UPDATE: Effort to save Manuel’s Tavern surpasses $75K goal in a day

Patrons launch Go Fund Me page to keep 64-year-old Poncey–Highland watering hole alive

Manuel’s Tavern owner Brian Maloof went to bed Wednesday night not knowing what he would wake up to. After 64 years in business, Manuel’s Tavern appeared to be yet another restaurant casualty of the coronavirus pandemic. Less than 24 hours later, and thanks to an outpouring of community support, a Manuel’s closing is not imminent.

Maloof was prepared to call it quits when a group of longtime patrons approached him about setting up a Go Fund Me campaign. The page went live Wednesday night with a goal of raising $75,000, enough to pay the insurance and liquor license fees for 2021 as well as make payroll through February.

By 8 a.m. Thursday morning, funds amounted to nearly $20,000. In the span of 90 minutes, another $20,000 added to the tally. At 12:30 p.m., the goal had been surpassed with the help of about 1,200 donors. By mid-afternoon it had reached $91,000.

When reached for comment Thursday afternoon, Maloof stated that fundraising through the Go Fund Me site would continue and the goal will be increased.

Since the arrival of COVID-19 in March, Maloof had taken every measure to cut costs to keep the Poncey-Highland watering hole alive. Meanwhile, PPP loan money has long dried up and additional government relief has been delayed. Yet expenses continue to pile up, including insurance and liquor license fees for 2021 and making payroll for a roster of 27 employees.

ExploreFlashback photos: Manuel Maloof and his tavern, 1978-2015

Though Manuel’s Tavern has a history as the most famous political bar in Atlanta, it couldn’t escape the challenges faced by other restaurants during the pandemic.

“Nobody is coming in. We set up to-go business to compensate. Even though we more than doubled to-go business, it’s nowhere close to meeting our needs,” he said. “I can’t think of anything we haven’t cut or changed as far as expenditures,” he said. “We are built for in-house hospitality, catering and events — and events have been canceled.”

On Monday, Maloof sent a note to staff sharing the severity of the situation. “I do not want anyone unclear or surprised or unprepared. We are in trouble, you should know,” he wrote in the letter.

ExploreManuel's Tavern added to National Register of Historic Places

Maloof told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that he delayed the announcement for as long as possible, hoping for federal aid. “We have not purchased our liquor license for 2021 or renewed our insurance either. You have to pay 50% insurance premium up front. There was no scenario we can see without additional stimulus,” said Maloof, who took over the family business 20 years ago. His father, the restaurant’s namesake, opened Manuel’s in 1956.

But the generosity of donors has changed what’s possible.

The funds will be used to cover 2021 insurance payments and licensing fees as well as to cover payroll “hopefully through February,” Maloof said. He hopes that by then additional government relief will have arrived along with a vaccine that will ease fear among the public and make social gatherings safer.

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The fundraising campaign has been spearheaded by Angelo Fuster, a veteran of the Maynard Jackson administration. “I have no business interest in Manuel’s Tavern at all. I am somebody who has been going there since the late ’70s, since I worked in the mayor’s office. That’s how I met Manuel. It’s become a place that is near and dear to my heart,” Fuster said. “When I learned that it was likely Manuel’s would have to close by the end of this year, that was an awakening.”

Fuster has been touched by the community’s support for the campaign. “There has been tremendous response,” he said in a phone interview late morning Thursday when the fundraising ticker hovered around $60,000. “It is touching not just how much money is being donated, but a lot of people are donating. There are some significant contributions and a lot of $100 ones. But there are a lot that are $15, $20. Those are very touching.”

The Maloof family has likewise been moved by the generosity. “I woke up at 3:30 a.m. and went into the living room. At the time, it was at $12,000. My wife was in tears, overcome by the amount of support,” he said.

Besides leading the fundraising efforts, Fuster and a handful of other longtime patrons have begun community outreach to stimulate business for the restaurant. “We are reaching out to all the neighborhood associations in a fairly close distance to Manuel’s to say, ‘This is a neighborhood treasure. Please come do some business with them,’” Fuster said.

Manuel’s Tavern underwent a major renovation just a few years ago, reopening in summer 2016, and it’s listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

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Maloof is not alone among restaurants that are barely staying afloat as the pandemic enters its ninth month with cold winter days ahead. “I would imagine that everybody is in the same situation,” he said. “My liquor reps tell me that there are a lot of accounts that have not applied for their liquor license. Normally, you do that the first week in November.”

ExploreOur post-renovation First Look at the new Manuel's

Besides federal aid, Maloof thinks that local government can also help restaurants. “The city of Atlanta could take quarterly payments on the liquor license. That would be a huge relief. Any help is welcomed,” he said.

“Restaurants and bars are the first businesses that government informed people to avoid. They will probably be the last ones promoted as being safe when this is over,” he said. “We’re in a unique business that requires a lot of social interaction.”