Chow Down Atlanta
GSU Alums take a bite out of the local food scene
Story by William Inman and Kathleen Poe Ross | Photography by Meg Buscema | Chalkboard illustration by Lauren Harvill
Tom Murphy (B.B.A. ’83)
Looking back at Tom Murphy’s early work experience, a theme quickly emerges. He was slinging hot dogs from a street cart at age 11, rolling cheese balls at a gourmet food store during high school and running a deli and cheese shop downtown at Atlanta’s Municipal Market while attending Georgia State. Whatever he was going to do, it had to be delicious.
“I always wanted to be in the food business,” Murphy says. “But I never wanted to be in the restaurant business.”
Yet the restaurant business is where Murphy has happily made his career. This year, he celebrates 31 years as owner of Murphy’s, his eponymous and much lauded restaurant in Atlanta’s Virginia Highland neighborhood.
Murphy’s customers may not realize they have Georgia State to thank, at least in part. In his management class junior year, Murphy had to complete a feasibility study for opening a business. Inspired by the neighborhood delicatessens in his hometown of New York City, he came up with a concept and business plan that so impressed his professor she went with him to the bank to obtain financing for it. Murphy’s Round the Corner, as it was first called, was doing brisk business before Murphy even graduated.
“When I first opened Murphy’s, we wanted to be part of the fabric of this neighborhood,” Murphy says, “which is what great delicatessens of great cities have always been.”
Murphy’s has since evolved from its early identity as a gourmet deli — today it’s a cozy, upscale restaurant specializing in American comfort food — but it remains a cornerstone of its community. Situated at the intersection of Virginia and North Highland avenues since 1993, Murphy’s is a landmark. Everybody knows Murphy’s.
Over the years, the restaurant has built a reputation as a training ground for rising culinary stars. Alon Balshan of Alon’s Bakery, Shaun Doty of Yeah! Burger and Hector Santiago of Pura Vida (and “Top Chef” season 6) are just a few of the chefs whose careers have taken off after stints at Murphy’s. It’s a point of pride for Murphy, who joined the Concentrics Restaurants group to provide his staff with greater opportunities for development and growth.
Murphy has branched out as well. When his late mother was battling cancer, he saw the need for a healthy meal delivery service in Atlanta. Good Measure Meals, which he founded in 2003, provides nutritious gourmet meals to subscribers. Murphy soon donated the business to Atlanta nonprofit Open Hand; today all proceeds from Good Measure Meals go to fund Open Hand’s own meal delivery and nutrition education program.
Despite more than 30 years in the industry, Murphy says, he won’t let himself become complacent. Instead, he tries to emulate one of his generation’s greatest entertainers. “They said Michael Jackson came to every session as if it was his first,” Murphy says. “And that type of commitment to wanting to be better, that you never had arrived — I feel the same.”
Rene Diaz (B.B.A. ’87)
Diaz Foods and Village Taqueria & Tequila Bar
When Rene Diaz was working toward his degree in marketing at Georgia State, he dreamed of one day becoming the chief marketing officer at Atlanta’s Coca-Cola Company. The last thing he thought he would do was stay in the family business.
“To me it was, you graduate and then you find a job. This was just helping the family,” Diaz says. “And then one thing led to another.”
Before he knew it, he was buying the company his father and grandfather founded. Under his leadership as chairman and CEO, Atlanta-based Diaz Foods has grown from a handful of small grocery markets to be one of the largest distributors of Hispanic products in the country. Today the company generates more than $200 million in sales, supplying stores and restaurants in 25 states.
In 2007, Diaz got to know the other side of the distribution business when he opened a restaurant, along with Diaz Foods CFO Eric Newberg and other investors. Village Taqueria and Tequila Bar (formerly Lime Taqueria and Tequila Bar) is a chef-driven showcase for upscale Mexican food and artisanal tequilas. Although Diaz considers it a side project, the restaurant is a complement to his primary business and provides a venue for company and community events. Naturally, Diaz Foods supplies many of the ingredients Village uses.
Diaz was born in Placeta, Cuba, in 1961. Three generations of his family fled the country in the mid-1960s and landed in Atlanta, where an uncle already lived. Many family members, including Diaz’s parents, found work at a factory making women’s apparel; Diaz’s father worked two additional jobs. By 1969, his grandfather had saved enough money to open a grocery store, Diaz Market, at the corner of Sixth and Peachtree streets. Diaz began working in the family store at 9 years old, first sweeping floors and stocking shelves, then manning the cash register. As soon as he could drive, Diaz was responsible for picking up produce for the five stores his father and grandfather then owned.
With multiple locations to stock, the family saw the need for a distribution center, and Diaz Foods was created in 1980. Diaz had just enrolled at GSU, drawn in by top-ranked business programs, but his family also wanted his help in the warehouse, which he soon took over. He managed to do both by working during the day and taking classes at night.
