Australian-born chef’s Atlanta empire caters to fraternities, sororities

Chef Dieter Quinn gently bumps his black Triumph Speed Triple motorcycle over the curb and onto the sidewalk, deftly wheeling it to an out-of-the-way parking spot.

Removing his black helmet and leathers, the lanky Australian walks through the Atlanta parking lot to the back entrance of the kitchen that serves as his home base, though it’s only one in a network of 14 kitchens he controls.

He nods to the employees already prepping for the lunch rush. Today, they’re making special burgers — a riff on the Nasty Nate served at Illegal Foods, the former restaurant now operating as a pop-up. The kitchen staff is topping large beef patties with blue cheese, house-made bacon jam and fresh arugula.

» MORE: Atlanta area universities show the way on food sustainability

At 11:00 a.m. sharp, Quinn’s first customers — Sigma Chi fraternity members at Georgia Tech — begin lining up for lunch. The guys chat with each other and the kitchen staff as they move through the line, grabbing burgers, piping-hot french fries and a variety of condiments, many made in-house. For them, it’s just another lunch at “the House.” The burgers are really good, but that’s expected. Fresh, high-quality, scratch-made food is the norm.

Another common sight: Quinn sharing a table with the students while working through order forms, invoices and his various other duties as the CEO of a thriving small business. His table mates bear down on their Tech homework while some less studious brothers watch “The Price Is Right” across the room.

On the campuses of Georgia Tech and Emory University, similar lunch services are in progress at more than a dozen fraternity and sorority houses. Each is a client of Chef’s Menu LLC, Quinn’s company that supplies meal plans, kitchen staffing and special event catering to institutional kitchens — specifically, Greek organizations.

Monday through Friday, about 40 Chef’s Menu employees serve thousands of meals to more than 1,300 students. Each week, the company goes through at least 2,200 pounds of chicken, 150 dozen eggs and nearly 400 pounds of tomatoes.

Yet Chef’s Menu runs impressively lean. It has no dedicated office space, mostly hourly employees and essentially no competition. The entire operation is run from a small cart that Quinn calls his “office.”

“We have a zero-dollar marketing budget,” Quinn said.

In addition to minimal overhead and little competition, Quinn enjoys a work-life balance that most professional chefs could only dream of. He rarely works weekends and takes at least two weeks off for the holidays each winter. His customer base of college students declines steeply in the summer, and many of his hourly employees find summer jobs working at sleep-away camps.

When school starts back in the fall, most of the Chef’s Menu staff return to their primary Greek houses. Compared to the food service industry as a whole, Chef’s Menu suffers very low turnover: nine of Quinn’s employees have stayed with the company more than three years. In many cases, they become part of the fabric of the Greek house where they work.

“Chef Jess is the best,” said Katherine Strickland, a biomedical engineering student in her junior year at Georgia Tech and president of Alpha Delta Pi (ADPi) sorority. Her 203-member organization is Quinn’s largest client, and the kitchen’s head chef, Jess Ray, is popular among the sorority sisters. Ray has been with Chef’s Menu since 2015.

Ray is firmly in control of the ADPi kitchen. According to Lillie Gluck, a sophomore industrial design major who serves as the sorority’s sustainability officer, Ray tracks the food allergies and sensitivities among the sorority’s more than 200 members.

“Sometimes she’ll call me and tell me that certain girls shouldn’t eat something because it has peanuts in it,” said Gluck. She also noted that Ray caters to specific diets and preferences, including a large group of sorority sisters undertaking the Whole30 diet before spring break.

Quinn said sororities and fraternities pose different challenges. Sororities tend to have larger rosters, and feeding their 200 members is logistically more difficult than 70 or so fraternity members. Quinn, Strickland and Gluck all said sororities are more particular in terms of dietary restrictions and requests for a wide variety of healthy options.

Both Quinn and Ray said the rewards outweigh the challenges.

“One of the reasons I enjoy doing this so much is being on campus and being around students who are so driven and dedicated,” said Quinn.

“I love these girls,” said Ray, herself a woman. “They keep me young!”

» MORE: Georgia Tech, Little Bee Project cultivate healthy hives

Quinn’s future as an entrepreneur wasn’t so certain 10 years ago. The son of a cook in the Australian navy, he grew up in the kitchen but originally planned to be an engineer. He went to the University of Newcastle in Australia, but ultimately dropped out and moved to Sydney. He worked his way up through the kitchen ranks there, then decided to travel through Europe with friends. On that trip he met his wife, Carisa, who was working at Emory in Atlanta.

After getting married, Quinn moved to Atlanta and began working at Highland Bakery. It was there that he learned about the opportunities available at fraternity and sorority kitchens at Georgia Tech. In 2008, he applied to a job posting on Craigslist for the chef position at Sigma Chi.

“He was the only one who came in for the interview with a full week’s worth of menus already written,” said Bailey Quintrell, the Sigma Chi chapter president in 2008 who helmed the search committee for a new chef. “He was just obviously a good fit.”

When Quinn started in the fall of 2008, I was an active Sigma Chi member beginning my junior year at Georgia Tech. I remember that the change from prepackaged, frozen food to fresh, scratch-made, restaurant-quality meals was a sensation. Word spread around campus about the Australian chef at Sigma Chi who cooked real steaks for formal dinners and bought raw vegetables in bulk. It wasn’t long until other houses came calling, attempting to lure him away.

Rather than move on, Quinn saw the first competing job offer as a business opportunity. With Sigma Chi’s support, he hired another cook and started Chef’s Menu.

Ten years hence, Quinn has set down deep roots in Atlanta with his wife and two children. In late 2017, he became a naturalized citizen of the United States, though he still has an unmistakable Australian accent. And he is still a proud chef who relishes creating delicious meals.

“(The students) are generally so receptive of what we’re serving them,” Quinn said. “Getting that positive feedback makes it all worth it.”

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