There was quiet tension in the air at Atlanta Bread Company in Alcoa Tuesday morning. It didnt have anything to do with the coffee or muffins. It was an effort to hold back tears as customers began hearing the news.
The popular bakery at Springbrook Corporate Center that is a morning ritual for many in the community is closing its doors after Friday, June 29.
Co-owners Mike Whitlock and Dr. Alan Smuckler told the team Monday. On Tuesday, Whitlock was there, thanking customers for their loyalty. As many placed their orders at the counter, it was hard to talk to the folks serving them.
"Dont say anything," Amy Howe said to a regular customer who was just shaking her head in sadness and disbelief. "If you do, Im going to cry."
But it was too late. Both customer and cashier had tears in their eyes.
Whitlock said they made the decision to close the store when it became apparent they were going in different directions than the ABC corporate office. As recently as last week they were considering closing and then reopening under a different name, but their franchise agreement prohibited them from doing so for 12 months.
The business opened six and a half years ago and, from all accounts, was very popular. They seemed to have weathered Panera and Starbucks coming to town recently.
But changes in the corporate direction that dictated expensive remodels just made staying in business unprofitable, said Whitlock.
"The bottom line is ABC is changing," Whitlock said. "Theyre going in a different direction, and its going to require a substantial investment in the store to meet the requirements of our franchise agreement."
Whitlock said they looked at the proposition of remodeling from a rational standpoint and asked themselves whether the cost was warranted. Whitlock and Smuckler couldnt see where it was justified to make the investment.
Whitlock said the store had a strong, loyal customer base even though it wasnt a remodeled store. He credited the employees with creating that atmosphere.
"Our assets down there are our employees. The No. 1 asset would be L.V. Cox," he said of the former A&P grocery store manager who has worked as a host since the store opened.
When Whitlock was a teen, L.V. Cox was a manager at the A&P grocery store in Alcoa and gave Whitlock his first job as a clerk.
"Hes a mentor to me," Whitlock said. "Hes one of a kind."
Other employees Whitlock praised were manager Carol Carver and employees Michael Jordan and Hannah Sieple.
"Weve got six people down there who have gone through it all, and theyre our assets as far as the store, and we have a tremendously loyal customer base," he said.
Whitlock said the store had become an institution to many.
"Its a very sad thing for the customers and a sad thing for me
and Dr. Smuckler as individuals," he said. "Its a hard choice,
and its hard for the employees. It all comes down to measuring
the cost of the investment for the remodel versus the
profitability. Its a numbers thing. Youve got to take emotions out. If we didnt, we wouldnt close."
Whitlock said he and the staff were very appreciative of their clientele. "We want to thank the customers. We love them.
Im down there every day. Were appreciative of the staff who has been with us since Day One. Theyre dedicated and committed," Whitlock said.
Whitlock said he and Smuckler own the building. It has 4,000 square feet of space and stands on two acres.
They have three options, said the businessman and CPA. They can come back as an independent bakery/restaurant, lease the building to someone else, or they can sell it.
"If we close this down today, were prohibited for 12 months from opening an independent restaurant within 20 miles of another ABC. It is 18 miles to the Turkey Creek Atlanta Bread Co.," he said.
What Whitlock would like, he said, would be for someone with seed money to lease the space and run an independent restaurant along the same concept as what it is now. Whitlock estimated that it would take approximately $50,000 to take the restaurant from an ABC concept to a different name and brand. He even approached some of the employees about the idea.
"We had two or three employees, and what we tried to do was let them lease the building from us. Basically we were saying, Take this thing and run with it. Youll need seed money, and well let you have a shot. Three tried to do it, but they couldnt get the seed money," he said.
Whitlock said hes going to put a sign up that says Available. Four or five people interested in buying the property have already approached him.
"I dont know what theyre going to do with it. Ive not priced it. I told them to make an offer," he said. "What I hope is someone comes in and continues on with an independent with the same concept. This gives them an opportunity to provide the same quality service the Blount County people deserve. Thats what I hope happens. It would work. Our numbers would prove it would work.
"If that doesnt work, well sell the land and building, and someone else can do something with it," he said.
Whitlock said that recently when negotiations were ongoing with
corporate, he explained the situation to the
employees. "We sat down and told them the truth, and they took the position that they wanted to ride it out, and they got down in the trenches and went to a 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. shift Monday through Friday," he said.
Whitlock said the employees knew the situation could go either way.
"They accepted that. They stepped up to plate. That group weve
got down there, they are your loyal people. I dont have anything
but admiration for them and respect.
Theyre good people."