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Hot Seat: Leigh Catherall

Leigh Catherall - Oxford Entrepreneurs Hot Seat

Co-Founder Owner and CEO of Here To Serve Restaurants

EAT. LOVE. DIVORCE. PRAY. WORK. GROW.

Leigh Smith Catherall worked side-by-side with ex-husband Tom Catherall for over 20 years building one of Atlanta’s most popular culinary dynasties, Here to Serve Restaurants. In dramatic fashion, a bitter divorce unfolded and Leigh – perhaps the less likely spouse – became the full owner/CEO of the company. A sixth-generation native Atlantan, UGA alum with a fine arts and business education, and mother of two, Leigh’s passions blend artistic skills with culinary and hospitality talent. Her 10 unique concepts with over 1000 employees have helped define Atlanta’s dining scene while maintaining a tradition of charitable and civic involvement and support.

Fun fact – Leigh’s lineage dates back to John Collier, considered one of Atlanta’s founding fathers who filed the charter to rename “Marthasville” to “Atlanta” in 1848. Thank goodness.

Q1 – How did you meet Tom Catherall and what drew you to him?

A1 -“Funny story … Remember Peachtree Café in Buckhead – yuppie central years ago? I was having lunch there with family while home for Christmas when I was working in Washington DC. Because I was an avid cook, my Uncle Charlie surprised me with a gift to work in the kitchen on New Year’s Eve with one of Atlanta’s most prominent chefs, Tom Catherall. When I moved back to Atlanta and was looking to get into the business I reached out to him, and the rest is an interesting history. I was drawn to his humble background, his ambition and our similar interests.”

Q2 – Within a context you’re willing to discuss, why didn’t it work out?

A2 – “We grew in different directions. The restaurant business is a challenging world and can take a toll on family life. Since becoming CEO, I have prioritized making the culture more family-focused. I want a great quality of life for my associates while working in enticing and energetic establishments.”

Q3 – What are your most significant contributions and where do you have to rely on others?

A3 – “My creative, artsy side veers me to be involved with site selection, architectural design, menu design and artwork. We have a very collaborative team with many tenured chefs and managers who bring great products and experiences to our guests. Because I inherited a lot of decisions that were made without my involvement, I am also learning to cut the fat and execute more efficiently.”

Q4 – Okay, tell all on this one … how did you become the Owner/CEO during the divorce process?

A4 – “Our divorce process took four tough years. Tom was originally going to buy me out, so our attorneys labored over company data to determine a fair amount. In the judge’s chambers in July of 2014, Tom was not happy with the numbers and unexpectedly said he would retire and I could have the business. With 60 seconds to make a decision, I had a eureka moment and said yes. I realized from the information we discovered that, frankly, I could run the business better. He developed a strong case of seller’s remorse and put multiple obstacles in my path to prevent the transaction. But I persevered, aggressively worked with various banks, and believed. He is now retired, and I am embracing this new, more encompassing role.”

Q5 – What’s next for Here to Serve – any announcements?

A5 – “We’re looking to expand our brand inside and outside Atlanta. I’m a fan of boutique-size-and-style restaurants which is a niche we will continue to specialize.”

Q6 – What’s your favorite restaurant in Atlanta outside of Here to Serve? And when you go to competitors, what do you tend to order and focus on?

A6 – “I genuinely love ours the most, but I also enjoy Aria and Rumi’s Kitchen. I typically order items I wouldn’t prepare at home such as oysters or sushi. And when I go to other restaurants, I like to relax and focus on whomever I’m with!”

Q7 – Willing to love and marry again?

A7 – “Absolutely! But I’m very excited and blessed about the fantastic business I’m engrossed in which I’m able to enjoy and improve every day.”

ELAINE’S COMMENTARY

Elaine LaMontagne, Hot Seat Interviewer

Elaine LaMontagne, Hot Seat Interviewer

He blinked. She didn’t. After years of underplaying her artistic and instinctual contributions, and developing solid business acumen, Leigh Catherall stood strong over the previously more street-wise Master Chef Tom Catherall, and now holds the reins. I’m rooting for her. First of all, Here to Serve Restaurants are entertaining and innovative, have personable service with food that meets or exceeds expectations. She also recognizes the remarkable nature of Atlanta and its loyal patronage to Atlanta restaurants. Where international sensations (ala Emeril Lagasse, Jean George, Ashton Kutcher) come and quicklysizzle out, local Atlanta restaurateurs who commit to their art and their community while preserving southern hospitality, thrive.

Elaine LaMontagne is a former award-winning publicist who represented Macy’s, Pano Karatassos and the Buckhead Life Restaurant Group, Spa Sydell and the March of Dimes during her 20 year public relations career. Chosen one of Cosmopolitan Magazine’s “Top 10 PR Women”, Atlanta Business Chronicle’s “PR All Star” and SOS Taste of the Nation’s “National Community Business Leader of the Year”, she now freelance writes and consults for miscellaneous publications and companies and serves on non-profit boards.