A Man of Many Chefs’ Hats

Mike Pankow’s food industry experience prepped him to address diverse challenges as Fifth Group’s director of facilities

Mike Pankow, Fifth Group Restaurants

Mike Pankow may have gotten his start in education, but his true expertise is in the restaurant business. He has over three decades of experience in that field, starting at a training facility run by Aramark in high school. From there, he catered parties for celebrities and firms large and small, ran his own restaurants, and eventually became the director of facilities for Atlanta-based restaurant operator Fifth Group. But he still relies on his training as an educator, as well as his varied background in restaurants, to succeed in facilities today.

While earning a bachelor’s degree in education from Iowa State University in the early nineties, he also worked full-time in a café throughout school, washing dishes, prepping food, and working on the line. After graduating, Pankow taught during the day, but also ran a small Italian restaurant at night. “That evolved into a career, and I left teaching behind—at least in the classroom setting,” Pankow says.

Though he has left the classroom, Pankow still takes lessons from his education background into his work. “Like the classroom, each day has a plan, and there is always learning taking place—not just by employees, but myself, as well,” Pankow says. His training in education also helps him handle the long hours and on-the-fly problem solving that are necessary in his current role.

He came to that role after running a mom-and-pop Italian restaurant just outside of Chicago for almost a decade. Deciding it was time for a change, Pankow moved to Marietta, Georgia, and took a general manager job at a local sports bar chain. It was here that he shifted from restaurant management to a more construction- and design-based role. As purchasing manager, he helped grow the company from 10 to 30 locations in the span of eight years.

After a brief stint with Jamestown Properties in 2012 helping to design and lease the Atlanta-based adaptive reuse project Ponce City Market, Pankow moved to Fifth Group Restaurants, a restaurant and catering group based in Atlanta. Now, he oversees all construction and design, as well as a team of technicians that handle day-to-day repairs and maintenance.

Fifth Group is currently working on two exciting build-outs. The first is a South City Kitchen in Alpharetta, Georgia, as part of the Avalon mixed-used development. The Southern food chain has been around for 20 years, and this fourth location in the Hotel Avalon took up much of Pankow’s time in 2017 before its opening in 2018.

Pankow’s challenges for this location include negotiating the existing aesthetic and requirements of South City Kitchen with the layout of the hotel. Their concern is finding ways to develop a new, fresh design for the restaurant while keeping the timeless characteristics of the existing location. The solution, then, is to choose materials and finishes that will stand the test of time,
durability, and appeal. “It’s a large group and a large project with a lot of moving pieces,” Pankow says.

In addition to South City Kitchen, Pankow is in the early stages of a build-out of a second free-standing location for the Atlanta-based European concept restaurant Ecco in addition to a current location in Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Fifth Group plans to complete the build in the summer of 2018 with an opening in the fall, and Pankow has been working on this project’s myriad challenges, such as getting permits for the interior, the difficulty of the site’s parking and access considerations, and more.

With so many projects underway at the same time, Pankow believes that constant communication with his team is paramount. Rather than relying on email, Pankow and his team use a series of apps, such as GroupMe and Field Force Tracker, to facilitate an ongoing, informal chain of communication that makes collaboration faster and more efficient.

While those tools have helped build a cohesive community of sorts with his team, Pankow notes that Fifth Group’s corporate social responsibility is equally aimed at sustaining strong communities. The organization is involved every year with the Atlanta Food Bank Hunger Walk, as well as the charity Giving Kitchen, which aids restaurant workers facing unexpected crises. Management even works to take care of its hourly employees by donating backpacks filled with school supplies to parents of school-aged children. “It’s a small thing, but a really exciting time for all of us,” Pankow says.

As the culmination of decades of work in the restaurant business, Pankow’s position at Fifth Group allows him to feel as excited about coming to work as his first day, even several years later. “We’re connecting with guests on a level that’s different from other businesses,” he says. “It’s a company filled with truly exceptional people doing exceptional jobs, and it is impossible not to be excited to be a part of it.”

Photos: Bob Hughes/Brilliance Photography, Heidi Geldhauser