Thirty-five years into the restaurant business, Steve Palmer’s journey continues
By Dan McCue
To most of us, it might seem the most inauspicious, or at least most ordinary, of beginnings: A 13-year-old gets a job washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant in a nondescript strip mall about a mile from his family's home.
But in the case of Steve Palmer, who today is managing partner of The Indigo Road Hospitality Group, those long hours spent up to his elbows in suds and hot water in the kitchen of Yin's Chinese in Atlanta, Ga. led to an early epiphany.
"We all know what the term 'break bread' means, right? The thing that comes to mind is both a meal and being connected to people," he explains. "What I realized from a very early age was I just loved connecting with people and hearing people's stories, and that the restaurant industry was probably the most accessible medium for doing that.”
Palmer adds, "Whether it was washing those dishes or waiting tables or any of the other roles I've had in the industry, connecting with people—and striving to make them happy—is what's driven me for the last 35 years.”
It wasn't all that many years later that Palmer was hired on as a line cook at the upscale Houston’s on Peachtree Street in Atlanta, and over the three-plus decades that followed, the 49-year-old has experienced all the highs—and some gut-wrenching lows—the restaurant industry could offer.
In his early years, Palmer lived the life of a nomadic hospitality journeyman, and he's since gone on to open more than 30 restaurants in Charleston, Columbia, Greenville, and other communities in the Southeast.
After a personal struggle with alcohol and substance abuse, and 17 years of sobriety, he's also become a leading light in exposing and striving to address one of the industry's foremost occupational hazards.
Even with all this on his plate, however, Palmer shows no sign of flagging. This fall, he oversaw the opening of an Oak Steakhouse and an O-Ku restaurant in Raleigh, N.C., and what he described as a "fast, casual, sushi-to-go concept," called Sukoshi, in Charlotte.
He credits his arrival in Charleston in 1989 with catapulting him into the world of fine dining.
"Magnolia's opened shortly afterward, in 1990, and I ended up working there, and I remember clear as day being told, 'Steve, people go out to dinner to have an experience. They don't go out just to eat.' And as simple as it sounds, that was a revelation to me," he said.
Palmer refers to the conversation as one of his "light-bulb moments," this one being when he realized there was more depth to hospitality than he'd realized. "These were days before the internet, before the Food Network, long before ‘Top Chef’ and social media, and most young people you encountered working in restaurants back then were doing this until they got a real job.
"For me, it was different. I was working 14 hours a day and loving it. It was at Magnolias that I really started thinking, 'This could be a life for me,'" he says.
Magnolias wasn't just Palmer's livelihood and training ground. It was home, his community, and his "safe place." "Because I was good at my job, despite whatever else I was dealing with, I felt like I was adding value to something—and at 22, that's a really powerful feeling," he says.
A short time later, he was tasked with overseeing the opening of Magnolias’ sister restaurant, Blossom. It was there he co-developed and trained the staff on the credo he follows to this day: something he calls the 14 elements of the guest experience.
"It's things like the proper greeting at the table, a well-maintained environment, menu knowledge, suggestive selling, teamwork, timeliness, of course service,” Palmer says. “Imagine you are a guest in one of our restaurants. It's the 14 things that should happen from the moment you walk in until you leave."
But he quickly adds that the period was also marked by the onset of addiction. Not that he recognized it at the time. "There's a point when you're in your early 20s when you're first legally able to drink and those are years when you believe there are no consequences to your actions ... so you do it a lot.
"For me, personally, the turning point came just a few years later, when I moved back to Atlanta and opened a restaurant called Canoe, for which I served as wine director," Palmer says. "By that time, cocaine had become part of the problem. It served as a stimulant, allowing me to keep drinking, and drinking became an all-night affair.
"And all of a sudden, it was 6 a.m. and I had to be at work at 10 a.m., and I started to realize, at 27 or 28, that this was becoming bigger than me," he says.
Compounding the problem, for Palmer and others who were coming to similar realizations, is that at the time, being a so-called "warrior," being able to drink and drug all night and still get to work on time, was seen as a badge of honor in the hospitality industry.
Exacerbating the situation further was the short-term nature of many of the restaurant gigs Palmer got. Like most then working in the industry, he routinely moved on to other jobs and new challenges.
"In the addiction community, it's called a 'geographical cure.' You get a new start, a new job, and tell yourself, 'Okay, I'm going to get it together.' Unfortunately, that allows you to avoid taking a good hard look at yourself."
For Palmer, the new beginnings included becoming a founding partner in Eidolon, a consulting company whose client list included Planters Inn, Peninsula Grill, and Hank’s Seafood Restaurant, and a stint with the Ritz Carlton St. Louis, where he co-created the largest private dining wine cellar in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel chain.
His day of reckoning finally came during his second stint in Charleston, while working as general manager of the Planter's Inn and Peninsula Grill. From a resume perspective, Palmer said, he was an unqualified success. But Hank Holliday, the owner of both properties, soon recognized Palmer was slipping into an abyss from which he might never recover.
"I came into work one day and Hank Holliday said, 'Either you go to rehab today or you can clean out your office today.' It wasn't a veiled threat. It was dead serious. And thank God he took that stand. There's no question in my mind that he saved my life," Palmer said.
After rehab, Palmer rebounded by taking on a new challenge, serving as vice president of food and beverage for the Ginn Clubs and Resorts. In that role, he managed 11 properties in the Southeast and the Caribbean. In time, he was named lead developer for Ginn Resorts, creating more than $100 million in new hotel and club space.
Since founding Indigo Road Hospitality in 2009, Palmer’s deft touch has made the company a multi-city success across the Southeast with scene-making properties like Donetto and Tiny Lou’s in Atlanta; Mercantile and Mash, The Macintosh, and Colletta in Charleston; Town Hall in Florence; outposts for O-Ku in Charleston, Charlotte, and Washington, D.C.; and Oak Steakhouse in Charleston, Charlotte, Atlanta, and Nashville.
"I would love to say there's a science behind the success we've had, but in all honesty, there really isn't," Palmer says. "It's mostly emotional and intuitive, based largely on meals and travels and inspiration that I've had ... but I'd like to believe business acumen plays a role too.
"I mean, I can go to New York and be blown away by a concept, but it works because New York has 8 million people in a confined area. We don't have that in Charleston," he said. "So I think, in addition to saying, 'This is a great idea,' you have to be sensitive to your market, and then, once you're open, you have to do a lot of listening. Just because something works on Upper King Street in Charleston doesn't mean it's going to work in Charlotte.”
Although he speaks widely and often on the issue, one of the primary vehicles for his activism is Ben's Friends, a food and beverage industry support group named in honor of chef Ben Murray, who took his own life after years of struggling with alcoholism.
"One of the things that's really changed in the industry since I became part of it, and thankfully so, is the conversation around alcohol and substance abuse," Palmer says. "Culturally, you used to be able to say, 'I don't have a problem because everyone else is drinking and drugging.’ That's changed.”