The Downtown Challenge

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY, Ga. -- Dale Saunders and B.J. Fletcher are not the kind of people you want to challenge ... unless, of course, it's an against-all-odds endeavor you'd like to see pulled off.

Both were told their attempts to open businesses in downtown Albany were foolish, that they were wasting time and money. And while some Albany residents are known for their negativity, in this case they had plenty of ammunition to support their claims.

The list of failed businesses in the downtown district is a long and painful one.

"The way I looked at it, if anybody could succeed downtown, it would be us," said Fletcher, whose Cafe 230 will celebrate its first anniversary March 2. "I just feel if you give people good food, in a timely manner and at a price they can afford, then you can make it work downtown.

"I'll tell you one thing, though: If we can't make things go downtown, then nobody can."

Saunders, meanwhile, had built a cult following with his portable barbecue grill in the parking lot of the Southern Family Market/Piggly Wiggly in northwest Albany. When enough people encouraged him to open a restaurant, he decided to take a leap.

Now three-plus years later, his Riverfront Bar-B-Q is one of the most unlikely success stories in Albany.

"Everybody I told about opening the restaurant downtown asked the same thing: 'Have you lost your mind'?" Saunders said. "Everyone said don't do it, you'll lose your tail. I'm glad I didn't listen."

Within a month of opening the 1,000-square-foot restaurant at Front Street and West Broad Avenue, Riverfront Bar-B-Q was busting at the seams. Saunders expanded the business into the 2,000-square-foot building next door, and a short time later increased the restaurant's size by another 2,000 square feet.

The personal touch he brought to his portable business in the grocery store parking lot is the same one he uses at his bustling restaurant.

"The quality of the food is always a priority in a restaurant," Saunders said. "But you can have the best food in the world, and if you have lousy service people will not come. You have to have the entire package.

"People will go to a McDonald's for breakfast, and if they forget to put a biscuit or a fork or whatever in the to-go bag, the customer will get mad but next week they'll go back. With a family-owned business, if you make an error, people take it personally and they won't come back. So you have to pay attention to the little things, treat your customers like family."

Saunders bought his barbecue grill because he was always chief chef for cookouts at Bethlehem Freewill Baptist Church in Warwick. His wife thought he was crazy to buy the ("$15,000 used!") behemoth, but when he was invited to set up his grill in the Southern Family Market parking lot one Saturday and ended up selling everything he had (and making enough for three grill payments), a light came on.

"They told us we could come anytime we wanted to, so I started setting up every Saturday," Saunders said. "I was working at Lowe's during the week and using the Saturday business to pay for the grill. I was talking with (businessman) Bob Brooks one day, and I told him people had been after me to open a restaurant. He showed me the little 1,000-square-foot store and made me a good deal.

"And that's where we are today."

But, as it is with many successful entrepreneurs, Saunders chose not to sit pat. He loved the location of the old Riverhouse restaurant at 2650 Jefferson St. -- a place he saw when he put in his boat on the Kinchafoonee Creek -- and he started talking with Brooks about the spot.

In September of last year, Saunders opened Riverfront Seafood and Steak.

"It was a perfect place," he said. "I'd eaten at Nothin' Fancy restaurant (in Leary) and saw what a great business they did, so I told Bob I wanted to open a medium to upscale seafood/steakhouse at the location.

"We completely re-did the kitchen with state-of-the-art equipment and hired renowned chef Nate Nault to do the cooking. The only negative is that we're in a kind of out-of-sight, out-of-mind location. People aren't going to see us and stop in. Things are taking off slower than they did at the barbecue restaurant, but we're getting positive comments, and people tell us they'll be back."

So, with the barbecue and seafood/steakhouse restaurants, the portable unit that Saunders still utilizes on weekends and a bustling catering business that averages 25-30 jobs a week -- all providing plenty for Saunders' 35-40 employees to do -- you'd think the man had maxed out. And you'd be wrong.

"I'd like to open a fun place with barbecue and maybe some other kind of food on the west side of town," Saunders said. "We're looking at the old Beef O'Brady's location (on Gillionville Road, adjacent to Darton College) right now. It's not a done deal, but that's something we're looking into."

With the success of Cafe 230, Fletcher -- with partner Sarah Edmonds -- has become one of downtown's most high-profile business owners. She sees to the bustling lunch trade at the restaurant while continuing to manage the successful Ole Times Country Buffet location at 2401 Dawson Road in west Albany.

"We've actually exceeded expectations at the restaurant," Fletcher said of Cafe 230. "I knew what we could do by offering good food at reasonable prices, but what I wasn't counting on was that there would be so many native Albanians who make a point of saying I'm going to have a meal with you at least once a month.

"It's those 'extra people' who don't necessarily work downtown who have helped us do better than expected."

When she decided to make the move to Albany's inner city, Fletcher said she envisioned a number of businesses following in her footsteps, creating something of a revival for the district that has more boarded-up storefronts than viable businesses. When that didn't happen quickly enough to suit her, Fletcher and some of her business acquaintances decided to take matters in their own hands.

In a surprising flurry, Fletcher, Edmonds, downtown manager Aaron Blair's wife Jessica Blair and Po' Boys Produce owner Bruce Young announced they would open three independent businesses on North Washington Street. Fletcher will open D'Town General Store -- which will eventually include a soda fountain/hotdog grill -- Edmonds and Blair will open Verge, a consignment store that will include the Back Alley Coffee Shop; and Young will open the Downtown Fresh Market which, in addition to offering fresh produce, will offer quick-to-go fresh soups, sandwiches and salads.

"We're looking at other businesses following us," Fletcher said. "The VFW is considering coming here to provide nighttime activities, and the Bread House is considering a move. There are people interested, businesses you're not going to find in a mall.

"I know we can turn things around downtown. It really doesn't take a ton of money; it takes more common sense than anything. I believe in what we're doing; I believe it can work. I've heard the negative comments some people are making, but I refuse to listen. I choose to continue to be a cheerleader, to think positive."

Besides, like Saunders, Fletcher never was one to turn down a challenge.