Chicken wings, iced tea, fried chicken and a pork chop are among the Southern classics at Busy Bee Cafe. Photo Courtesy of Morgen Purcell/Lemon Brands

How Busy Bee is fighting to feed the soul food faithful

Editor’s note: As the coronavirus disrupts the restaurant industry, the AJC has changed its dining coverage and suspended its restaurant reviews. Instead, we are publishing a new column called Atlanta Orders In, which looks at the challenges faced by Atlanta restaurants and serves as a guide to ordering takeout.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Do you have feedback about the new column? We want to hear from you. Send your comments to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com

Tracy Gates realized she was in trouble on March 16. That was the sobering Monday people stopped coming to her historic, 49-seat southwest Atlanta soul-food destination, famous for its fried chicken, oxtails and, according to Oprah Winfrey, America’s best catfish. “It was like, ‘Oh, my god! Are we going to make it?’ ” she recalls of that eerie day the 73-year-old Bee lost its buzz.

» COMPLETE COVERAGE: Coronavirus in Georgia 

Tracy Gates is owner of the iconic Busy Bee Cafe in southwest Atlanta. Photo Courtesy of Morgen Purcell/Lemon Brands

Since then, the Busy Bee owner has shifted to carryout and delivery. Her utmost concern is safety -- taking care of her customers, employees and her 80-year-old mother, with whom she lives in southwest Atlanta.

The Busy Bee's baked mac and cheese is its most popular side. Photo Courtesy of Morgen Purcell/Lemon Brands

And yet it’s clear Gates hasn’t lost her sense of humor: One of her biggest fears, she says, is running out of the Cabot extra-sharp cheddar she uses in the Bee’s mac and cheese. “It’s like the top-selling vegetable,” she jokes. “We sell more macaroni and cheese than we do collard greens! ... That has to be right. You can’t mess that up.”

» DINING TEAM: How coronavirus will change dining coverage

Coronavirus impact: Cut staff from 37 to 10. Digital ordering process has been revamped and social-media presence beefed up. Delivery radius extended from 5 to 15 miles. Ingredients and supplies are ordered day by day as needed. 

Menu: Southern classics cooked fresh daily: fried chicken, shrimp and catfish; chicken and waffles; ribs; pork chops; and a multitude of sides (candied yams, string beans with potatoes, potato salad, mashed potatoes, carrot soufflé, fried okra, rice and gravy, fried green tomatoes, collards) and desserts (peach and blackberry cobbler, banana pudding, sweet-potato pie). Check digital menu for rotating daily specials (meatloaf Mondays; neck bone Tuesdays, liver and onion Fridays). 

Oprah Winfrey calls Busy Bee’s fried catfish the best she’s had. Photo Courtesy of Morgen Purcell/Lemon Brands

What’s new?: Family meals for four. Choose fried or baked chicken, two sides, yeast rolls or corn muffins, and a half-gallon of tea – for $50. The restaurant will personally deliver orders of $100 or more.

Alcohol: No 

Service options: Call and pick up inside the restaurant or curbside. Delivery available via UberEats, Grubhub, DoorDash and Postmates.  

What I ordered: Alone on my front porch on a milestone birthday, feeling wiped out from yard work and pollen, the thought of delivered food seemed like a gift from the gods. (Also, Bone’s was out of the question.) Aside from pizza, this was a first for me. I called up GrubHub -- the first platform I could think of -- scanned the restaurant listings for my area, and was jazzed to see the Busy Bee pop up. 

I ordered fried chicken with collards and mac and cheese and a four-vegetable plate. Everything was good – especially the collards and potato salad. Unfortunately, there was a slight mix-up: I got smothered chicken instead of fried. Scarfed it down anyway, and it was delicious. GrubHub promptly issued a credit. 

Safety protocols: Cooks work in separate rooms. Space is constantly sanitized. Gates monitors CDC and restaurant industry websites for updates.

Outlook: “We want to stay open as long as we can,” she says. “Things are still moving, but at a much slower pace.” On the plus side, her rent is “affordable.”

The moral of the story: The Bee was started in 1947 by Lucy Jackson, who once served a hungry missionary who couldn’t find anything to eat. “She was hungry and had no money,” Gates says. “Her son said other businesses on the street at that time would not serve her. A worker at Pascal’s told her, ‘Go to Busy Bee. Mama Lucy will feed you.” The grateful missionary told Jackson the Bee would always be busy, and always blessed. 

Gates’ father bought the cafe in 1981. Tracy took over six years later, dutifully researching the history and rebuilding the reputation of the kitchen, which had suffered after Jackson’s departure. Coronavirus may have taken the busy out of the Bee, but Gates says she’s still blessed. 

Why Busy Bee matters: Customers feel affection for the diner and always tell Gates where they like to sit and their favorite order. “Oh, it makes me feel wonderful!” she says. In good times and bad, it’s what keeps her going. 

Address: 810 Martin Luther King Drive SW, Atlanta

Hours: 11 a.m.-7 p.m. daily

Phone: 404-525-9212

Website: thebusybeecafe.com

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