Eric Kaiser, 57, intown restaurateur dies unexpectedly

Eric Kaiser, pictured with his wife Margaret, started Grant Central Pizza and other restaurants in Atlanta.

Credit: courtesy of the family

caption arrowCaption
Eric Kaiser, pictured with his wife Margaret, started Grant Central Pizza and other restaurants in Atlanta.

Credit: courtesy of the family

Credit: courtesy of the family

It was a departure from Eric and Margaret Kaiser’s standard Wednesday night routine on Aug. 4.

Usually early-to-bed, she stayed up beyond midnight as they held hands while talking on the front porch swing of their Grant Park home. The conversation between the restaurateur and his wife, a former state representative, ranged widely; old times and careers including Eric’s start “slinging pizza” at Fellini’s Pizza 30 years ago, expressing pride and gratitude for the “beautiful” life they’d built including two high-achieving adult sons, even speculating whether they might become grandparents

A few hours after retiring, something — she’s not sure what — woke her. Eric wasn’t in bed. Making her way to the kitchen Margaret found her husband sprawled on the floor. For a split second she thought he might have been pranking her.

But it was no joke.

Eric Kaiser, 57, had died suddenly.

“We were going into the best years of our lives,” Margaret Kaiser said. “We had so many plans.”

He’s survived by his wife, sons Willem and Ewan, sisters Wendy Conroy and Karen Kaiser Summerour. The cause of death was not immediately determined.

ExploreRead and sign the online guestbook for Eric Kaiser

Kaiser was free-spirited in youth.

Margaret Kaiser remembers living with her twin sister in an apartment off DeKalb Avenue when the couple was getting to know each other. The locked building kept Kaiser from getting in during one visit.

So, he stacked three steel drums atop one another trying to reach their second-story window.

Atlanta Police showed up and handcuffed him, demanding an explanation.

Peeved, Margaret recalled, “I wouldn’t come down” to talk to the cops. Fortunately, her sister vouched for him.

After working at Fellini’s, Kaiser owned or partnered in several restaurants, but his signature ventures were Grant Central Pizza and Pasta in then-restaurant-starved Grant Park, and Grant Central East in East Atlanta Village.

He and partner Don Parmer, friends from their Fellini’s days, turned out New York-style masterpieces. Hand-rolled and thrown dough. Fresh and vibrant ingredients.

But dishing up delish was just part of the picture. The business also served as a launching pad for giving back to the community and local events. Friends and family marveled at his big heart and ability to draw people in.

Kaiser embraced such causes as First Tee, a youth development group aimed at acquainting kids with golf, and Leadership Georgia. The couple also helped found the Atlanta Neighborhood Charter School.

Fred Muse, a 50-year friend, said Kaiser hired people down on their luck. Sometimes they were battling addiction. If someone messed up, failed to show for a shift or even might have pilfered from the till, he’d give them multiple chances. Kaiser hated to fire people, but he could also be painfully blunt.

Kaiser might soft-pedal with difficult employees, but he also had street smarts, and he wasn’t hesitant to roll the dice.

“He was not going to let an opportunity pass him by,” said Muse. “He wasn’t afraid to take chances.”

One such gamble was debuting Grant Park followed by East Atlanta Village in the early and mid-1990s. Both rough-and-tumble neighborhoods were taking baby steps toward gentrification, and there was no shortage of challenges.

“It was difficult to get produce delivered south of I-20,” said Parmer, who added that not long after setting up shop in EAV, Kaiser was held up at gunpoint.

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A younger Eric Kaiser, center, talks to customer at one of his ventures, the Cabbagetown Grill. (AJC Staff Photo/Nick Arroyo)

Credit: AJC

A younger Eric Kaiser, center, talks to customer at one of his ventures, the Cabbagetown Grill.  (AJC Staff Photo/Nick Arroyo)

Credit: AJC

caption arrowCaption
A younger Eric Kaiser, center, talks to customer at one of his ventures, the Cabbagetown Grill. (AJC Staff Photo/Nick Arroyo)

Credit: AJC

Credit: AJC

But there was more to Kaiser’s life path than dough and tomato sauce. An avid and fiercely competitive golfer, he’d squeeze in a 7 a.m. tee time before work.

A creative bent expressed itself in drawing and making music. Margaret Kaiser recalled him banging away on spoons, a washboard, a stop sign, wrenches, and beer cans in an 80s punk group dubbed the Chowder Shouters. Members of the Black Crowes and Drivin N Cryin were friends.

One day he and Margaret might be hanging out with the governor at a political event, then the next he could be talking with the homeless outside the restaurant.

Former golf pro and frequent links partner Tony Smith said Kaiser offered him work at a tough time a couple of years ago. But more important, he said, was the renewed friendship.

He said, “He was 57 years old, but he helped a hundred years’ worth of people in his life.”

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