Below 50 stories of offices, Atlanta shop owners await worker returns

Midtown News owner Heena Dalwadi helps her customer Angel Sims in Dalwadi's shop inside the One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Midtown News owner Heena Dalwadi helps her customer Angel Sims in Dalwadi's shop inside the One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Below the marble-accented lobby of the 50-story One Atlantic Center, small shops could rely on a steady stream of potential customers: office workers taking an underground walkway from a 10-level parking deck to one of Midtown Atlanta’s most recognizable towers.

No longer.

Heena Dalwadi’s smile broadens the moment she sees a potential customer near the door of Midtown News, the newsstand and small convenience store she has operated in One Atlantic Center for nine years.

She stands at work for seven hours and, in that time, sees maybe four or five customers. Some others wave and smile as they pass her windowed storefront. With no visibility to people outside the building, chances that her store will make it are “not 100%,” she said.

Despite — or, perhaps, because of — the million-plus square feet of office space above them, most of the shop owners in One Atlantic Center are losing money every day as they wait for more of metro Atlanta’s office workers to return. Each has shaky hopes about when that will be. Similar guesswork is underway in other office highrises, where livelihoods are tied tightly to Americans getting off Zoom and getting back into corporate cubicles and corner offices.

Dalwadi no longer puts out fresh pastries. Too much of a financial gamble. Instead of an assortment of fruits, she has three green bananas. There’s not enough business yet to fix a busted cooler or refill the helium tank. She used to blow up more balloons — “It’s a girl!” and “You’re so special” — for celebrations that were part of life for the thousands of lawyers, paralegals, IT folks, consultants and others who once filled the building.

“I love my store just like a baby,” Dalwadi said. She loved talking to customers. For regulars, she knew what to ring up before they got to the counter, so like clockwork was her role in their daily lives. She knows them by their buying habits, like “Miss Blueberry.”

She has yet to reopen a newsstand in another Midtown office building since closing it when the coronavirus started to spread here nearly a year and a half ago. She reopened the One Atlantic Center shop only three weeks ago. Months ago, she had cleared out all the shelves. So much food had passed its expiration day.

“It’s not easy,” the 56-year-old said of her shop’s challenges. But she wants to sound hopeful. Long ago, she immigrated to the United States from India with nothing. Now she has a business to protect.

 Midtown News owner Heena Dalwadi waits on customers in her shop inside the 50-story One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Midtown News owner Heena Dalwadi waits on customers in her shop inside the 50-story One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Standing at the corner of West Peachtree and 14th Streets, One Atlantic Center is sheathed in granite, with a castle-like top and copper roof. Among its tenants are a bevy of consulting businesses and law firms, including Alston & Bird. Credit reporting agency Equifax leases floor space there.

Officials with Midtown Alliance have noticed more people out on the streets recently. And some people who work in office towers say they’ve noticed an uptick in the number of people entering the building in recent weeks. But most say the area’s offices still appear to have far fewer people than they did before the pandemic.

A plane moves across the supermoon seen beyond the peak of One Atlantic Center in Midtown Atlanta in 2016.  JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM
Caption
A plane moves across the supermoon seen beyond the peak of One Atlantic Center in Midtown Atlanta in 2016. JOHN SPINK /JSPINK@AJC.COM

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Credit: JOHN SPINK / AJC

Cindy Lee owns the Proscenium Cafe at another big Midtown office tower.

“This area is in the middle of a very hot place in the city of Atlanta,” Lee said. But her restaurant is dependent on office workers and isn’t visible to people on the streets outside. She estimates that only 20% of the building’s usual occupants are back. She reopened in April, but she’s losing money.

A single mom with a son who recently started college, Lee is considering closing again until September, when some customers say they think more of their colleagues will return.

“I’m so stressed,” she said.

Back at One Atlantic Center, in a flower shop across the hallway from the newsstand, much of Jeanna Bailey’s business came from customers outside the office tower, including intown hotels, universities and trade shows.

Floral Matters owner Jeanna Bailey works on an arrangement for a customer at her shop located inside the One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta.  STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
Floral Matters owner Jeanna Bailey works on an arrangement for a customer at her shop located inside the One Atlantic Center office tower in Midtown Atlanta. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

One Atlantic Center “has definitely been a ghost town for most of the year” and much of her other Floral Matters business dried up. Now, her work outside the tower has picked up more quickly than the orders for personal arrangements or corporate catering for those inside.

Bailey said the shop was able to survive with federal pandemic funding, local grants and her delivering bouquets to the farthest reaches of metro Atlanta.

Still, she’s operating on half the sales she used to have and the 52-year-old is in debt for the first time in years. “We are surviving, but it ain’t pretty.”

Nearby, a small shoe shine business is rarely open. And Carolyn’s Gourmet Cafe is closed, but shop owners and a customer say they’ve heard it may reopen in early August.

Greg Null, a commercial real estate attorney who works in the office building and did work for the cafe’s owner, was among those who contributed to a GoFundMe campaign to help the restaurant’s staffers get by. He had been a regular diner there. The cafe owner had a strong business that included catering for firms in the tower, Null said. “You have this captive audience catering corporate America. You would have thought he was absolutely bulletproof. But not so much.”

It’s not clear that all the business the shops lost will come back. Pam Joiner had thought the building’s “50 floors of super busy people” made for a ripe pool of customers when she bought Concourse Hair salon there two and a half years ago. The shop’s revenues are half what they were before the pandemic.

Joiner said she suspects people who got used to working from home and having their hair done closer to where they live may not shift back to her shop.

One Atlantic Center stands at the corner of West Peachtree and 14th streets in Midtown Atlanta. The return of office workers to many towers has been slow, putting particular pressure on small shops that previously could rely on a steady stream of potential customers inside the buildings. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION
Caption
One Atlantic Center stands at the corner of West Peachtree and 14th streets in Midtown Atlanta. The return of office workers to many towers has been slow, putting particular pressure on small shops that previously could rely on a steady stream of potential customers inside the buildings. STEVE SCHAEFER FOR THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Credit: Steve Schaefer

Tarun Desai, who owns Pressed for Success dry cleaning outlets, including in One Atlantic Center, doubts he’ll regain all the business he had before the pandemic. He’s just hoping to get back to break even.

The 36-year-old with family to support said he’s essentially wiped out his savings and taken on debt to keep the business afloat. “My goal right now is to run through the remainder of the year to see if it comes back. If it doesn’t, I’ll start liquidating.”

Ray Caldwell is doing better, but his customer base at the building has rebounded only partially. Caldwell owns One Atlantic Center Car Care, a car washing and detailing service that previously generated 95% of its business from customers in the center. With few people coming into the building, he started sending his crew to dealerships and rental car companies to make up the difference. So he’s busy again.

But inside One Atlantic Center, newsstand owner Dalwadi now spends much of her time cleaning and re-cleaning the shop. She looks at the thinner-than-usual stock of merchandise on her shelves and shuffles and reshuffles by color.

“People are going to come back,” she said. She’s just not sure when. Many, she suspects, won’t really return until 2022.

“I am waiting for the day.”

AJC staff writer Lizzie Kane contributed to this article.