Cora Griffen Cora Griffen | December 8, 2022 | Food & Drink Feature
Ayman Kamel in the newest 5Church location in Buckhead with the fan-favorite tomahawk steak PHOTO BY PATRICK HEAGNEY
Even a global pandemic couldn't stop 5Church's hot streak. The buzzy modern American restaurant has expanded its territory and now serves one of the most visited areas in Atlanta. Say hello to 5Church Buckhead, brought to you by seasoned restauranteur Ayman Kamel.
“It’s not just about the meal anymore. It’s about providing the total experience,” says initial investor and operating partner of restaurant 5Church (@5churchatlanta) Ayman Kamel. The immigrant with an Egyptian and Italian background has tunnel vision in his quest for hospitality dominance. The owner studied engineering before he ultimately made the switch to established restaurateur. The uberpopular 5Church Midtown location called for more space as the dining room overflowed with hungry Atlantans with good taste. By virtue of demand, Kamel inked a deal for his second location amid the global pandemic and pulled off an incredible feat with its official opening in Buckhead (@5church_buckhead) this past spring. As the owner of the eatery, Kamel takes pride in delivering only the best to his guests and compares enjoying a meal at his establishment to enjoying art. “When you visit our restaurant, we’re going to play with all your senses,” he says. “We’re going to make sure you’re enjoying the music, the ambiance, the art, which feeds into your soul, not only your stomach.” Two locations, two different vibes. Expect the unexpected at each location, from the wine list to the layout and even the menu. It’s certainly one of the hottest restaurants in the A, and now serving the hottest areas in the A: Midtown and Buckhead. Check out what the cuisine connoisseur has to say as he serves up more new concepts for the city.
How did your entrepreneurial endeavors begin?
I come from an Egyptian Italian background. I finished college and dreamed about coming to America to build a good future. When I arrived to the U.S. in the ’90s, I was planning to continue with engineering, but like any immigrant, you most likely work in the restaurant industry or maybe in construction. I lived in New York and was in the restaurant industry for a good 20 years. But, New York takes a toll on you. It’s a beautiful city, it’s diverse, but it’s very intense and nonstop. That was the main reason that made me think about bringing my family [to Atlanta]. We needed a better quality of life. Atlanta is somehow similar to New York in so many ways. New York is a melting pot and so is Atlanta, but the weather is better. Also, the Southern hospitality in Atlanta, the people in Atlanta are just amazing. We felt right away that we belong here. I also felt that I could continue with my professional dreams and aspirations in business in Atlanta.
How did you get into culinary and the business of hospitality?
I grew up in a family where my mom cooked everything: breakfast, lunch and dinner. She was the type of person who would just go to the backyard, grab a chicken, some tomatoes, basil, cucumbers, more vegetables, and she would make something amazing. We couldn’t afford to eat fancy food all the time, but she got so creative in making something great out of almost nothing. That was really inspiring and that’s what connected me to the restaurant industry. The hospitality industry feels exactly like home. You fall in love with how you create a beautiful experience for your clients. One thing that is so important is having my wife next to me. Her support means everything. If you come into the restaurant, you will most likely see her interacting with guest and making sure everyone is enjoying themselves.
What inspired you to create 5Church?
It’s not about a meal anymore. It’s about providing the total experience. When you come, we’re going to play with all your senses; we’re going to make sure you’re enjoying the music, the ambiance, the art, which feeds into your soul, not only your stomach. You look around, and you get that wow factor. Every corner of the restaurant has something meaningful that a lot of thought was put into. I’m so grateful to my team for all their hard work and dedication.
A spread of menu items including the charcuterie board, wagyu burger, dinner salmon entree and more PHOTO BY PATRICK HEAGNEY
You were able to hold onto that momentum even during COVID. How did your Midtown location survive COVID? What would you say contributed to that?
