PEOPLE PLEASER

In 2016, there were 18,534 restaurants in the state of Georgia. As of October 2018, Peter Dale has contributed four to that number. 

Dale is an award-winning chef who didn’t attend culinary school; more importantly, he’s a restaurateur with a gift. Dale understands the nuances of food and the importance of hospitality, and his restaurants reflect this appreciation for both elements. He’s a man with ideas for specific tastes that Athens is missing. He keeps these ideas hidden, refining them through travels and research to other cities to see how other chefs are doing certain things, like oyster bars. Then when an opportunity presents itself, as that seems to be the way most of his restaurants came to be, he pounces.

The National, Seabear Oyster Bar, Condor Chocolates and Maepole are all located in Athens, Ga., where Dale was born, raised and currently resides. He attended college at the University of Georgia and admits with a laugh, a sound that punctuates many of his sentences (and a genuine smile, the authentic kind), that his schedule is still intricately tied to the UGA calendar. In fact, the only time he’s “off” is when he’s not in Athens. Because when he’s hustling around the city of roughly 127,000 people, he’s working seven days a week.

He asked to be interviewed at The National, his Mediterranean-inspired restaurant. He’s wearing a dark blue, navy t-shirt with buttons and jeans that are rolled once at the bottom. His white sneakers have light black scuff marks around the rubbery edges. He’s constantly in motion. He rushes off to the kitchen before the interview to quickly discuss what pasta they should serve for an event that weekend. When he returns, he places down steaming coffee in a brown to-go cup, strong enough that the aroma travels across the table, and empties the contents of his pockets. There’s a piece of paper, covered in a list of sorts, written in both pen and Sharpie; the majority of the list is crossed out. There’s also the pen and Sharpie, a wad of keys that make a loud clank as he places them on the table, and his phone. His shirt has a pocket, which held the miscellaneous items he deposited on the table.

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The sounds of the restaurant envelop and accent his stories. The soft sounds of other people’s conversations. The bartender vigorously shaking a drink. Forks hitting plates to quickly put food into mouths, mere seconds after the servers disappear. The room is soft blue and reminiscent of a beloved grandmother’s home: cozy, welcoming and a place where the food will be good, guaranteed.

As a child, Dale was exposed to unique cultures and flavors, those outside of what Athens had to offer in the 1980s. When his family would go on trips, they would always eat something that wasn’t being offered in Athens, which apparently wasn’t hard to find. This introduction to food at a young age instilled in him an open-mindedness and eagerness to try new things. After college, a stint in D.C., and a job at his alma mater, Dale quit after 9/11 and told his boss he was going to grad school. He laughs at his reason, saying it seemed like the type of thing one would tell a boss at an academic institution. Despite colleagues’ urges that staying in a secure job after 9/11 was the safer route, Dale was of the opposite mindset, feeling like he needed to get out and do something more than ever before. So he traveled. During his time abroad, he realized that all of his experiences were always with food. “I just had this creative energy that wasn’t going anywhere,” says Dale.

He came back to Athens and ate at a budding restaurant called 5&10. He still remembers what he ate that night at the bar: monkfish cheeks over Israeli couscous accompanied by a second dish of duck confit with roasted grapes left on the stem and red cabbage. Dale walked into the restaurant the next day, summoning as much courage as possible for someone with no restaurant experience, and asked for a job.

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He eventually became a sous chef at 5&10, but during his apprenticeship, he also did internships at two restaurants in Spain. Both places helped Dale figure out just what he wanted from his own restaurant: something approachable, seasonal and market-driven. He wanted to foster a relationship with his cooks like he found with the “mother hen,” the older woman in charge at La Lobera de Martín, one of his internship locations. “It had a lot more soul to it…They had a small wood-fire grill where they grilled the steaks with sea salt on it. They made paellas. It was very Spanish. I loved it.”

In 2006, Dale was asked to cater a party. The food was different than what other people were serving at the time because he received a phone call soon after. A Swiss woman wanted to recreate the movie theaters she was familiar with in Europe, where theaters are connected with restaurants. She wanted Dale to handle the restaurant component. Uncertain but wanting to give the culinary career a solid effort, he plunged in, despite having no knowledge of the business side of owning a restaurant. He asked Hugh Acheson, owner of 5&10 and the chef he apprenticed with, for help. “The National was a restaurant I designed on a napkin, but Peter put the soul into it,” says Acheson, via email.

Dale recalls watching his mother, aunt and grandmother slave away in the kitchen, late into the night, just to finish something. “Seeing something from beginning to end, seeing the hard work it takes…those are all concepts I was familiar with at an early age,” says Dale. “I was familiar with the process of food. It wasn’t mystery how food happened,” he says with a laugh.

Dale possesses a quality that gets lost in many chefs: He genuinely cares about his customers. “The businesses that he’s created were built to serve the people that he is very connected to as opposed to serving his pocketbook,” explains Emily Dorio, former employee at The National and a goodfriend of Dale’s. “Probably why his businesses are so successful is that he knows the game he’s playing, and it’s hospitality.” Dorio recalls the numerous times that customers would order a salad, but request a dressing other than whatever Dale had envisioned to accompany the dish. Rather than remaining steadfast to his menu, he would ask Dorio to create handmade ranch for the customer. “Peter would always meet his guests. It was an extension of his home,” says Dorio.

