Years ago, when I first moved to the South, I met a bear of a man named Jimmy. Jimmy is Greek, came to America as a young man to take part in what he then called the greatest economy in the world. His English was decent, but spoken with an accent so thick we sometimes resorted to hand gestures to communicate. Anyway, I love this guy. He was gutting a building to turn into a Italian/Greek restaurant, and I wandered in one day, looking for work. We hit it off immediately. I started the next day, and though we fought like cats and cats, sometimes all day, come time to eat, all was forgiven. This man loved to eat.
Already an imposing 300 plus pounds, Jimmy had that wonderful European approach to meals, which is to say that they are to be taken seriously, and slowly. Typically, we’d start with a couple of pounds of shrimp, sauteed in butter and spices, and accompanied by a mountain of pita bread, cut into triangles and piled high on a platter. Of course, there was fresh pasta, usually sprinkled with some combination of butter/lemon zest and served in a large bowl. He usually consumed two bottles of wine at each meal, one with the food, and another while we compared notes on our progress afterward. Then came the meat. Jimmy liked chicken and beef, and would usually eat a lion-sized portion of each, and it was him that introduced me to Praise Allah spice. Next came the fresh green salad, roughly a pound of feta cheese, and, of course, dessert and coffee. I would sit across from him and just marvel at his ability to put away food.
Jimmy lives his whole life like he eats. He wants to do it all. His commute to work back then was 106 miles ONE WAY. Yet, sometimes, when we were all done, he would want to sit around and play poker, or just chat. He had unlimited stamina.
When I decided to open my own place, it was Jimmy who encouraged me, and, to help me get started, he let me have a few of his key employees. During my first year, he booked a couple of huge private parties for his crew and spent lavishly, and the cash flow really did bail me out of some sticky financial situations. Sometimes, he’d stop in, play a game of pool, order a drink, and toss 40 bucks on the table when he left. I can’t tell you how many servers I had to mow down to get to the table first.
Both of our businesses thrived, and we had children just weeks apart. We seldom socialized, as he lived 106 miles away, but we remained close for these last 12 years. When he expanded, he would toss me work designing his bars, writing his S.O.P. manuals, and training his staff. I liked nothing better than helping get his vision off the ground, then going back to my own life. He was determined to open similar places throughout the Atlanta area, and his first project was a monster. He designed, built, staffed and opened two huge (5000 sq ft plus) restaurants simultaneously. He was leveraged to the hilt, but he bought into the whole “economies of scale” perspective, and though driven and talented, he could not keep them both open after a year. He closed one, and seems about to close the other. No matter, he has gone back to his roots, and has some new smaller operations that are doing quite well.
We had many late night arguments about his desire to open new stores in the Atlanta area. I wanted nothing to do with Atlanta, I loathe the place, and anyway I was preparing to move to Nashville and farm a bit. Eventually, he came to realize that retro-fitting old buildings and injecting new ideas and ways of doing business into them was clearly the way to go, and if you do a little homework, you can usually find undervalued property in towns that will support a good restaurant.
Thats a little background. See, he calls yesterday, and has apparently decided to look for buildings in this area. What did I do? Open my mouth, of course, and sing the praises of my little county, which I believe is chock full of old chain restaurant buildings that can be turned into viable businesses. The whole process appeals to me, especially since I saw TGIF raze a beautiful old building down in Rivergate and build a horrible looking chrome and glass behemoth in it’s place. What a waste of material, I thought. So Jimmy says, “great! When can you start?” Sigh.
Friday, I said. So off I go today, to meet with the broker, check to see if the old owners left walk-in freezers and fridges, hood vents, grease traps, etc. I’ll take measurements, draw out a rough template and fax it all to Jimmy. It won’t matter, really, once he gets the bug, he is coming, full speed ahead. The thing is, he is expecting me to get involved beyond the initial negotiation, retrofit, and subsequent staffing and training. One does not simply tell Jimmy “no.” But I have no interest in running a restaurant again. I don’t even have much interest in eating in a restaurant again. I’m a gentleman farmer dammit!
Oh shit. I just had an idea. The thought of opening a restaurant and serving only locally grown fare does appeal to me. I wonder if I can sell him on that idea….I gotta go make a phone call.