If you’ve visited Mary Mac’s Tea Room in the last, oh, two decades or so, chances are you’ve met Jo Carter.
She would’ve been the one to grab your shoulder muscles from behind and begin kneading them into an unrequested, but wholly welcomed jelly; she is the longstanding and iconic server-turned-“Goodwill Ambassador” whose impromptu back rubs have defined the Atlanta institution and its dedication to good, old-fashioned Southern service during her tenure.
For those who’ve come to know Jo Carter, 2017 brings with it the sad news that her time as Goodwill Ambassador has come to an abrupt and unexpected end. Carter, 78, has retired once and for all. It’s not wholly untread territory for Carter: A rheumatoid arthritis diagnosis forced her first retirement in 2003. She moved home to West Virginia for a time, before Mary Mac’s owner John Ferrell coaxed her return in 2006, making up the position of Goodwill Ambassador to accommodate her.
That’s how much she meant to the patrons at Mary Mac’s; when she left, how great the hole in their culture: They made up a title and paid her just to return to them, side work be damned. Carter, who first started at Mary Mac’s in 1993, was ready to come back anyway; Mary Mac’s was (and even in retirement will remain) home.
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“This is like I’m leaving my family,” she reflects, “whoo, this ain’t easy either, let me tell you.”
In finding her home at the Ponce de Leon Avenue eatery, Carter has seen much. She has rubbed the backs of more than one POTUS, along with dozens of Hollywood icons, local legends and sports stars. The memory she loves the most, though — she recalls over lunch as a rare role reversal finds her seated in the dining room while chef Ronnie Holt dutifully rubs her back — is the day in 2012 that the Florida State men’s basketball team bus pulled up.
She’d struck up such a rapport with coach Leonard Hamilton and the team that Ferrell had to enter the team bus and request the safe return of his Goodwill Ambassador prior to the team’s return to Florida. Jo Carter is just infectious like that; her bawdy jokes, back rubs and Southern drawl melting together into something savory.
“I must’ve spread more cheer around Atlanta than anybody but Santa Claus,” she said with a laugh. “But I don’t got no elves. So he doesn’t count either.”
Though the restaurant Carter leaves behind (for real this time) is healthy, it’s hard to extract the notion of her from the notion of Mary Mac’s. The walls in the restaurant’s many dining rooms — it has expanded much since its 1945 opening — are covered in photos of celebrities. The Dalai Lama got, as the Carter-coined phrase was sold on T-shirts for years, his “belly filled and his back rubbed,” here. So did Jimmy Carter (often). Robert Duvall too. Steve Martin. Andy Garcia. Chad Ochocinco. Bill Clinton was there two weeks ago. The list goes on and on.
But no star has shined brighter at Mary Mac’s than Carter. It is the hospitality of the place, and its approachable, authentic hospitality with patrons, that makes Mary Mac’s special. The pointy end of that spear, for much of the past 24 years, has been Jo Carter. It’s hard to imagine the place without her.
But as surely as it found its footing in the eras since the “tea room” was a thing (Mary Mac’s first opened under the name Mrs. Fuller’s Tea Room, one of 16 tea rooms in Atlanta in 1945), so it will continue in the era after Jo Carter. Mrs. Fuller’s used to have 75 seats; today the restaurant has 400. Mary Mac’s is a pretty big deal. Surely it will continue its commitment to hospitality, to fresh produce and made-from-scratch fixings, and to fried chicken, and comfort foods. And to collard greens. And maybe even to back rubs. Of course, it will continue to thrive in the era beyond Carter.
It’s just, how?
“I will say that while it will be hard to replace an original like Ms. Jo, we’re as committed today to creating that dinner at grandma’s feeling as ever,” says general manager Matt Thompson.
With Carter on the edge of retirement, there’s no guarantee when you’ll see her at Mary Mac’s these days. However, those who’d like to scrounge up one last back rub can visit Mary Mac’s (224 Ponce de Leon Ave., Atlanta) for Carter’s official send-off from 3-5 p.m. March 11.