The learning curve for Dale and The National was steep. He tells the story about muhammara sauce. He put the name of a sauce on the menu rather than describe what it was, and no one was ordering it. When he adjusted the menu to include “roasted red pepper, pomegranate, walnut sauce,” customers would visualize the sauce. It’s hospitality. “I needed to adapt to the guests; it needed to be a two-way street,” explains Dale. He laughs and says that if he was in New York and could do whatever he wanted, then maybe he could make certain aspects of being a chef work, but he’s not interested. “I want the menu to be really interesting, whatever piques our personal palate or taste at the time, but also marry it with things that are approachable, that a wide-range of people are going to be into.”

“He’s really smart, which I think is a given, but he knows what works and what doesn’t in the restaurant industry,” says Nathan Goodman, former assistant and one of the partners at Maepole, who has known Dale for roughly five years. When designing the layout of Maepole, Goodman says that Dale would explain why the bathroom couldn’t go in one spot and the trashcan in another. “Peter is a really good director of ideas,” says Goodman, “Peter understands service.” Goodman says that parties hosted at Dale’s home are of a similar caliber to when he would watch Dale create catering menus. “He’s very thoughtful. He’s always got all these really cool things and small containers for things.” Goodman confesses that he never realized the detail that went into planning events, let alone a restaurant, but, of course, forks need a container. “He’s got that sort of brain that’s perfect for opening restaurants,” says Goodman.

And Dale recognizes what’s missing in Athens. He’d seen the rise of oyster bars in his travels and noticed its absence in Athens. When a Realtor called him about an open location in a part of town that was trying to revitalize after some rough years, he immediately knew it would be best suited for one of his visions, and Seabear Oyster Bar was created.

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The creation of Condor Chocolates was quite similar. During a trip to visit his mother’s family in Ecuador, Dale was searching for gifts to bring back to his co-works at The National and couldn’t find any locally made Ecuadorian chocolates; the companies had been bought out by larger names. He’d noticed the popularity of bean-to-bar chocolate factories. “It paralleled beer and craft coffee and knowing what farm in Nicaragua your coffee came from,” says Dale. He recruited his brother, Nick. “With our story, it makes the brand personal and relatable,” Nick suggests; it’s also their commitment to working with “socially responsible suppliers that have high quality raw materials.”

Dale, somehow, manages to own and co-operate four businesses as well as devote time to groups around Athens, one of which is Athensmade, where he is on the board of directors. Davis Knox, the president and chairman of the board, explains that the group was created to celebrate the uniqueness of Athens’ local businesses and culture. Dale simply loves the Athens community. It is willing to try new cuisines, it’s loyal and it’s familiar. “I grew up here, so I feel like I understand the town, what it wants, and its ebbs and flows,” says Dale.

He’s also self-admittedly—with a laugh and sheepish grin—less risk-averse. “I guess I’m like, ‘Well, this will be terrible if it doesn’t work out, you know, we put our name on a big loan at the bank.’ I don’t know. I’ve just done it. I probably should lose more sleep over it than I do, but I just feel like they’re [the restaurants] different enough. We’re serving people at different times of the day, different days of the week, different parts of their life.” Goodman states that it’s simply second-nature for Dale to create restaurants. It’s just the way his brain works with food that makes way for these culinary endeavors, without the stress of failing.

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It’s also his qualities as a leader and boss, the commitment to those he works with and their willingness to say “Yes, of course. How can I help?”, as Dorio adds, that makes his restaurants successful. “Peter is a hard-working person, and he’s not afraid to get down and do it with a smile on his face,” she says, while also recalling numerous times she witnessed Dale cleaning dishes. “Peter leads by example. I feel like there was never a job at The National that was beneath him.” Hugh Acheson, his former boss, mirrors this sentiment: “Peter has a natural ability to coax the best attributes out of the employees and to put forward food that is always yearned for.”

Every person interviewed mentioned the same qualities of Dale: hard-working, genuine and giving. He gives to Athens, his customers and his employees. He responds to emails with impressive speed for someone who has a growing to-do list in his shirt pocket. He shows up to Athensmade events, impressing Knox with his commitment. “He’s living his life, and that’s powerful,” says Dorio, with admiration in her voice. When asked how he’s able to balance all the restaurants, he responds with a hearty laugh and says he’s not too good at it, but amends that statement by saying that having people he trusts working his businesses is what alleviates some of the pressure.

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“I’m trying to get back to this place where I can get back to doing the things like creating dishes and playing with food and get back to the things that I really got into food for in the first place,” says Dale. mentioned twice in a single

But he’s having fun. The restaurants are at different stages; The National and Seabear are in a comfortable groove, while Condor and Maepole require a bit more of his attention as they continue to grow, with Maepole only having been open a few months. “I wear a lot of different hats, and I like the variety of it. I think that maybe goes to my ADD,” Dale says with a big laugh.

Especially to answer more monologue-type questions, he gently removes the saucer from a coffee cup and begins to twirl it around the table. He touches the tiny plate and spins it, but it never loses contact with the table. When he’s done answering a question, he pushes the saucer away, like he hadn’t realized he’d moved it or was finished with it for the time being. Even when sitting, he’s not still.

He laughs and says, “Maybe at some point the luck’s gonna run out…we’ll see.”

Doubtful.