ABCs of business

Atlanta Bread Co. in Alcoa will close on Friday

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By Lance Coleman
Blount Today

There was quiet tension in the air at Atlanta Bread Company in Alcoa Tuesday morning. It didn’t 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.

"Don’t say anything," Amy Howe said to a regular customer who was just shaking her head in sadness and disbelief. "If you do, I’m 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. "They’re going in a different direction, and it’s 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 couldn’t see where it was justified to make the investment.

Whitlock said the store had a strong, loyal customer base even though it wasn’t 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.

"He’s a mentor to me," Whitlock said. "He’s one of a kind."

Other employees Whitlock praised were manager Carol Carver and employees Michael Jordan and Hannah Sieple.

"We’ve got six people down there who have gone through it all, and they’re 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.

"It’s a very sad thing for the customers and a sad thing for me and Dr. Smuckler as individuals," he said. "It’s a hard choice, and it’s hard for the employees. It all comes down to measuring the cost of the investment for the remodel versus the
profitability. It’s a numbers thing. You’ve got to take emotions out. If we didn’t, we wouldn’t close."

Whitlock said he and the staff were very appreciative of their clientele. "We want to thank the customers. We love them.

I’m down there every day. We’re appreciative of the staff who has been with us since Day One. They’re 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, we’re 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. You’ll need seed money, and we’ll let you have a shot.’ Three tried to do it, but they couldn’t get the seed money," he said.

Whitlock said he’s going to put a sign up that says ‘Available.’ Four or five people interested in buying the property have already approached him.

"I don’t know what they’re going to do with it. I’ve 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. That’s what I hope happens. It would work. Our numbers would prove it would work.

"If that doesn’t work, we’ll 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 we’ve got down there, they are your loyal people. I don’t have anything but admiration for them and respect.
They’re good people."

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