Albany restaurateurs Sarah Edmonds, B.J. Fletcher and Dale Saunders are concerned about the lack of development downtown. One of the city's downtown eateries, cafe 230, closed its doors on Friday. (Nov. 30, 2012)
ALBANY, Ga. -- Dale Saunders looks wistfully across the table at his Riverfront 2 Bar-B-Q restaurant in Lee County at fellow restaurateurs B.J. Fletcher and Sarah Edmonds.
"If this was all about me," he says, "I'd do what y'all are doing and just run all my business out of one location, either this one or the one downtown (Albany). But it's not just about me. I write checks to 45 other people every week, and I have to think about my employees."
Saunders, Fletcher and Edmonds met early Friday to discuss downtown Albany and the impact Donna Driskell's decision to close the popular Cafe 230 restaurant opened on West Broad Avenue by Fletcher and Edmonds three years ago would have on the struggling district.
Driskell, who also owns the Corner Cafe in west Albany, was unavailable for comment Friday. She bought Cafe 230 from Edmonds two months ago and abruptly announced to her employees Thursday evening that Friday would be the restaurant's final day of serving lunch.
"We were just as surprised as everyone," Edmonds said. "Both B.J. and I had so many other things going on, we were confident Donna was someone who could keep Cafe 230 going. That's why we made the decision to sell to her.
"I went by there today during lunch to thank some of the customers who supported us during the three years we were there. There were so many wonderful people, some of them who ate with us every day."
But Driskell and her staff served the restaurant's final lunch meal on Friday, leaving the restaurant in the hands of owner Marty McLendon. McLendon has given Fletcher, who now coordinates special events for the Hilton Garden Inn downtown, the go-ahead to continue using Cafe 230 as an events center. Fletcher said officials at the Hilton have told her they had no problem with her booking smaller events at the 230 W. Broad Ave. facility.
"We want people who have already booked luncheons and other events at Cafe 230 to know that those events will go on," Fletcher said. "We were surprised at Donna's decision, but I've been on the phone with Marty and I've got a feeling he's going to want to maintain the restaurant as an events center until someone else decides to re-open.
"I think if the right person looked at the situation downtown and came in with the right idea, they could make a go (at Cafe 230). I'd like to see that happen because I don't want to see anything bad happen to downtown. I still believe it can be the heartbeat of the city."
LOSS OF MOMENTUM
The closing of Cafe 230 slows what little momentum Albany officials had built while trying to revive the inner city. It was only four years ago, just before the area's economy came to a crashing halt, that both Riverfront BBQ and Cafe 230 were hailed as the poster children for how to run a successful business where many before had failed.
"In that second year we were open, we made more than $800,000," Saunders said of the original Riverfront Bar-B-Q. Adds Fletcher, "And we were right behind you."
Now, both are telling a different story.
"We're barely breaking even, managing to stay open," Saunders said. "When you live week-to-week -- day-to-day -- like that, a few bad days in a bad month can wipe you out. We're not setting the woods on fire here (at the Leesburg location) either, but we're still trying to grow this business.
"Being at a break-even point is not a good place to be at two restaurants, especially when you've got overhead like we do. My rent at the downtown restaurant is $4,000 a month, and utilities are about that much. Like I said, if I didn't have those other 45 people who are like my second family ..."
Fletcher, who sold her interest in Cafe 230 to Edmonds when Fletcher bought the former Ole Times restaurant at 2401 Dawson Road, said the special events business is bustling at the Hilton Garden Inn, better even than expected. But the closing of Cafe 230 has impacted her plans.
"Just like Dale, I can't stand to think of those workers -- and they were our workers, we hired them -- losing their jobs," she said. "So I'm making some changes at BJ's Place (formerly Ole Times). I've bought the equipment at the (recently closed) Donut Factory and will bring it to the restaurant. In January, I'm going to open BJ's Cafe and Bakery.
"I've hired the man who makes the best bear claws and apple fritters, and we're going to bring all the Cafe 230 employees over to our place to work with us. We'll still sell our fresh vegetables and our buffet, but now we'll have baked goods, too. And we'll do all of our catering business out of there. Catering is very important; I'd say it's the one thing that's kept Dale and me going the last couple of years."
SOME HELP NEEDED
Saunders said he made Riverfront a success with his hours and hours of hard work, and with no help from the city. But now, with the economy faltering, he says he'd be open to a little assistance if any were forthcoming.
"People told me I was crazy, that I'd never make it here when I told them I was planning to open a place downtown," the restaurateur said. "But I did it and never asked the city for a bit of help. Now, though, with the economy failing, it would be great if someone from the city came and asked me if they could help me in any way.
"I got upset when I saw that story in today's paper about how (Downtown Albany Manager) Aaron Blair said he didn't know Cafe 230 was having trouble. I don't dislike Aaron Blair and I'm not in love with him, but I think he's graced our restaurant maybe one or two times since he's been here. You think he's ever popped his head in and asked how we're doing, if we could use any help? I mean, isn't that his job?"
Fletcher, too, expressed disappointment in Blair's comments to The Albany Herald.
"He's not aware of any problems?" she says. "Here's an email we exchanged back in October. See where he talks about bringing another restaurant downtown? With a few exceptions, that's their idea of improving downtown, bringing in another restaurant. They end up getting someone with $1,000 and a dream, promising them free rent for six months, and that's about how long the business stays open.
"I responded to his email, telling him another restaurant downtown was not the answer. I told him there was barely enough support for three restaurants, much less four or five. In fact, see here where I told him, 'There are three businesses that are about to close their doors that are begging for help.' I don't know how he can say this is news to him."
Blair did not return a call seeking comment by The Herald's deadline Friday.
NO PARTICULAR CONCERN
Saunders, meanwhile, said he's convinced city officials are not particularly concerned whether his business fails or succeeds.
"I really don't think we mean anything to them," he said. "I'm not complaining about the Hilton, but every time they have an event, people take all of our parking spaces. And when we've asked the city to maybe take down the two-hour parking signs on our street, they've ignored us. And the way (Blair) is doing his job, well, I thought they'd learned their lesson from that (former downtown manager Don) Buie thing.
"I went to a meeting with city officials, and they're talking to us about opening at night. I tried that for a while, and I'd pay my people $300 to make $160. I asked them how many of them had come back downtown to eat at night while we were open. Not a one of them raised their hand."
Fletcher, too, said she and Edmonds had kept Cafe 230 open for night events at the request of various arts and civic groups, even if it meant losing money.
"We've done our part," she said. "We've gone out of our way to be the cheerleaders for downtown, to help and encourage other businesses. It would mean a lot if the city would get behind businesses who've stuck it out when others didn't.
"We had a problem with lighting around our restaurant, and Water, Gas & Light came and took care of it professionally and quickly. And there you have the Albany City Commission trying to take over WG&L. Maybe if they left WG&L alone and did their job of running the city, we'd all be better off."