Atlanta Orders In: Years in the works, Po’Boy Shop’s basement bar lasted five weeks in pandemic

A feast from the Po’Boy Shop in Decatur (clockwise from left): fried pickles, boudin balls, gumbo, a combo platter with fried oysters, grouper, hush puppies and slaw, and a  po’boy with fried shrimp, roast beef and its debris). CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Caption
A feast from the Po’Boy Shop in Decatur (clockwise from left): fried pickles, boudin balls, gumbo, a combo platter with fried oysters, grouper, hush puppies and slaw, and a po’boy with fried shrimp, roast beef and its debris). CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

New Orleans has a mantra that’s as essential to Mardi Gras as okra to gumbo, a familiar line that defines the place: “Laissez les bons temps rouler” — let the good times roll.

When Mark Ferguson and Dave Schmidt opened their Po’Boy Shop on Clairmont Road two years ago, they originally planned to convert the rambling, 4,000-square-foot basement into a big old party room, but time and costs got in the way.

It wasn’t until this February, just in time for Carnival, that the restaurateurs unveiled their long-awaited downstairs bar.

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The Po’boy Shop’s boudin balls come with a mustard sauce, and the fried pickles come with remoulade. Both are great $5 snacks. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Caption
The Po’boy Shop’s boudin balls come with a mustard sauce, and the fried pickles come with remoulade. Both are great $5 snacks. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

While the upstairs kitchen turned out po’boys, gumbo, and red beans and rice, hurricanes and Louisiana blue cats flowed down below. Guests could shoot pool, throw darts and suck crawfish tails by the pound.

On March 16, the good times stopped abruptly, as the reality of COVID-19 shut down the town. The short run was humbling for the partners, who had invested three years and a sizable wad of cash into creating their dream bar, with its 150 whiskeys and just as many beers.

And, yet, all was not lost.

Ferguson, who’s owned and operated eight bars since moving to Atlanta from Illinois in 1992, and Schmidt, who enjoyed a 20-year career at the Coca-Cola Co., knew they had to focus on the food, which had been a success since the get-go.

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It took three years for the Po’boy Shop to open its downstairs bar. The pandemic closed it after five weeks. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Caption
It took three years for the Po’boy Shop to open its downstairs bar. The pandemic closed it after five weeks. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

“The first three weeks, we were down in sales by 77 grand total,” Ferguson said. “But, we put a tent outside and started our curbside service, and our sales started climbing back up.”

Today, with a staff of 26 (down by four from the pre-COVID-19 peak), Po’boy Shop sells about 1,200 of its namesake loaves a week. Made on Leidenheimer Baking Co. baguettes from NOLA, the sandwiches are stuffed an astonishing 20-plus ways — with fried shrimp, oysters, catfish, crawfish, alligator tail, chicken tenderloins, grouper blackened or fried, roast beef, ham and cheese, French fries and gravy, two kinds of sausage, cheese burger, Beyond burger, etc.

Ferguson believes it’s the quality of the food and the price point ($7.50-$18.50 per sandwich) that keep customers lining up for takeout.

He’s seen it before. Back in 2008, as the Great Recession kicked in, he offered big burgers and “overflowing” plates of comfort food at his Black Bear Tavern in Buckhead, most at under $10, and business grew by 30 percent. (He sold Black Bear before pivoting to po’boys.)

When the pandemic set in, the Po’Boy Shop in Decatur had to close its bar and restaurant, so it put up a takeout tent outside. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK
Caption
When the pandemic set in, the Po’Boy Shop in Decatur had to close its bar and restaurant, so it put up a takeout tent outside. CONTRIBUTED BY WENDELL BROCK

Credit: Wendell Brock

Credit: Wendell Brock

While the partners plan to keep their tiny cafe closed for the duration of the pandemic, they hope to let the good times roll again in the bar on Sept. 11. This go-round, they’ll enforce social distancing and limit the 150-seat room to 50-60 guests.

How things look next Mardi Gras is anybody’s guess.

Is there a restaurant you want to see featured? Send your suggestions to ligaya.figueras@ajc.com.

THE PO’BOY SHOP

Menu: po’boys and other Louisiana classics

Alcohol: to go

What I ordered: small Surf & Turf po’boy; combo platter with fried oysters and grouper, plus a cup of gumbo; boudin balls; fried pickles. I raved about the Surf & Turf (fried shrimp and roast beef with debris) when I reviewed this place in 2018, and it remains, for me, a singular sandwich, messy and irresistible. Boudin balls are so rich, and so right. Even the fried pickles travel well. One quibble: The oysters were a bit too long in the fryer, but, having cocktail, tartar and remoulade at the ready sure helped.

Service options: takeout only; delivery via DoorDash and Uber Eats.

Safety protocols: follows standard CDC guidelines; customers aren’t allowed inside

Address, phone: 1369 Clairmont Road, Decatur; 678-974-8725

Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. daily

Website: thepoboyshopatl.com

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