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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

JJ's on River Street/ The 1907

     Ellijay, Georgia is a sleepy town nestled in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains.What they call "downtown" is a small square surrounded by antique stores and sprinkled with an ice cream shop here, an old hardware store there and among the few eateries, JJ's on River Street, a small restaurant with big dreams. First on the list, a name change- as of January 2015, it will be renamed 'The 1907'.
     Wayne Sloop, an image consultant for small businesses, officially became a restaurateur two days before our visit. In fact, the ink on the week-old sales contract was still wet. He is a personable, refined man, generous with his anecdotes about the journey to restaurant ownership. He gladly drives 40 miles each way every day from his home in Canton, Georgia "to make sure every lunch and dinner customer is happy." And to answer impromptu questions from humble food bloggers.


BBFree: What triggered the impulse to buy JJ's?

Wayne Sloop: I didn't set out to buy it. I was referred to the previous owner to help him create a website for JJ's. When I asked him "how can I help you?" he answered "you can buy this restaurant." On my way home, I called my wife and told her, "I came for a meeting and left with a restaurant."

BBF: Did you have any prior experience or know anything about the business?

WS: I had 25 years of experience in both food service and management, including a stint at Christy's in Miami before I started an imaging business, CR2 Imaging. The previous owner confessed that he just wasn't a 'restaurant man'. I looked around the place, I brought in my friend BK Foster to look at it and we agreed that many things would need to change- the menu, the decor, the branding, but we still saw an opportunity, not only for the building but also for the region.

BBF: Speaking of the branding, why 'The 1907'?

WS: Because that is the year the building was built. I was on a conference call that my mother was on and when the name 'The 1907' came up, she said, "I love that! That was the year my mother was born." That sealed it.

BBF: What are your goals for the restaurant?

WS: Our main goal  is to be as close to a completely "green" restaurant as we can. We want to leave virtually no carbon footprint. The waste management companies will not be happy about that. Food scraps will go to local composters and farmers, the emphasis will be on using sustainable foods, and except for certain seafoods (which will also have to be sustainable), everything will be purchased from local sources in the surrounding 100 miles. Even the new bar we're building will be made of reclaimed wood.
     Also, we want to show that the culinary staples associated with this region can be elevated. We want to stay away from terms like 'Southern' or 'country' food. We'll call it 'New South Cuisine'. The idea is to put a different spin on well-known dishes like fried chicken and collard greens, and abandon heavy gravies in favor of more subtle sauces.

BBF: What impression do you want the customers to have when they leave the restaurant?

WS: I want people to say, "if you're in the North Georgia area, that's the place to go."

     Amidst laughter and more great conversation, our spontaneous interview ended, not without Mr. Sloop inviting us to return for the Grand Opening with promises to tell us about the building's resident ghost!
     This affable entrepreneur may be on to something. If he is successful in reaching his goals, especially in revolutionizing the regional cuisine, this restaurant will be a must-visit. Based on our experience, they have a good head start.
     We originally came in to escape the blistering cold and in search of a bowl of hot soup. Once inside, we realized this was not just another bar and grill.
     The servers welcomed us at the door in impeccable black uniforms. The wide dining room area is fringed on one side by an attractive wall of exposed brick, and the seating consists of individual tables, not booths, which to me goes a long way in giving a casual restaurant that extra shot of elegance.
     As we reviewed the menu, a few items besides the French onion soup enticed, so a quick thawing out turned into a leisurely dinner. I stayed faithful to my original plan and ordered the soup but added the artichoke/spinach dip with homemade pita chips. John ordered the shrimp and cheese grits, and his daughter Nan ordered the honey fried chicken.
     John's shrimp was cooked perfectly but the grits forgot to bring the cheese along for the party.
Nan said her chicken was good and sweet, as honey chicken should be. It came with a side of spicy collard greens and tomatoes, an example of the direction this restaurant is taking with regional dishes.
     My onion soup was savory with the expected meaty piece of bread soaked in the amber broth and a canopy of Gruyere cheese to complete this always satisfying crowd favorite.
     The artichoke/spinach dip was just a little loose in texture and heavier on the spinach flavor than the artichoke, but none of that mattered when I took the first bite of the homemade pita chips. These are little golden triangles of fried dough with an ever-so-subtle crispiness on the outside and a comforting chewiness on the inside. This has to go on my list of things I could eat out of a big bag on a cold day while watching a good movie. I told Mr. Sloop he should consider packaging these and selling them as a specialty item. There's a fortune to be made there!
     The owner's excitement for the future of this restaurant is contagious. I sense his commitment to this endeavor in his attention to the details- food presentation, the way the servers place the dishes on the table (I learned there is strategic thought put into the way a plate is positioned in front of the consumer), even how customers are addressed by their last name when their credit cards are returned to them. These little things may not be noticeable or even significant to some people, but they are to me. I like when the staff makes me feel like a VIP.
     Onward and upward, Mr. Sloop! The payoff will be sweet.

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