“I chose [GSU] because of the education experience I could get for the value,” Diaz says. GSU’s flexible schedule, affordable tuition and proximity to home and work were key factors in his decision.
Diaz never allowed himself to take time off from classes, even though his degree stretched out over seven years; he didn’t want to lose momentum. Most days, he drove the delivery truck to school. Juggling work and college at the same time would turn out to be the most important part of his business education.
“What I learned at school I brought into the workplace; I was able to see what worked and didn’t work,” Diaz says. “And what I learned at work in real life, I brought back into the classroom.”
These days, Diaz makes sure to keep business separate from everything else. He still logs long days for Diaz Foods, but as soon as he leaves the office, he doesn’t want to be bothered with work. At the end of the day, Diaz says, he sleeps well knowing that, in his heart, he always does what’s right. “Only four hours,” he says, “but I sleep very well.”
Tad and Nancy Mitchell
Tad (B.B.A. ’89) & Nancy (B.B.A. ’90) Mitchell
Six Feet Under Pub and Fish House
These days, it’s hard to imagine Atlanta’s Grant Park neighborhood without the Six Feet Under Pub and Fish House. For nearly 10 years, it has been a fixture on Memorial Drive across the street from the historic landmark that inspired its name, the Oakland Cemetery.
When the low-key seafood joint with the tombstone-shaped bar and the killer rooftop patio first opened, Grant Park wasn’t exactly a dining destination. Since then, Six Feet Under has anchored the neighborhood’s restaurant renaissance.
“There was so much need at the time,” remembers Tad Mitchell. “Everyone wanted us to succeed. There wasn’t a neighborhood pub and casual restaurant. And then we got right in with the community, and it flourished very quickly.”
Creating a symbiosis with the neighborhood was a must for the Mitchells. After all, they live in Grant Park and are big supporters of the Grant Park Conservancy, the Oakland Cemetery, the Grant Park Pool and other community organizations.
Interestingly, at the time they opened the Memorial Drive location, the couple lived on the west side of Atlanta — now home to their second location, Six Feet Under Westside on 11th Street, which opened in 2007.
Mitchell admits they weren’t scientific when it came to picking out their locations.
“I didn’t get out any density graphs,” he says. “It was just familiarity with home turf.”
When they opened shop in 2002, both Tad and Nancy were well acquainted with the struggles involved with operating a restaurant. After “working just about every job in the industry” Mitchell says, he had worked his way up to general manager of a Chili’s, while Nancy was running a Honey- Baked Ham franchise.
“So we took what we learned over the years and meshed them together,” he says.
The two-pronged formula that the pair came up with for their new establishment was a simple one: good food and good times.
“We knew we wanted our place to have simple, good food and a come-as-you-are environment,” says Nancy, who developed the menu. “We wanted Six Feet Under to be a fun place where everyone could enjoy great food and service.”
It wasn’t long before the couple knew they were on to something.
“We kept hearing from friends, neighbors and acquaintances that they loved eating and hanging out at Six Feet Under,” Nancy says. And sales were climbing.
This year, Tad says, both locations are having their best to date.
Success for the Mitchells isn’t just about sales, however. It’s also about sustainability, and they have taken big steps to reduce their carbon footprint. They have installed energy-efficient equipment at both locations and use only biodegradable or recyclable materials for everything from napkins to take-out containers. Their biggest step was installing a 45-foot-tall wind turbine at the Westside location. They also compost their oyster shells.
“And we sell a lot of oysters,” Tad says. This past August alone, the restaurants composted almost 18,000 pounds of shells and other food scraps.
Lining the walls at both locations is another kind of recyclable — beer cans. But, as Tad will tell you, these cans — from long-gone breweries such as Krueger and Bartels — are worth a lot more than their weight in metal.
“I started collecting beer cans when I was a kid, and I kept my collection in the attic,” Tad says.
Thankfully, Nancy says, they found a place for his collection when they opened the restaurant. “I always was in fear that he would try to decorate our home with it,” she laughs.
Nick Carse (J.D. ’08)
King of Pops
A raspberry-red popsicle sporting a jaunty crown rises from a multicolored throng and a purple banner above declares: King of Pops. This scene, painted on the side of a laundromat at the corner of North and North Highland avenues in Atlanta, went up in early 2010 without fanfare, but word of its arrival set local foodies abuzz.
Nick Carse and his brother, Steven, were responsible for the mural, painted to advertise their venture selling handmade popsicles in offbeat flavors. The first King of Pops cart debuted at the intersection on April 1, 2010.
“The community really reacted quickly and gave us a lot of love and support,” Nick says. “It’s just been kind of a phenomenon since then; it’s just grown and grown.”
