royce Soble, who has been at La Tavola for over a decade, is a shining example of our efforts to cultivate happy, productive employees. She works the bar there like nobody’s business with a staggering number of regulars that come to sit with her as much as they do to enjoy the food. Also, Brent Gatehouse at Lure is doing some amazing work building a loyal bar clientele at a new restaurant. Thanks to his continued efforts to connect with them, these guests have become broadcast towers for us in the community, ultimately driving people in the door to experience the outstanding food Executive Chef David Bradleyis presenting.

Q. I recently had dinner at Lure - fabulous food and the room was packed. This looks like it was a very successful launch. How is the bar scene at Lure? Is it an early crowd, a late crowd?

A. To the point above, it’s growing dramatically every day. The beverage program that our corporate beverage director, Vajra Stratigos, and Brent have developed is, in my opinion, one of the most unique in the city. We are beginning to see the same faces for after-work cocktails and the bar fills up quickly every night, especially on the weekends. Midtown is such a melting pot and this is definitely reflected in the people we are seeing enjoying the shochu, house-bottled cocktails and, my personal favorite, the playful punch bowls.

Q. What are your one or two favorite restaurants in a city other than Atlanta?
A. SPQR in San Francisco and The Macintosh in Charleston, SC. Both have amazing food, but what always gets me is the service which is outstanding in both recommendations.
Q. A little fun – You have two nights in any hotel in the world all expenses paid. Where do you go?

A. Wow…that is a fun question. I’m afraid when it comes to travel, I have been less than adventurous (one of my great regrets in life), so my first choice would be Rome, Italy. I come from strong Italian roots and have always wanted to see if the cannoli there is as good as my Nana’s. I bet it’s not.

Q. From your perspective, where do you sense the Atlanta dining scene is going over the next 5-10 years?

A. Atlanta and the South in general are finally getting the culinary recognition they deserve—which is fantastic! We are more than fried green tomatoes and shrimp and grits (although we make stellar examples of both South City Kitchen). I’m hoping we will begin to see more longevity, allowing concepts to grow and evolve over time. This is ultimately how you get the best out of any restaurant in terms of food, service and atmosphere.

This year, South City Kitchen Midtown is celebrating its 20th anniversary and that is something of which to really be proud. It’s not common but it’s what has allowed it to become the quintessential go-to restaurant for visitors and locals; I can’t imagine Crescent Street without it and vice versa.

I also hope to see places like Canton Street in Old Roswell continue to grow and attract people from inside the perimeter. The food being made up there right now between Table & Main, Salt Factor and Little Alley Steak is pretty amazing. There’s room for all of us and we need to explore a little more outside our physical comfort zones. I mean, have you had the ribs at Swallow at the Hollow? Crazy good.

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Michael Erickson Talks "Taste of the Highlands"

Originally posted on AtlantaEats April 2013.

The times I’ve met him, he’s never been less than impeccably dressed, not a hair out of place (if one was, it seemed intentionally out of place), and the conversation has been easy and intelligent. If there was ever a man who was the living embodiment of the company and restaurants he represents, it’s him.

Who am I talking about? Michael Erickson: Don Draper to Atlanta dining’s Madison Avenue.

Michael is the director of marketing for Fifth Group Restaurants, which comprises South City Kitchen (both in Midtown and Vinings), Ecco, Lure, La Tavola, Alma Cocina, and The Original El Taco. And that’s not including the El Taco and Ecco restaurants in Hartsfield Jackson, and more to come.

Lure, Ecco, South City Kitchen Midtown, and Alma Cocina can each claim at least a half-dozen hotels within a couple of blocks of their doors (and bars). “We love the hotels and concierges,” says Erickson, “and we love that they recommend our restaurants to hotel guests.”

And movies. Fifth Group and the movies go together like Bogart and Bacall, Hope and Crosby…PB and J. Somewhere like South City Kitchen Midtown is perfect if you’re getting some dinner while filming a movie about a 1970s local news anchor, while Ecco was featured in a couple of scenes in the movie The Changeup, which starred Ryan Reynolds and Jason Bateman.

Fifth Group recently moved their offices from King Plow to Peachtree Center, and despite living in Atlanta for 22 years, Erickson says that the move has led him to “discover the city all over again.”

For diners who haven’t discovered Fifth Group’s restaurants, it’s like this: Lure has an inventive and super-fresh seafood menu, Ecco carries the torch for European-inspired cuisine, Alma Cocina serves Mexican and Latin-influenced dishes, La Tavola has some of the best Italian food this side of the Atlantic, The Original El Taco is a family-friendly Mexican joint, and South City Kitchen is where it all began in 1993 with Southern food cooked from the heart. Phew!

This year marks Fifth Groups’s 20th anniversary, and they’re returning as presenting sponsor at Taste of the Highlands, as they have been since 2006.

In the sold out VIP area, Taste-goers will enjoy oysters from Lure, while the rest of the group’s intown restaurants will be scattered throughout John Howell Park.

Follow Michael Erickson’s Twitter account for musings on all things around Atlanta dining, and check out the Taste of the Highlands official event hashtag — #TOTH2013 — while you’re at the event.

Social Media Makeover Advice

Originally posted on ListenInteractive on September 26, 2011 by Dan 3 Comments

Michael Erickson (TwitterFacebook) is director of marketing at Fifth Group Restaurants — a portfolio of five distinct restaurants here in Atlanta. Michael is also one of the makeover consultants for the upcoming Social Media Makeover Forum.

He has worked for large advertising agencies in Atlanta including Earle Palmer Brown, Cole Henderson Drake, The Joey Reiman Agency and Ogilvy & Mather and Barkley in Kansas City, MO.

I asked Michael and the rest of the makeover consultants scheduled to speak at the Forum to share advice and insights into the biggest social media mistakes made by small businesses.