COVID did not leave great memories for those in the restaurant industry. It added a little bit more gray hair to what I already have on my head. While you’re believing that you’ve figured things out, something like COVID happens and changes everything. I thought, ‘How are we going to pass through this?’ I will never forget 9/11. I used to have a restaurant in Downtown Manhattan, NYC, by the World Trade Center. When I woke up that morning, my life had changed. Not having a business means nothing compared to losing friends in the World Trade Center. That experience taught me many lessons. Your life can change [in a split second] and you need to learn how to get up and do it all over again. You have to be ready for all possible scenarios. Now we work really hard and are really mindful of the service that we provide to our clients. While it costs more, we feel that we cannot give up on our standards— the support of our clients is what matters most. We love our Midtown neighbors for supporting us through a hard time.
You inked a deal for the second location during the pandemic when there was no end in sight. Would you say that your business acumen, experience in NYC and mindset of having a backup plan helped you pull this off, signing the deal during the pandemic for the Buckhead location?
I have to tell you, everybody called me crazy. We were hearing bad news all over the place; restaurants are shutting down and going out of business, and I’m sitting down making a deal and signing a deal for a new restaurant, right in the middle of a pandemic. My father always taught me, wherever there is a downturn of events, there is an opportunity, and to always keep your eye on your goals. I felt like there were great opportunities and great incentives to sign a deal in the middle of COVID. I consulted my wife, Valerie; she’s always been supportive. She said, ‘Go for it,’ so I went for it and it turned out to be a great success.
The new location is absolutely beautiful. Both 5Church locations are stunning but have different environments. Why was it important for them to be unique in atmosphere and vibe?
The minute you walk into 5Church Buckhead, the ceiling and the ambiance gives it away. You know right away that you’re in 5Church—the tables, the walls, the columns, the light fixtures. When I wanted to build another restaurant, I didn’t want it to be a copy and paste in ambiance. I knew I had to get creative and step up our game; we have to continue to evolve. When you walk into a chain restaurant, you’re seeing the exact same menu, ambiance, light fixtures and bar. I wanted 5Church to be exciting. If you’re going to 5Church Midtown, you’re going to have a totally different menu from when you go into 5Church Buckhead. I’m a huge supporter of our chefs. I give them my full support to get creative in the kitchen. The sky’s the limit, I just have to taste it first! We also did a lot of homework. The Midtown clientele has a certain taste, and the same goes for the Buckhead clientele. For example, the wine menu we have in Midtown is totally different from the wine menu we have in Buckhead. Before we decide on new items, we receive a lot of valuable feedback from guests, friends and families. We make decisions based on the neighborhood that we’re in. The same process applies to our food.
Kamel with the wagyu burger, french fries and Sun Tzu cocktail, which includes Winterville gin, lemon, lime, cucumber, mint, aquafaba and black pepper PHOTO BY PATRICK HEAGNEY
Why were you so committed to opening that Buckhead location, and how did you resist becoming discouraged opening a business during the pandemic?
For a good six months, we were asking our guests one question on a survey: ‘Which ZIP code do you live in?’ We found out that probably 94% of our guests live either in Midtown, downtown and in the surrounding area, and 6% of our guests come either from Buckhead, Brookhaven, Alpharetta or Sandy Springs. It was a no-brainer that we needed to build a 5Church Buckhead because of our friends and guests in that area. It was the right thing to do. Going through construction was a major challenge during COVID because there was a shortage of materials, which caused delays. Sometimes you get discouraged, but we were determined to complete the project and I’m very satisfied with the result.
You mentioned you’re going to be introducing a modern Latin concept in Atlanta to add to your arsenal of incredible restaurants. What inspired this new concept?
Atlanta has so much potential and Atlantans love to see and try new things. This concept is essentially modern Latin cuisine. We are going to present many diverse dishes from all over Latin America. You’re going to find a Mexican dish, Nicaraguan dish, Chilean dish, and we’re going to put them on the same menu. There’s going to be an amazing ambiance. We’ve been working with local artists and also traveling to South America searching for furniture and fixtures for this space. We’re going to surprise our amazing clients in a very good way. They’re going to love it and they’re not going to want to leave, I’ll tell you that.