OPINION: Metro ATL eateries hunger for light at the end of the tunnel

In mid-March, several retailers and restaurants at Ponce City Market in Atlanta joined the growing list of pandemic-related restaurant and retail closings across metro Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)
In mid-March, several retailers and restaurants at Ponce City Market in Atlanta joined the growing list of pandemic-related restaurant and retail closings across metro Atlanta. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Recently, beloved Atlanta eating and drinking institutions Manuel’s Tavern and the Colonnade needed GoFundMe campaigns to keep the fryers bubbling.

So, if historic operations like these need the largesse of friends to survive the pandemic, then what about the mom and pop places that don’t have that kind of cachet? Well, many no longer exist.

The AJC’s food staff has maintained an ever-growing list of the local body count. It approaches 100, with listings that make you shake your head in dismay.

Karen Bremer, CEO of the Georgia Restaurant Association, estimates as many as 20% of the state’s 19,000 restaurants have either closed permanently or are on mothballs, waiting for a better day.

“When California Pizza Kitchen goes belly up, it makes the news,” she said. “But you don’t hear about it when the guy on the corner who makes sandwiches closes.”

Except if you live nearby and like hoagies.

Bremer knows the score. She owned two downtown Atlanta restaurants killed by the Great Recession — Dailey’s and City Grill.

And that era was a breeze compared to now, what with COVID-19 numbers spiking and cold weather limiting outdoor seating, which had been many restaurants’ lifeline.

A recent National Restaurant Association survey found that 37% of Georgia restaurant owners say they won’t be around in six months if they don’t receive additional federal relief. And 27% are considering shuttering for the rest of the pandemic.

Todd Ginsberg began getting notice for his Emory Pointe deli The General Muir in 2013, and followed it up with Yalla and Fred's Meat & Bread in the Krog Street Market in early 2015. Here, Ginsberg slices pork at Fred's Meat & Bread. (Beckysteinphotography.com)
Todd Ginsberg began getting notice for his Emory Pointe deli The General Muir in 2013, and followed it up with Yalla and Fred's Meat & Bread in the Krog Street Market in early 2015. Here, Ginsberg slices pork at Fred's Meat & Bread. (Beckysteinphotography.com)

Credit: Becky Stein

Credit: Becky Stein

With all that in mind, I called six current and former restaurant owners and found them somehow resilient and even optimistic. In fact, three mentioned the “light at the end of the tunnel.”

“The question is how far is that light,” said Todd Ginsberg, a chef and co-owner of a restaurant group.

Entrepreneurs such as Ginsberg feel hopeful because COVID-19 vaccines are here. “They’re rolling it out; it’s actually happening,” he said. “And by summer and early fall we’ll have a new normal to look forward to.”

Ginsberg’s group closed one operation, The Canteen food hall near Georgia Tech in Atlanta, but will soon open a new restaurant, The General Muir in Sandy Springs. (There’s already one in Atlanta near Emory University.) His restaurants employ about 200 people, down from 260 a year ago.

You’ve got to be an inherent optimist — and a bit crazy — to leap into the business: You must rent space, build it out, hire competent workers for not a lot of money, buy a bunch of food, and then hope people show up to eat it. The hours are long, the work is hard, and success is a crapshoot even in good times.

Executive chef Nick Leahy recently closed high-end French restaurant Aix and adjoining wine bar Tin Tin to transform them into a more casual neighborhood spot called Nick's Westside. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL
Executive chef Nick Leahy recently closed high-end French restaurant Aix and adjoining wine bar Tin Tin to transform them into a more casual neighborhood spot called Nick's Westside. CONTRIBUTED BY MIA YAKEL

“The business trains you to deal with new situations on a daily basis, and 2020 was a really long version of that,” said Nick Leahy, a chef who started the year running a high-end, 2-year-old French restaurant (Aix) and later revived it to become a neighborhood joint, Nick’s Westside.

“As we got further and further into 2020, being a niche operation was not a good business,” Leahy said. So, he ditched the fancy French cuisine for a menu with a broader appeal that was more wallet friendly. Before, a couple would spend $120. Now you can walk out paying half that.

