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December 2011
Something Special
By Heather Head

     It was a cold and snowy night when Jerry Richardson and Ron Rivera sat down to iron out the final details that would bring Rivera to the Charlotte Panthers. Downtown, restaurants and retail establishments were gradually closing their doors and shutting down in answer to the weather.

     Loney Felder III, general manager for Morton’s the Steakhouse, had notified his staff to prepare to close early when he got the phone call: Richardson wanted to know if he could bring Rivera in. “Of course,” said Felder. Of course.

     For Morton’s the Steakhouse, hosting Charlotte’s movers and shakers is all in a day’s work. But for diners at the upscale restaurant, every visit is something special.

 

The Experience

     When Felder holds staff meetings for Morton’s employees, he often asks everyone to write down who they think the most important employees are. He says you can tell who has been in the company for a while because they will list the dishwasher first, followed by the valet and the hostess.

     The manager and the servers certainly have an impact, he explains, but the dishwasher is responsible for ensuring that the diner’s experience is spotless in every regard. Likewise, the valet and the hostess are responsible for the guest’s first impression.

     From the valet who opens the car door with a smile, to the lively menu presentation featuring raw steaks and a live lobster (still wriggling its feet as it’s lifted from the silver platter), every moment of the Morton’s dining experience is remarkable. Felder says that’s especially important at Morton’s because they know they are not an every-day restaurant for many of their visitors, thanks to the upscale price point (starting at $50 a person for a dinner entrée).

     “We are not the least expensive place in the world to eat,” he admits. “We remind ourselves of that daily. It is a big deal for a person to make a decision to come in to us and spend the money. With what’s going on economically right now, we have to be as close as possible to perfect.”

     To deliver that perfect experience, Felder says every shift begins with a meal for the staff. Over the food, they discuss the upcoming evening: Who will be there, what significant events are being celebrated, and anything out of the ordinary.

     When a guest sits down in the richly appointed dining room (private rooms are available), the server already knows their name, why they are there, and whether it is their first visit. Each server assists only two or three tables at a time, and the manager visits each table regularly asking pointed questions regarding whether the food has been prepared to the guest’s taste, whether they would like help with the wine selection, and if there is anything else they would like.

     The menu consists of highest quality foods from around the country. Morton’s famous steaks are cut thick in a surgically clean facility in Chicago and grilled fresh in the open kitchen where guests can watch their chef prepare the meal. Seafood is flown in daily to offer fresh, lighter fare.

     A warm, fragrant onion loaf served before every meal is baked daily by DePalo Bakery in Belmont. The restaurant’s succulent dessert menu includes true New York cheesecake (“not just NY style,” says Felder, “this really is flown in from New York”) and a Grand Marnier soufflé, prepared in-house, boasting an incredibly complex bouquet and smooth texture that melts in the mouth.

     Morton’s food quality has not gone unnoticed. From Consumer Reports “Excellent” ratings to The Steakhouse Spirit Award, and the Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator, Morton’s has garnered national recognition, even as each location gathers accolades from local publications. The Charlotte location received The Charlotte Observer’s Best Steak & Best Dessert commendation and Charlotte Magazine’s Reader’s Choice Best Steakhouse award.

 

The Legend

     It’s no surprise that many of Charlotte’s most successful business people dine regularly at Morton’s. But many may be surprised to learn that the restaurant’s roots lie in the lowly hamburger, prepared for a Playboy Club in the 1970s. Arnie Morton and Klaus Fritsch were working at the Club in Montreal at the time. Fritsch prepared a hamburger for Morton to try, and was startled when Morton burst into the kitchen to demand, “Who cooked that hamburger?”

     The two opened their first Morton’s in Chicago in 1978 on a vision: Quality, consistency and genuine hospitality. In the three decades since, over 75 restaurants have been added, while maintaining that exact vision. Every recipe is meticulously tested and adhered to, every steak is cut according to exact measurements, every lobster is weighed and inspected for quality before and after being shipped directly from Maine, every loaf of bread is baked to precise specifications and delivered to the table piping hot.

     Felder says hospitality is maintained according to similarly exacting standards. Every new employee undergoes a two- to three-week training process before being given gradually increasing responsibilities. No server is ever asked to attend to more than four tables at a time, and usually it is kept to two or three. Every dish is inspected for absolute meticulous cleanliness before being brought to the table.

