Rural Georgia restaurants offer old-fashioned hospitality and try not to think too much about the future

But there has been an increase in tourism in rural areas, according to Salazar, because people are better able to socially distance, which improves the profit side of the ledger. “We are seeing rural communities find themselves in a position that they weren’t in before, that is, they are really on the verge of having an impact on the tourism product of the state in the sense off, because there was no full return. for the urban market for now,” he said. Until I interviewed him, I did not consider my husband and I to be “nature travelers”, although our pandemic hobby has been to leave Athens, where we live, to go hiking. hike in each of Georgia’s state parks. A recent Saturday found us an hour’s drive from home in Taliaferro County, Georgia’s least populous county and the second-least populous county east of the Mississippi River.

After hiking in AJ Stephens State Park, we drove to Crawfordville, the county seat, for lunch. At Nick’s Place, we met Flores, 60, who opened her restaurant after a 25-year career at Hyatt Hotels, including her last job as executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

For residents of Crawfordville and other communities, restaurants occupy essential community space, serving not only food and entertainment, but also social connection. Without Ila, the town would be “hollow”, Sinclair said, its center being a four-way stop sign on a two-lane highway, with few other businesses. Crawfordville resident Leslie Martin said Nick’s Place “absolutely provided a social connection to the community” which lacked restaurants or even a grocery store. “We had nothing,” she said. Martin, a retired chef, was so convinced of the value of Nick’s Place that she drove an hour in various directions to auctions in nearby towns to help Flores furnish the restaurant.

Every Friday morning at 7 a.m. for the past 31 years, the Rotary Club of Madison County has met in a large dining room at the back of Ila Restaurant. The building’s owner, a Rotarian, built the annex for club meetings; it is open to all customers outside appointment times. The morning of my visit, the restaurant parking lot was filled with pickup trucks and sedans. About 25 Rotarians had gathered inside to eat oatmeal, eggs and bacon from the hall’s breakfast buffet before settling down with cups of coffee and sweet tea to listen to the day’s speakers .

“This room has really become a community meeting room,” said Sen. Frank Ginn, 59, a founding member, whose table I joined. “Do you remember watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’ Well, you never know the impact you have and the good that has happened in Madison County” as a result of residents being able to meet and connect at the restaurant.

For Morgan Barnett, 30, Ila Restaurant has been an unexpected source of friendship. A married mother of two young boys, Barnett shows up with her younger son most mornings of the week, after her husband has gone to work and their older son to school, to have breakfast with a group of men retired locals who were once foreigners.

The difficulties these restaurants face are also specific to their location, the flip side of this attractive isolation: they must figure out how to market to visitors and travelers who otherwise might not discover them; how to cope with high food and delivery costs while keeping meal prices affordable for locals; and how to plan for the future in often graying rural economies.

Outside of coastal tourist communities, rural Georgia means two-lane roads where the views are farmland or forest, and where even the “downtown” may not look like much to an outside eye. Restaurants can be hard to find and difficult to maintain. Every Sunday morning at 7 a.m., Flores and an employee load his Dodge Ram truck with four empty coolers for the nearly two-hour trip to the Restaurant Depot in Buford, north of Atlanta, to stock up on eggs, fries, chicken tenders and meat for Philly cheesesteaks. It’s too expensive to use Houston-based Sysco Corp. for food deliveries, which was cutting its monthly profits by $1,200, between the $45 delivery fee and the higher cost of food. “Sysco has great products, but they were charging for everything,” Flores said.

And then there is the matter of succession when today’s restaurateurs retire. Salazar believes the average age of restaurateurs is rising, as is the average age of Georgian farmers – 57.9 according to the latest US Census of Agriculture – as younger generations seek opportunities outside the family business. . Sinclair’s daughter has settled with her family in suburban Atlanta, where she works as a therapist, though Sinclair is confident she can find a buyer for her business when it’s time to retire. Flores said he’s not focused on the future of Nick’s Place. “As long as I have two hands, I’ll be here,” he said. “I will die here.”

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