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How Automatic Pizza’s Bain Mattox and Co. Helped Create a New Normaltown

Automatic Pizza opened its doors a little over a month ago, and Athenians can’t stop talking about it. The dough-twirling crew made it through Super Bowl Sunday, Valentine’s Day and the Academy Awards, some nights putting off call-ins to serve those who ordered in person, clutching a plastic dinosaur or farm animal while waiting to taste the first bite of Normaltown cheese and pepperoni. With freezing cold nights and limited indoor seating, Automatic’s opening has been a hectic success so far. The restaurant even ran out of food its first few nights.

“Everyone is excited about it, and we’re working hard to keep up with that excitement,” says Bain Mattox, co-owner of Automatic and Normal Bar. “It has been busier than we thought it would be, but we’re finally almost meeting the demand it has created.”

Step inside Automatic, and you’ll find a handful of tables, a walk-up order counter and a kitchen that peeks onto a pizza oven. The open concept evokes a 1950s diner feel that plays on the space’s past as a car garage, complete with hubcaps cemented into the counter. Building owner Walter Muendlein, who opened Black Forest Bake Shop in the space years ago, is an avid car collector, which Mattox and co-owner Matt Downes kept in mind while brainstorming business names.

Opening a new place is like jumping off a cliff. When you’re open, you’re open forever. Once you’re off that cliff, you’re adjusting as you go.

“We kept coming back to ‘Automatic’ and loved the idea of giving automatic service,” Mattox says. “We don’t want people to think we’re stealing from Weaver D’s because ‘Automatic for the People’ is so huge, but it really was the best name.”

Mattox and Downes ran through about 50 names, crossing off ideas such as Normaltown Pizza and Normal Pizza when they discovered those monikers were trademarked elsewhere. Plus, nobody wants “normal” pizza.

“That type of name only works for the bar,” says Downes, co-owner of Automatic, Normal Bar and Ike & Jane. “We liked the idea of Automatic being for everyone, just as Ike & Jane appeals to both genders.”

When the weather warms up and outdoor seating becomes bearable while the Automatic crew settles into a routine, expect food quality to get even better. Mattox and Downes are there, checking the pizzas and restaurant flow.

“For an owner, opening a new place is like jumping off a cliff,” Downes says. “When you’re open, you’re open forever. Once you’re off that cliff, you’re adjusting as you go.”

As Automatic celebrates a one-month anniversary, neighboring Normal Bar celebrates five years on Apr. 28, and Ike & Jane celebrated six years on Feb. 26.

Now that Automatic is open, Ike @ Nite will stop regular service, but you might see pop-ups for special events or holidays.

“Ike @ Nite stepped up after Farm Cart left, because we had a food desert on this side of the street,” says Corie Dickherber, who co-owns Ike & Jane with Downes. “The idea was to fill that need until Automatic opened.”

On a cold February afternoon, Dickherber, Downes and Mattox met in Normal Bar to talk about the revitalization of the Normaltown area and the community that has built up around the businesses where Agua Linda, Los Compadres and Normal Hardware are still “crushing it,” according to Dickherber. The trio chuckled about the good and bad of running businesses in the service industry, often finishing each other’s sentences like siblings. They don’t describe themselves as entrepreneurs, but the trio has envisioned how to turn Normaltown’s available spaces into neighborhood hangouts.

“When we talked about Normal Bar, we wanted it to be a place we would go,” Mattox says. “If you create a place you want to hang out at, hopefully everyone else will, too.”

The corner’s revitalization started with Ike & Jane, where Luna Baking Co. owner Downes partnered with Dickherber, who ordered bread from Luna while she worked at Espresso Royale Caffe on Broad Street (now a Jittery Joe’s). After the donut cafe opened, customers suggested Ike & Jane extend their hours into the night to serve food and wine. Downes talked about the idea of opening a bar with The National’s Chris Luken, and the duo heard that Mattox, then bar manager at Five & Ten, was thinking about the same idea. Because Ike & Jane closed at 5 p.m., the parking lot opened up at night, allowing enough spaces for a bar.

“Athens is a tough market sometimes, but it can be gracious, too,” Downes says. “We open places geared toward the neighborhood, and the community helps us shape them.”

The corner has built up a community feeling, where kids and dogs are welcome. In Normaltown, you can grab a beer with the guys and have your son in tow, or stop for a pizza slice on your way home. Just last week, Normal Bar was named, yet again, Flagpole’s Best Place to Meet Your Future Spouse. By Mattox’s count, three marriages materialized from first dates there.

When I pass this way going home, things are happening. Normaltown feels safer.

“We want this place to be part of peoples’ routines,” Downes says. “We want this to be a neighborhood place.”

A few months ago, Mattox told his kids, ages 5 and 7, that when Automatic opened, he’d be busier than ever. But, he said, it would be temporary. A few days ago, he sat at the dinner table with his family and apologized for not being around much. Basil, his son, looked up in surprise and said he knew his dad would be busy. “That was so mature of him,” Mattox says. “I’m so impressed that he’s cooler with this than I am.”

And business continues to grow in the Normaltown area. When Hi-Lo Lounge first opened and offered brunch, the Ike & Jane owners wondered what would happen. Their Sunday brunch grew, they say. When Old Pal joined to create a trio of Normaltown bars, the numbers increased even more. Rather than detract, more business seems to multiply customers.

“It’s great to have several places open late,” Dickherber says. “When I pass this way going home, things are happening. Normaltown feels safer.”

On any given day, you’ll see the business owners busy at work, with Dickherber forming Ike & Jane doughnuts at dawn, Downes running the register at Automatic and Mattox adding logs to the fires on Normal’s back patio. Balance is tough. Sometimes Dickherber runs into customers at the grocery store, where they’re shocked to find her in the frozen food section when she’s tired of cooking. They’ll also see Downes at Waffle House, where he’s grabbing a quick bite and avoiding the lines at his businesses, Ideal Bagel Co. and Ike & Jane. In the next month, Downes is opening a bar named Liberty on South Harris Street, where Locos Grill & Pub used to be. Then it’s time for a break.

“There are days when it’s awesome to see the garbage guys downtown, wave to the bank tellers and know everyone who works in a particular restaurant,” he says. “But sometimes you feel like you can’t escape work.”

The Normaltown corner will continue to see change this year, with the health sciences campus bringing in more people and increasing the desire to live and work in the area. Video production company DT Productions is moving into the Classic City Consignment space, and J’s Bottle Shop is expanding.

“I’m excited to see what else happens with Normaltown,” Mattox says. “I feel like we have everything we need, but I think there’s still a bit growth left.”