Ones to Watch | BY LYNNE MILLER
Justin Smolev acquired a taste for gourmet food after toiling for years in the kitchens of fine-dining establishments across the country. When he decided to become a restaurant operator, Smolev tossed those gourmet instincts into the salad bowl. The result was Dressed Salads With Style, a chic and modern eatery that’s making a mark in Atlanta.
Since opening in 2006, the restaurant has captured favorable reviews from the local media, not to mention the attention of business partners who want to replicate the restaurant in Hong Kong. Work is also under way on additional company-owned restaurants in Atlanta.
“It’s very exciting,” Smolev says. “The success of the store has come a lot sooner than I expected. We’ve accomplished a lot in a short amount of time.”
Smolev learned in the foodservice business by working in some of America’s finest restaurants. After graduating from New York’s French Culinary Institute, he landed a job as a pastry chef at Daniel, then moved on to work in the kitchens at Le Bernardin and Savoy, all in New York City. Then he moved across the country for a job at the famed French Laundry in California’s Napa Valley.
After years of working for others, Smolev felt ready to venture into business himself and settled in Atlanta where he has family. Scoping out the local restaurant scene, he noticed the city didn’t have much to offer in the way of healthy cuisine. He figured a high-end specialty salad emporium would fill that void.
Dressed features salads made to order as well as chef-designed specialties. For those who want custom creations, the concept offers a choice of salad greens and an array of toppings ranging from the familiar (celery, carrots, and cucumbers) to out of the ordinary (hearts of palm, white beans, and fried capers). Adventurous types don’t have to settle for buttermilk ranch dressing, either. They can try Dijon wasabi ginger vinaigrette and chipotle aioli, among the more unusual of the 24 dressings available. Chef specialties include the Steakhouse, which combines grilled steak with fried onions, tomatoes, crumbled bleu cheese, and Romaine topped by bleu cheese dressing. The Asian is a mix of carrots, almonds, mandarin oranges, snow peas, Chinese noodles, baby spinach, and Romaine lettuce. Grilled chicken, steak, or shrimp is optional. Top-selling salads are the Asian with chicken and Caesar with chicken. Dressed also offers salad wraps and homemade soups, including unusual choices like chilled peach and coconut curry chicken and lime soup.
“I’m trying to do things people haven’t had before, and I’m trying to be creative,” Smolev says. “I get bored with the common.”
The use of high-end ingredients naturally drives up costs. But Smolev believes using unusual ingredients helps the restaurant stand out in the market. “I take dollars out of my profit margin by spending a little more on better ingredients,” he says.
Lunch is the busiest time of day, with orders generating 65 to 70 percent of overall sales. The company provides delivery service via scooters equipped with boxes that can hold up to 20 salads. The fuel-efficient scooters can park on sidewalks, a major advantage in midtown Atlanta, where space is scarce. Delivery orders generate at least 35 percent of sales.
Just like the salads, the restaurant is stylish. Smolev hired a designer to create the modern white space highlighted by green Knoll chairs, orange doughnut pendant lights, and concrete floors. Each table is set with a white ceramic vase holding a single orange Gerber daisy. The serene look prompted one local reviewer to compare the restaurant to a Japanese teahouse. Measuring just more than 2,000 square feet, the restaurant seats 40 to 45 people in the dining area.
Smolev, the sole proprietor, works closely with Keith Wiley, the general manager. Wiley previously was director of operations for nine McDonald’s restaurants.
“With my background in fine dining and [Wiley’s] background in fast food, it’s a good marriage,” Smolev says.
Smolev was taken by surprise when a group of business people from Hong Kong approached him six months after Dressed opened its doors. After several meetings, they formed a partnership, Dressed International. One store is scheduled to open this year in Hong Kong with plans for additional stores on the drawing board.
Closer to home, many would-be franchisees have approached Smolev to discuss franchising, but he’s not interested in going that route.
“I like to have complete control over everything,” he says.