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Stewbo's officials to meet with Johnston family about new Arctic Bear

Norton Johnston co-founded the original restaurant with brother Clarence Johnston in 1950

The original Arctic Bear sign is currently sitting on a trailer behind Merry Acres Inn but soon may be used to welcome patrons to a new Arctic Bear restaurant being opened by Stewbo’s Restaurant Group early next year. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)

The original Arctic Bear sign is currently sitting on a trailer behind Merry Acres Inn but soon may be used to welcome patrons to a new Arctic Bear restaurant being opened by Stewbo’s Restaurant Group early next year. (Staff Photo: Brad McEwen)

ALBANY — Stewbo’s Inc., parent company of a trio of established Albany restaurants, announced plans earlier this week to open a new version of Arctic Bear, an Albany landmark.

Not so fast, say some family members of Arctic Bear co-founder Norton Johnston.

In the article printed Tuesday in The Herald, Stewbo’s Restaurant Group co-owner Bo Henry said that the local restaurateurs had gotten the blessing of the family of the original owners of the Arctic Bear over the opening of a new restaurant on Dawson Road using that name.

Pam Johnston, the daughter of Norton Johnston, said she was unaware of those plans until she saw the article in The Herald. She said she and her siblings had not signed off on the idea.

“Stewbo’s did not follow proper communication and ethical channels in making this decision,” Johnston said. “This is like a child to our family.”

“We were completely blindsided and surprised by the article appearing in the Albany Herald on Tuesday, December 3, 2013, announcing Stewbo’s Restaurant Group’s plans to open a new restaurant under the name of the Arctic Bear,” Pam Johnston said in a statement to the newspaper, which she says repesents the stand of several family members. “We did not have any direct communication with Stewbo’s regarding this matter prior to December 3.

“We are very appreciative that so many people remember the Arctic Bear and have fond memories of going there when growing up in Albany. This is something that is very close and personal to us with a lot of emotion attached. Through many years of hard work and dedication, Norton Johnston built the Arctic Bear into a popular eatery until its closing in 1995 upon his retirement, and this is his legacy.”

Notified that some family members had expressed concerns about the new restaurant venture, Henry said it was his understanding that Mike Johnston, the son of restaurant co-founder Clarence Johnston, had been in contact with Norton Johnston’s children before giving Stewbo’s his blessing.

“We talked to Mike, who was the only person we knew,” Henry said. “Mike said he thought it was a great idea and said he would talk to his sisters and his cousins.”

According to Henry, the restaurant group was under the impression that everything had the approval of the family when it moved forward with plans to open a new Arctic Bear sometime next year.

Mike Johnston said Thursday he did speak with his cousin the day he had received a call from Stewbo’s and felt he had properly communicated with the family. Mike Johnston said he remains a supporter of Stewbo’s plans.

“I think it’s a good idea for Albany,” Mike Johnston said. “As a citizen, I want the Arctic Bear.”

Mike Johnston also said that he felt his cousins deserved to have some say in the situation since it was Norton Johnston who grew the business over the years.

“My dad was a silent partner and helped get it started,” Johnston said. “Norton’s the one who made it famous. His effort and hard work is what made it a landmark.”

Its status as a landmark is what initially drew Stewbo’s to the idea of using the name for the new venture. Henry said the group thought it was a fun idea and specifically reached out to Mike Johnston about the idea even though the name is not trademarked and therefore is available for anyone to use.

“We want to be respectful,” Henry said. “We would never do anything without someone’s blessing.”

The original Arctic Bear was located at Oglethorpe and Slappey boulevards, now the site of a Checker’s, and was a favorite of Albanians and people across Southwest Georgia. Starting out as a drive-in, it expanded to include outdoor and then indoor seating. Patrons were summoned to the restaurant by a huge neon sign of a bear licking an ice cream cone. The hamburgers served also carried the bear theme, with the smallest called a Baby Bear, the mid-size Mama Bear and the largest a Papa Bear.

Norton Johnston’s family and Stewbo’s owners have agreed to meet to discuss the situation in detail soon, possibly as early as Saturday.

“We’re trying to do things the right way,” said Henry. “We want to meet with them and hear their concerns and ideas.”