“It was a year,” he said, “of constructive entrepreneurism,” an apparent industry euphemism for launching a GoFundMe to help pay staff, learning how to do takeout, dealing with third-party delivery vendors with “punitive” pricing models, embracing alcohol-to-go, changing formats and opening a “ghost kitchen” serving delivery-only chicken. All that and learning to survive on 60% revenue.

George Frangos, co-founder of Farm Burger, said his business had to lay off a third of his staff and close two of its six metro Atlanta restaurants. (The Peachtree Corners’ store is gone while the Midtown one is shut down until nearby office workers return.) They also have gone the takeout and delivery route, increasing it to perhaps 45% of the revenue. He said takeout and delivery used to account for 15% of revenue pre-pandemic.

Deborah VanTrece, formerly a flight attendant for American Airlines, has worked in the culinary industry for more than two decades. Her most recent venture, Twisted Soul, debuted six years ago in Decatur and relocated in 2016 to West Midtown.

She closed in early March, gave away food to staff and senior citizens, then did a pay-what-you-can takeout, switched to a pop-up takeout restaurant serving chicken dishes, installed Plexiglass partitions around tables and finally reopened again in June. Sales came back to about 80% until recently. Business now is back down to 50%. The restaurant’s 80 seats are now 44, the 25 employees are 12. “It’s pretty much half of everything,” she said.

Deborah VanTrece, owner and chef of Twisted Soul Cookhouse, checks on diners Paul and Amanda Mayberry and their son Will during their evening meal inside a plexiglass cubicle at the restaurant on Dec. 9, 2020, in Atlanta.  (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Deborah VanTrece, owner and chef of Twisted Soul Cookhouse, checks on diners Paul and Amanda Mayberry and their son Will during their evening meal inside a plexiglass cubicle at the restaurant on Dec. 9, 2020, in Atlanta. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

“There were many days we had no idea where to turn,” VanTrece said. “It was all changing so much, there was no book to pick up and tell us, Step 1, Step 2. We had to write our own books.”

Still, for many, that was not enough.

“I know people who in the next few days are going to shut down,” she said. “But it wasn’t because they weren’t fighting enough or weren’t good enough. It’s heartbreaking. None of us are out of the woods.”

She said Black and other minority restaurants are getting hit especially hard, surviving without a safety net.

“We didn’t get traditional bank loans or backing,” VanTrece said. “I saved up for years and used my retirement. We don’t have a bunch of backers to go back to. That is the song that plays in the Black community. It’s like we fought to get here. We are fighters.”

But, VanTrece added, those in the restaurant business — of all hues — are used to taking shots and getting back up.

“Even those who close,” she said, “we will see them again.”

Bruce Bogartz seems to fit that description. The chef, who opened Bogartz Food Artz in 2018 with his brother, Scott, is now looking for a chef’s gig after their Sandy Springs restaurant closed in August. The revenue dropped to a point where “we couldn’t cover payroll,” he said. “There’s just so many pennies you can squeeze out of the rock.”

“It was very stressful. Every week it was, ‘Is this it? Is this it?’“ Bruce said. “It was mostly my brother’s money. I don’t blame him.”

There are several things, in retrospect, he believes they should’ve done. But hindsight is 20-20. “We were a little deer-in-the-headlights,” he said.

Bruce Bogartz of Bogartz Food Artz, now closed because of the pandemic. (photo credit: Mia Yakel)
Bruce Bogartz of Bogartz Food Artz, now closed because of the pandemic. (photo credit: Mia Yakel)

Credit: Mia Yakel

Credit: Mia Yakel

Currently, Bruce Bogartz and his wife, Terri Hitzig Bogartz, are in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a more affordable landing spot. He is doing some catering and she is making and selling chopped liver.

“We’re on the verge of getting something,” Bogartz told me. “We’re hoping to get a restaurant in Chattanooga.”

A neighborhood spot, he said.

Hope dies hard in the food industry.

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