Whether you’re a foodie or not, chances are you’ve heard of Cakes & Ale, a downtown Decatur, Georgia-based restaurant that is consistently ranked among the top eateries in metro Atlanta. Cakes & Ale is owned and operated by Kristin Allin and her husband, Billy, who is the restaurant’s executive chef. Recently, I visited Allin – who is an alumna of ISyE (1997) – at Cakes & Ale to talk about the direction her life has taken since graduation, the Allins’ two new ventures, Proof and Bread & Butterfly, what makes them feel happy and successful in their work, and the surprising ways her IE education helps her run her various restaurants.
Well before Cakes & Ale, Allin was learning industrial engineering at Georgia Tech where extended members of her family also attended. Her grandfather played on the golf team.
She says that she picked IE because it “was a nice mix of things. It had some management; statistics, I loved. [It was] engineering with some economics – for my interests, it really clicked with me.”
Allin and Billy were married, and she took her post-graduate career out to San Francisco, where she got her MBA and had a career in management. Billy was in finance, but, as she notes, “Life just takes different turns sometimes.” That turn was Billy’s decision to attend culinary school. Afterward, he worked at Alice Water’s famed and influential Chez Panisse. Allin herself decided to work at a winery. About the career change she explains, “I think I was just looking for a new challenge, a new way to use my skills.”
A new challenge, indeed. When the couple started their family, they decided to move back to Georgia and, eventually, open a restaurant together: Cakes & Ale, which was one of Atlanta’s first casual fine dining establishments. When asked if being a restaurateur had been part of her future plans, Allin laughs. “I’m surprised my husband and I are working together. I never saw that coming. The fact that we’re running a restaurant – if you’d asked me when we got married if we’d be running a restaurant, I never would have seen that coming.”
Allin calls Cakes & Ale a “teaching kitchen,” where the couple actively works with their employees to cultivate their careers. Part of what defines happiness for them is “seeing people progress – moving people’s careers forward. Some of them are just starting out, and we train them up, but basically our whole mentality – kitchen to front of house – is trying to get people better and better and further grow everything.” That progression is part of the impetus in opening their Inman Park bakery, Proof: to give their bakers a chance to really shine and get some recognition. “We took the leap,” she explains, “and decided we’re going to give them their own space. Even though they’re not the owners, they work as hard as if they were owners.”
As Allin describes it, their new café, Bread & Butterfly – also located in Inman Park, represents yet another chance to see her employees grow in their careers. Cakes & Ale’s sous chef will be the executive chef at the restaurant, and their sommelier will also run the wine program.
The café is named after the butterfly-like creature with toast wings in Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass. (As Allin points out, Inman Park’s symbol is, serendipitously, also a butterfly.) The eatery will have a bit of a European flair to it, as the Allins were inspired by seeing similar concepts in their travels. She says, “We see these concepts that are these really cool kind of café/restaurant/bar/coffee bars all combined into one. They [are open] all day, so they start at 7 AM and last until midnight or 1 AM, with after-dinner drinks, desserts. We felt like we need that in Atlanta, and that’s where the inspiration for Bread & Butterfly came from.”
She also draws comparisons to their inspiration for Bread & Butterfly to the Beltline, having heard Georgia Tech alum Ryan Gravel speak at the Urban Explorers club, with which the Allins are involved. Gravel talked about having lived in Europe and then returning to Atlanta, wanting to create something similar to what he experienced overseas. Allin says, “On a much smaller scale with our restaurant, we’ve tried to do the same thing. Food-wise, we want Atlanta to be on the same plane that other cities are. That’s fitting into our goal of growing the vision that we have of furthering other people’s lives and careers, and that’s the path we chose to do that.”
That progression forward is one key component of the Allins’ happiness in their jobs; another is the reception of their customers to what the Allins are trying to do with their various restaurants: “Nothing makes us happier than having someone say, ‘That was great. That was a great experience for everything from the food to the wine to the service to the dessert. We just had a fun time.’ Or to even just look out at the dining room and see a table that’s really enjoying themselves.”
Part of Allin’s role at Cakes & Ale is working with closely with her employees. So the employees are, in IE terms, her “system”? “Yes,” Allin says, laughing. “The employees are my system. And that’s great, because it’s human interaction, but it’s also challenging, because they’re people, and they’re not predictable. Everyone is very unique, and everyone has different goals.”
Industrial engineering even plays a role in how the restaurants are run, particularly at Cakes & Ale. Allin notes that her work, on a daily basis, uses a combination of her IE and business school training. As she explains, “We’re always looking at systems here because restaurants are so unique – in that you don’t have machines, [so] you don’t have things you can tweak. But you’re always looking at how your employees are working, at the time of day things are happening, and in a way, the systems you’re using to make it better, so that component is always there. And then also always looking at data. It’s constant: the statistics, the data of how your sales were, your projections, all of that.” She adds, “That’s an IE thing for sure – the different stations back in the kitchen – and how [the employees are] getting things out in a timely manner so that people don’t have to wait too long. That’s a big part of making a good guest experience.”
Part of that good guest experience, she notes, starts with making people comfortable – beginning with taking their reservation, keeping the meal flowing once the guests are seated, all the way to bringing the check out at the end. But part of the process is also earning customers’ trust so that they can “push boundaries,” as Allin describes yet another element to what makes the couple happy in what they’re doing.
“That can be hard,” she explains,” because you’re doing something a little bit different – maybe the food – or something that’s not mainstream. Maybe your wine’s a little different – it’s not a California Pinot; it might be a French wine. We’ve worked a long time, and we work every day to get people to trust us” in everything from asking the sommelier to recommend a wine to taking the server’s suggestion that guests try a new dish Billy has created.
One thing is clear: Running a restaurant is a constant, never-ending, always evolving process. Says Allin, “Every day is a new day, and so if we have a great night, you start over from scratch the next morning. If you have a bad night, you start over from scratch the next morning. And that’s the great thing about the restaurant industry – and the bad thing – because there’s never a chance to be like, ‘Whoo, yeah! We did it! We reached success.’ Every day is like ground zero, starting over. It’s fun though.”
At the end of the conversation, Allin is asked how she ultimately measures success. “Happiness – for all the reasons I said. Fulfillment, so we feel like what we’re doing is resonating with people. I don’t know that I would say I measure success financially. I think as long as you’re stable – you’re a stable business –that is success. And having guests who are happy, and making sure Cakes & Ale stays at a really high level. The things that we get notoriety for – being one of the top three to five restaurants in the city. Those things I would say are success. Not because we want the notoriety, but because what we’re doing is resonating with people.”