The sign at the historic Matthews Cafeteria in downtown Tucker. Contributed by Wendell Brock
Photo: For the AJC
Photo: For the AJC

Tradition endures, with a few changes, at Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker

History is part of every meal at Matthews Cafeteria, downtown Tucker’s 65-year-old bastion of Southern comfort food. Founded by Louise and Bill Matthews, and run now by their grandson, Michael Greene, the Atlanta classic takes pride in its fried chicken, and turkey and dressing, served out of the 1930s building that was once a general store and coal provider.

Customers wait for carry-out orders at Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker. Contributed by Wendell Brock
Photo: For the AJC

But, COVID-19 interrupted the flow of sweet tea. Matthews paused its newly hatched drive-through service April 2-22, because of the many unknowns surrounding the pandemic.

“I know for a fact that it’s the first time ever in 65 years that we have closed for any external reason,” Greene said over the phone last week, while baking biscuits and receiving a load of cabbage from a supplier. “We have always been open, through ice storms and snowstorms, primarily because Georgia Power needs us.” (According to Greene, the utility has a “gentleman’s agreement” with the cafeteria to keep the lights on, in exchange for feeding the community.)

This Sunday spread from Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker includes fried chicken, turkey and dressing, corned beef, sides and bread. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

Matthews now has reopened its dining room. Greene said many customers were eager to break bread with friends on Tucker’s Main Street, even if it meant doing so in a radically different atmosphere than before. Customers still go through the line to get their grub, but they are shielded from the staff by new plexiglass barriers. Instead of silverware and china, it’s plastic foam boxes and sealed plastic cutlery. Everything else, from ketchup and hot-pepper sauce to sugar and coffee creamer, is handed out on request.

“We have two big dining rooms,” said Greene, 48, who started as a Matthews dishwasher at 11, attended the University of Georgia, and now manages a slimmed-down, full-time staff of 27, including six cooks, of which he is one. Tables can be moved from one room to another for social distancing.

Strawberry shortcake is a favorite at Matthews Cafeteria in Tucker. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Photo: For the AJC

For those leery of dining in, Matthews continues its drive-through option. Patrons may call in orders, or give their requests to masked and gloved carhops, who take cash or credit cards and bring the boxed and bagged food out on trays. The daily drive-up menu is posted on a plastic banner beside a pickup table under a red tent.

Greene said his drive-through lane can hold 16 vehicles. The parking lot has plenty of room for pulling around waiting cars, in case your food comes out before that of people ahead of you. The owner credited his wife, Jenna, with coming up with the drive-through system, and for creating what he jokingly called the new “casserole division.” Eight frozen, precooked casseroles (chicken and rice, white chili with turkey, turkey and dressing, etc.) can be bought to reheat at home.

Mathew’s Cafeteria.
Photo: For the AJC

Although Matthews was able to qualify for the Paycheck Protection Program, Greene worries about the day the money runs out.

“It’s going to get real here in four weeks,” he said. “At some point, we’ve got to get back to making this thing work. I gotta make my own payroll.”

Longevity and loyal customers will carry you only so far. Matthews is an old business, with a new set of issues. “I can’t ask my Daddy, ‘What did you do during the last pandemic?’” Greene said. “He doesn’t know. He didn’t have to deal with this.”

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MATTHEWS CAFETERIA

Menu: old-school Southern menu changes daily; fried chicken and chicken tenders always available; check Facebook for details; everything a la carte

What’s new: a variety of 36-ounce casseroles, $15

Alcohol: never

What I ordered: turkey and dressing; fried chicken; corned beef; sides of creamed corn, turnips greens, broccoli casserole, mashed potatoes, macaroni and cheese, fried okra; corn muffin and yeast roll; strawberry shortcake; pecan pie. This was my first taste of Matthews, and I can’t wait to go back. The casseroles are cheesy, the fried okra a tad greasy (in a good way), the mashed potatoes rich and creamy. I was very happy with the turkey and dressing, but the thing that blew my mind was the corned beef — thick pieces of impeccably tender beef. I’ll be keeping my eye on the daily specials for this winner. Loved the shortcake: two layers of house-made cake, with whipped cream and fresh berries. I wasn’t impressed with the pecan pie.Service options: dine-in or drive-through

Safety protocols: follows all CDC guidelines and recommendations for social distancing

Address, phone: 2299 Main St., Tucker, 770-939-2357

Hours: 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Sundays; closed Saturdays

Website: matthewscafeteria.net

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