Tramella Archie pulled out her phone to show the text message she sent to friends last week when she learned that S&S Cafeteria was closing its location in southwest Atlanta.
“Nooooo!” responded one friend in the group text.
On Saturday, Archie and four other friends met up to socialize, as they do every Saturday. This time, it was for a farewell lunch at S&S Cafeteria.
Since the restaurant announced the imminent closure, longtime patrons have poured into the cafeteria or stood in the take-out line, seeking one last bite of carrot-raisin salad, potato salad, country steak, baked chicken and fresh pie — as well as a chance to reminisce about the memories they created in this place.
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Archie has been coming here for more than 30 years. Her last order would be the pork chops and gravy. “I’m going to be sad,” she said.
At another table, Michael Williams and Felicia Morton were still deep in conversation despite having licked their plates clean. The longtime friends first met at nearby Benjamin E. Mays High School.
At their Saturday reunion, the class of ‘86 grads recalled their teenage days, but also times spent at this place.
S&S Cafeteria has been in Williams’ lexicon for well over 40 years. “My family would come here for Sunday dinner when we were kids,” said Williams, who grew up in southwest Atlanta but now lives in Smyrna. He pointed to a small bowl that had held the carrot-raisin salad. “I always remember getting it when I was a kid.”
For Morton, returning to S&S, an eatery that she’s known since she was 9 years old, was a reminder not to take dining institutions for granted. “Old things lose their luster,” she said. “You tend to forget the things in the community until they are gone.”
On Saturday, she supped on chopped steak. “I don’t even eat chopped steak! Who buys that and cooks it at home? Never,” she said. “It’s a blast from the past.”
The past is something that S&S employees were also remembering as they fed patrons throughout the weekend.
James Burley has been managing the restaurant for the past 25 years. He sat at a table near the exit, bidding customers farewell.
“I’ve enjoyed it,” Burley said. “I know all the customers by name. The customers, the employees — they are family.”
Across from him sat Randy Harper, a maintenance worker at S&S since 1997. The two share a special bond. Harper, who is also a preacher, presided over Burley’s wedding.
“A lot of these employees have worked for us for a long time,” Burley said. The longest would be chef Joe Jackson. He’s been working in the kitchen since Day One, although after 50 years on the job, Jackson now clocks in for work just one day a week.
Roughly 50 S&S Cafeteria employees have felt an impact from the closure. According to Burley, the company is working with recruiters to place interested employees with other food service operators.
According to Angela Bailey, an employee at S&S Cafeteria for the past nine years, employees were only told of the closure last Tuesday.
A sign posted on the door last week announced the closure to the public:
“It is with deepest regret that we announce the closing of our Campbellton Cafeteria at 6 p.m. on Sunday, September 30, 2018.
“S&S Cafeteria has been a major part of the Atlanta community since 1968. We consider our customers family after all these years.
“To all of our employees — we salute you with pride, a heartfelt thanks and appreciation for a job well done.
“To our customers — — thank you for 50 years and thank you for the friendships we have made.”
The letter is signed by J.A. Smith IV, the president of cafeteria operations for parent company Smith and Sons. He did not respond to multiple interview requests.
However, one longtime customer is hoping Smith responds to his request for a meeting. Ira Joe Johnson doesn’t want to see S&S close. “I’ve got S&S in my DNA,” said Johnson, who first began eating at S&S more than 40 years ago when he was a student at Morehouse and lived in an apartment near the restaurant. “It was a home away from home,” Johnson said.
This past Sunday, the civil rights lawyer, author and minister came to pay his respects at the restaurant. It was there that he ran into Bunella “Bunnie” Jackson-Ransom, the first wife of the late Maynard Jackson, Atlanta’s first black mayor. Their conversation led to a plan to potentially save S&S from shuttering, perhaps keeping it open through the December holiday season, perhaps indefinitely, Johnson explained.
As Johnson works to meet with Smith and Sons ownership, he remains optimistic. “This time next week, you’ll hear the news that S&S has committed to stay open until the end of the year,” Johnson said.
This is not the first time metro Atlanta has bid farewell to an S&S Cafeteria. In 2016, S&S shuttered its location at Embry Village on Chamblee-Tucker Road, open since 1973.
S&S Cafeterias remain in operation at six locations: one in Augusta, two in Macon and units in Greenville and Charleston, South Carolina, and Knoxville, Tennessee.
According to Burley, three locations have been sold and the others will be leased.
But in the last days at S&S on Campbellton Road, employees and customers alike just wanted to eat up five decades of glory days.
“We have several customers who come in every day and order the same thing,” Burley said.
Depending on Johnson’s talks, perhaps they will once again be able to get their daily fix at S&S Cafeteria.