Michael’s Biggest Makeover Tip: “When it comes to social media, personalize your voice. It’s something most companies fail to do when starting out.”

While 8 Do’s & Don’ts of Twitter for Restaurants  advices against owners tweeting about themselves, Michael believes there are “legitimate” ways to infuse a personal perspective without alienating your fans and followers.

Michael admits he was afraid to do so at first.  The initial result: a robotic voice that sounded unauthentic.

Then he stepped back and realized it needed to be a conversation. Driving to work one day it hit him. Befitting a person who works for restaurants, he realized it was like a dinner party, and you don’t want to sit next to the boring person. He found his voice and has achieved a more engaged following.

His strategy – one corporate Twitter site for Fifth Group Restaurants and individual Facebook pages for each restaurant to reflect each restaurant’s individual style.  And the chef’s have their own separate voices online.

Michael also warned about entrusting the conversation to an outsider who doesn’t know the company or is too young manage the message.

And sticking to the food theme, he recognizes that social media is a “hungry beast;” it needs to be fed at least an hour each day on a minimum basis.

But all that focus pays off – especially when he can use social media to direct, for example, a woman to South City Kitchen when she queries on a food site she is visiting Atlanta and is looking for authentic fried chicken.

Meet Michael Erickson, Fifth Group Director of Marketing

Originally posted on EaterAtlanta on November 8, 2012 

This is The Gatekeepers, in which Eater roams the city meeting the fine ladies and gentlemen that stand between you and some of Atlanta's hottest tables.

Michael Erickson loves his job. He's the director of marketing for the seven Fifth Group restaurants, EccoLa TavolaLure, the Original El TacoAlma Cocina, and the two South City Kitchen locations, which means that he gets customers in the door, reaches out to them in real time when they have compliments or complaints, and thanks them for their feedback after they've eaten. The twist, of course, is that he does it all from behind a computer screen. Here, Erickson talks with Eater about how to keep guests happy and how Twitter changed everything.

You're not a gatekeeper in the traditional sense, but in other ways, you are the ultimate gatekeeper.
Thank you! I think in a lot of ways I'm a gatekeeper of information. I manage the social media accounts, and people come to me to find out when a certain Fifth Group restaurant opens for the day or whether or not they can get a table for a weekend dinner.

Okay, so it's 8 p.m. on a Saturday. The waits at each of the restaurants obviously varies, but how do you keep the times under control?
We try not to have anybody wait. Dining isn't an exact science, but OpenTable helps a lot. Sometimes I have people contact me saying that they can't make a reservation online because the times are blocked off, and there's a reason for that. We don't want to keep people waiting.

Is there anything I can do to make the wait shorter?
If someone reaches out to me over Twitter, there may be a chance that I can do something to get them in, but it doesn't happen often.

You sometimes post pictures of celebrities or VIPs who come into the restaurants, but only after they've left. Do you interact with them before as well?
Not often— and I'd never announce that somebody famous was dining with us until after the party had left. Once, I did have a Real Housewife contact me and say that she wanted to make a reservation at one of the restaurants. That was fun. I'm not saying which Housewife, but she wasn't from Atlanta.

Have people ever tried to slip you cash or gifts to speed things along?
No, I think the fourth wall of being behind a computer makes that difficult. It'd be really hard for someone to Tweet at me and try to offer me money!

I will say, though, that if you send me a message letting me know that it's your birthday or an anniversary, I do my best to tell the restaurants so that they can send out a free appetizer, something like that. It doesn't happen every time, of course, but one of the perks of my job is being able to do little things like that for people who interact with me.

Tell us about your favorite customers.
All of my favorite customers are the ones who interact with me online. I love when people Tweet at me or post pictures of their restaurant experiences on Instagram or Facebook. I can repost those pictures so other people can see what a great dining experience they had.

Social media can really help restaurants in that way— if someone has a good time, they talk about it immediately, but the same goes for negative feedback. What do you do in those situations?
I try to do the same thing that I do for positive feedback. I respond quickly and attempt to find out exactly what the problem is and why it was caused, and then I do my best to resolve it. I've found that people just want to be heard, and often, customers who initially have complaints end up becoming regulars.

How has social media changed the way restaurants open since you started at Fifth Group?
I started in 2006, right after Ecco and South City Kitchen opened. Twitter definitely changed things. Just recently, all our restaurants got their own Twitter handles, although I haven't handed them over quite yet! When I started, news about restaurant openings got around through word of mouth and ads in papers, and Fifth Group is small. We don't have the budget to take out five-page ads. If you can, that's great, but I just can't do that, so I love that I'm able to spread knowledge this way.

People are curious, and we get to act on and indulge that curiosity. But that also means that we can't rely on a set schedule or timeline— people want to know when a restaurant will open and what it's going to be serving, and we have to give them that information when they want it. If I go to a menu tasting, I can Tweet out a sneak peak and let people into the process that way. With openings, I can say "Spring," and then two weeks later say "April," and then later announce the day, so that there's constantly a flow of information. We have to keep it coming, and that keeps us smart.

Do you have a favorite Fifth Group restaurant?
I do, but I'm not telling! I love Floataway Cafe, 4th & Swift, and anytime I'm near a Houston's, I must get spinach dip. 

What's your favorite table?
At South City Kitchen, I like any table upstairs that's over looking the bar. My favorite table at Ecco is 61, which is in the back corner. I love the patios at Lure and at La Tavola, both of which are heated now that it's winter! And really, all of the restaurants' bars are great.

At the end of the day, what's the one Gatekeeper tool you need to get the job done?
I knew you were going to ask this, and it's definitely my trusty Droid. I also love my computer setup with two screens, so that I can keep Twitter running while I work.