     Additionally, Felder says he experienced something at Morton’s he had never experienced as a manager at any other food service organization. He was asked by his superiors to please spend more money on staff. Usually, he says, it’s the other way around—your executive management wants you to cut costs. But at Morton’s, the customer experience is primary, and the organization requires GMs to ensure the floor is well covered at all times.

     “We want everything to be perfect. We want people to know that we care and that we appreciate them coming in,” he says. “There should never be a guest who hasn’t been wowed.”

 

Joining the Corps

     Morton’s is unusual in the food service industry, where turnover is generally high. Many members of the Morton’s staff have been with the company for several years, some as long as 17 or more. The organization has won multiple “Great Places to Work” awards including Chain Leader’s Best Places to Work and People Report’s Best People Practices Award.

     Felder’s bio includes stints with three of the armed forces (Army, Marines, and National Guard) as a medic, strategist and intelligence analyst, as well as an extensive food service experience. He has dreamed for a long time of running his own restaurant but says that Morton’s has changed his mind: “I feel like this is a family I want to hang on to.”

     Felder’s roots reach south, to New Orleans, where he grew up loving food. Out of high school, he entered the Marines Special Operations and later switched to the Army where he cross-trained as a medic and fought in Desert Storm. “I was involved all over the world,” he recollects. “Doing things I never thought I’d do. It was quite an experience.”

     When he left the Army, he attended the University of New Orleans where he met “the love of my life,” to whom he has been married 18 years. In addition to his three children from an earlier marriage whom he helped to raise, he and his wife have two children together. After their first was born, he looked around at the dangerous neighborhoods he had grown up in, and decided he wanted to take his children some place with more opportunity for education and success.

     Charlotte fit the bill. So in 1998, he and his wife jumped at a chance to come north and help open a Cajun restaurant called Copeland’s. Although it opened with a bang, the restaurant didn’t last long in this market (“the Charlotte palette just wasn’t ready for that level of Cajun cuisine” says Felder), but the Felders stayed on.

     Among other things, Felder became assistant foods manager for Aramark at the Wachovia Center, where he ensured that thousands of people were fed high quality food every day. The hours were tough—4 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday—and the stress was tougher. More significantly, management began to ask Felder to make decisions he didn’t feel good about making.

     Felder credits his wife with encouraging him to make the difficult decision to look elsewhere. He took a part-time position at Morton’s in SouthPark as an expeditor. “I went in there, and I’m looking at product quality and the way the staff is dealt with and the way the staff deals with the customers,” he remembers. “And I’m looking at a lot of smiles. People are enjoying themselves.”

     So when the general manager asked him to come on full-time as a server, he decided to make the leap. It represented a pay cut for his growing family, but he knew Morton’s was a place he could feel good being a part of.

     Felder’s hopes in the company were not disappointed, but in 2009 the SouthPark location closed due to the recession, and it was several months before Felder was able to come back to the company, this time at the downtown location, where he worked as a server. In 2010, he was asked to take the position of assistant manager, and then in July 2011 he was offered the general management position he currently holds.

     “It was a natural fit for me,” he explains. “It allowed me to do something I liked with a company I felt comfortable with. No one does it like Morton’s does it—from a service standpoint, a quality standpoint, and from the standpoint of giving back socially.”

     Felder says that Morton’s makes community involvement a major part of its mission in every city it enters. As general manager, he is responsible for overseeing and guiding the direction of the restaurant’s involvement in Charlotte.

     Currently, the organization directly supports the Make a Wish foundation, raising funds and providing free meals to participants who come through Charlotte, making their evening on the town a memorable one.

     Additionally, Morton’s celebrates “Philanthropy Week,” creating a special three-course dinner and donating $25.00 from each menu as well 10 percent of all bottled wine sales during to a charitable organization chosen specifically for that week.

 

Future

     Felder says he has high hopes for the future of both the restaurant and his own career within it. “It’s a difficult market out there,” he concedes. “But Morton’s is committed to its brand, to exceed everyone’s expectations, to blow them away, to wow them. Give them more than they expect.”

     The restaurant has been on the ground floor of the Carillon Building on Trade Street for 17 years, and Felder expects it to be there for at least as many more.

     As for himself, he wants to become the best GM at Morton’s and perhaps someday take on other roles in the organization.

     “Our current CEO, Chris Artinian, started at the bottom. I look up at that and say, nothing should stop us from reaching our dreams.”

     Wherever Felder’s dreams eventually take him, he and the staff at Morton’s are providing Charlotteans and their guests a truly distinguished dining experience while adding substantial value to the fabric of our community.

 

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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