NewsPub Notes

What Makes a Business an Athens Favorite?

Tommy Jordan and Jan Riley play at a “Music Night” in 1978 at the El Dorado restaurant in the Morton Building, a favorite during that period. Credit: Gary Crider

It is a coincidence that Roger K. Thomas’ piece on the resignation of UGA President Fred C. Davison appears in this Flagpole Favorites issue on p. 9. But, oddly, it started me thinking about what it means for a place to become a favorite. That’s because the period chronicled by Thomas coincides with the beginning of the do-it-yourself restaurants and bars here in Athens. Prior to the 1970s, Athens (white Athens, at least) had the town/gown split typical of a small Southern college town. College life took place mainly on campus, and the town went about its business, though of course welcoming students, who, after all, are the reason Athens is here.

The buildup of young faculty from outside the South created more of an intellectual ferment on campus than UGA had previously experienced, and that came right after the end of the Vietnam War. So at the same time that the university became more attractive to smart kids, staying in school to avoid the draft was no longer necessary.

What developed was a sort of third layer between town and gown, or rather a merging of town and gown—students who would drop out of school to work for a while or start their own businesses and then start taking classes again. We also seemed to be getting more people who, whether they graduated or not, came here for the university and stayed for the town.

The result was a lot of bright people who invented ways to stay in Athens, a trend that continues. These new shoestring entrepreneurs may not have known a lot about running a business, but they knew their customers, because their customers were also youngish and cool and hip to the new, post-Vietnam popular culture and the music scene centered on Normaltown before the, you know, other one got rolling.

So the owners of, say, restaurants, were as cool as their clients, and they were right there in the kitchen, stopping to chat when they served the food—a common occurrence now, but not back then. I think this is when the concept of a favorite place got started, because eating in a restaurant became a lot more about hanging out with friends, almost like eating in somebody’s home.

Then it happened all over again at the beginning of the 1980s, when Georgia Square Mall opened on the Atlanta Highway, and all the main businesses moved out of downtown. Cheap spaces were suddenly available for rent and purchase, and the Athens Downtown Development Authority provided low-interest loans to supplement nest eggs from the various sources available at the time. A second wave of do-it-yourself businesses sprang up along with the B-52s, R.E.M. Pylon, etc.-fueled-music scene.

Of course it was good business to create a friendly, welcoming atmosphere in tune with the music scene,, but it wasn’t calculated, and it helped that the owners were people you’d enjoy being with even without the beer and the food. So owner-operated restaurants and bars launched Athens’ café society because they had the touch to create places where you wanted to be, where you went back regularly because you liked not only the food and drink but also the welcoming ambiance where you felt at home among friends.

All the Favorites celebrated in this issue of Flagpole have that knack of making customers into friends, even if they’re serving you a brake job or shampooing your cockapoo instead of fixing shrimp and grits or handing you an IPA.

Some local, home-owned businesses have been successful at growing by opening other locations, and national chains hire experts to advise them on how to simulate the local touch, and it works in some cases. But generally, the favorites among Flagpole readers turn out year after year to be businesses owned by people who live here and put their own personalities into their work.Well, of course I am prejudiced. We started the Athens Observer in 1974, just as local, do-it-yourself businesses were getting that new boost from a younger generation, and then Flagpole came along in 1987 and did it again, growing directly out of the fledgling Athens music scene of the ‘80s. Flagpole has continued to be locally owned just like most of the businesses that advertise with us and just like most of the Favorites picked by our readers. It’s no secret that we’ve all been through a hard year, and some of our favorites are no longer around. But here’s hoping that we’re coming through it and that we don’t do anything to jeopardize a full recovery. Our local businesses are the lifeblood of our community; they are our families, our friends, ourselves: They are what makes Athens such a big Favorite.