Whether it’s supplying products or simply lending a helping hand, restaurateurs in this town work together to create a thriving and supportive culinary scene
By Haley Harward
The city of Athens is often associated with the University of Georgia, and with good reason – the school is a major part of the city. But in recent years, Athens has become known for something else: its food scene.
In the last decade, Athens’ population has grown just over 12%, and with it, the restaurant scene exploded. Once a college town with a few local favorites, Athens is now home to a diverse array of eateries and new chefs are constantly coming to the city to open up innovative new eateries.
Along with the city’s bar scene and standards like The Grit, Last Resort Grill and Hugh Acheson’s flagship restaurant 5 and 10, there’s newer restaurants serving Argentinean, Jamaican, Ethiopian and Eritrean cuisines. The restaurant scene isn’t limited to the downtown area anymore, either. Areas of town like Boulevard, the historic Cobbham district, Pulaski Heights and Normaltown all have their own thriving group of restaurants as well.
Erin Wilson, the general manager and owner of The National in downtown Athens, joined the team in 2011 and has been able to watch the community around her grow and change with the city.
“I feel like summers have changed so drastically,” she says. “Back then [in 2011], summer was so dead. It was like the doldrums, everyone left, locals and students alike. Now, we obviously are a little bit slower, but in general it stays pretty steady, which is huge for the restaurant industry [because] we don’t have these intense seasonal swings [and] we can guarantee that we can staff appropriately year-round.”
From students, professors and artists to retirees, tourists and families, there’s also a varied clientele in Athens.
“Athens is a destination place,” says Mimi Maumus, owner of Home.made and sister concept Sidecar. “It’s not just for football games. There’s a celebrated and solid art scene and music scene, and the food scene is just sort of like a natural fit as well.”
That range, mixed with a growing population and a thriving tourism industry, means there’s no shortage of customers. However, the population increase is not the only factor contributing to this recognition and restaurant growth; it’s thanks to the existing restaurant community, too. The Athens restaurant community is a close-knit group of business owners who support each other, collaborate often and share ideas.
The support and care for one another that restaurateurs share is not just out of necessity due to the pandemic and its effects, but, in true small-town fashion, it’s camaraderie and the desire to bolster each other’s success for the sake of the area. For instance, Maumus has a line of packaged food that a number of businesses in the area sell, and Kevin Scollo, owner of Independent Baking Co., provides bread to many restaurants in town and pastries to coffee shops, and Condor Chocolates gives him coffee.
Scollo, originally from Marietta, spent the past decade working in restaurants and bakeries in Ohio and New York City before acquiring Independent Baking Co. from its founder, Thom Leonard, in 2020.
“People support me here,” he says. “That’s another great thing about the Athens restaurant community, that we support each other. They’re supporting me by buying my bread, and I’m trying to support whoever I can.”
Many restaurateurs, like Wilson and Scollo, work with local organizations outside of other restaurants. Scollo gets the grains for Independent Baking Co,’s bread from a nearby source right outside the city, and Wilson works with Collective Harvest, an organization partnering with family-owned and operated farms to supply sustainably grown fresh produce.
“It’s also who we choose as vendors for lots of things,” says Wilson. “We just try to choose people that are running their businesses themselves, invest in the community and hold the same pillars that we do to be important.”
While it’s true that the competition can be fierce in larger cities, the restaurant community in Athens is much more subdued and respectful.
“We’re really respectful of each other,” says Maumus. “We don’t have problems like poaching each other’s employees. And I think all of us going through the pandemic probably brought us even closer together [because] many people don’t understand what we’ve been through. So we have each other to kind of talk to and support.”
Despite the strong community support and healthy restaurant scene in Athens, restaurateurs continue to face challenges, particularly concerning staffing not unlike everywhere else these days. While Athens may not be as expensive as neighboring cities like Atlanta, the overall cost of living has increased, and some restaurants can’t keep up with the demand.
“Even if I’m hiring someone at $18 an hour, and that’s ‘a living wage,’ gas is now $4.50 a gallon and rent has really skyrocketed in this town,” Maumus says, adding that the pandemic influenced people in other ways, too.
“A lot of people in the industry had time that they had never had before. A lot of people went back to school, found different careers, had opportunities to evaluate their lives, and, you know, find different paths,” she says. “There’s some people who the restaurant industry is just part of who they are, so they’re going to continue being in that industry, but the workforce has definitely shrunk.”
While the staffing shortage is a troubling trend for an industry that already operates on razor-thin margins, the restaurant community in Athens remains committed, supportive and confident.
“We want workers to see Athens as a place that they can come to and have a good work-life balance, have an educational experience, have and learn tools that they’ll take with them to their next restaurant job or other career,” says Wilson of The National. “We take it seriously, and we want to continue to grow industry professionals in this small town.”