It was 2005 when the brothers first talked about launching a popsicle business in their hometown. Their inspiration came from the paletas — real-fruit ice pops — they had encountered while traveling through Mexico and Central America. But the timing wasn’t right; Nick had just enrolled in GSU’s College of Law and Steven was starting his senior year of college.
Four years later, when Steven was laid off from his job at AIG, he revisited the opportunity, turning lemons into Lemon Ricotta popsicles.
By that time, Nick was an assistant solicitor prosecuting misdemeanors for Gwinnett County, but he devoted his nights and weekends to research and recipe testing. Only two months after their cart hit the streets, business was strong enough that Nick could quit his day job and join Steven full-time in the popsicle trade.
“I went from seeing people on the worst day of their lives to having people be happy to see me every time that I see them — putting a smile on their faces,” Nick says. “It’s a pretty good feeling to be doing what we’re doing.”
A typical day now finds Nick sourcing fresh, local produce at Georgia State Farmers Market in Forest Park or making pops at King of Pops’ Inman Park headquarters — he estimates they make 5,000 a week — before setting out with one of their 10 carts. King of Pops has three set Atlanta locations and regular gigs at nearly a dozen area farmers’ markets. Festivals, events and private catering fill out their calendar. Earlier this year, they added outposts in Athens, Ga., Asheville, N.C., and Charleston, S.C.
The menu varies daily and from cart to cart, with flavors like Pineapple Habanero, Blueberry Lemonade and even Cereal Milk. Chocolate Sea Salt is the popular favorite. The biggest flavor flop so far? Nick’s own Avocados and Cream pop.
Nick allows that gourmet popsicles might be a food fad, but he hopes that King of Pops and what it stands for have staying power. “I think we live in a community and in a time that being local, being natural and being fun and interesting and innovative is kind of important,” Nick says. “Hopefully that trend lasts, if nothing else. If not the popsicles, at least people can support local business.”
Matt Hinton (B.A. ’97)
Bell St. Burritos
Matt Hinton’s leap into the restaurant business wasn’t exactly one of faith — it was one of necessity.
Hinton was just beginning his career in academia as an adjunct professor of religious studies at Morehouse College when, as the economy waned and enrollment went down, he began to see his hours dwindle. The father of two young children desperately needed to supplement his income.
“In that situation, you go find a job in a hurry or you make up a job,” Hinton says. “So that’s what I did. I made up a job.”
On a wing and a prayer, the theologian set up a Facebook page for his new business, West End Burritos, and sent an e-mail to everyone he knew announcing that, on Mondays, he’d be making burritos, and if they bought them, he’d deliver to their homes.
“I never really considered what all that would entail,” he now says.
What he did know was that each and every person on his mailing list was a hardcore fan of the defunct but legendary Tortillas — a Ponce de Leon Avenue establishment with a cult-like following that specialized in giant San Francisco-style burritos.
“It’s almost become a cliché now when people come in and say, ‘You don’t understand, I used to go to Tortilla’s three times a week!’” Hinton says. “But we all did.”
So, in the spirit of Tortillas, Hinton set out on his new business venture.
“I got lots of orders,” Hinton remembers. “But then I realized that I had no idea how I’m going to pull this off. … The first week was a disaster, and I gave away a lot of burritos.”
His entire operation was run out of his home kitchen — a move he describes as “idiotic, with a wife and two kids,” but he managed to keep a consistent customer base, and the little delivery business grew.
In the meantime, in his spare time, Hinton also was promoting a documentary film that he and his wife, Erica (B.A. ’99), produced in 2007 called “Awake My Soul: The Story of the Sacred Harp.” The film, born out of a project-gone-wild from Erica’s documentary class, tells the story of shape note style singing and The Sacred Harp, a shape note hymnal published in Georgia in 1844 that is still used at some rural Southern churches.
While in Portland, Ore., for a screening of the film, Hinton had something of a religious experience, he says.
“I saw all the food trucks there and said, ‘Oh, that’s it!’”
Upon his return, Hinton contacted the Atlanta Street Food Coalition, which was organizing monthly picnics at the Sweet Auburn Curb Market. Hinton attended a few of the gatherings, burritos in tow, and before long, was approached about opening a food stall in the market.
“Even though I didn’t want to start a ‘restaurant,’ it seemed like a good idea,” he says.
In the fall of 2010, Hinton opened Bell Street Burritos in the market. Not long after, USA Today named the burrito stand one of “America’s 10 great places to bite into a big burrito.”
Hinton says the business is steadily growing, and he’s in the midst of opening a second location on Howell Mill Road. The second location will also be called Bell Street Burritos and feature the restaurant’s trademark black and white subway tile with a mosaic spelling out “Bell Street.”
When asked about the name, Hinton points to his inspiration: a street sign right outside the market.
“No pun intended, but it had a certain ring to it,” he says.