The last time I went to B. Merrell's for lunch, I did not even make it inside. As a piece of paper taped to the glass door came into focus, it quickly became clear I would not be met that day by a delicious meal and great service from Jim or Patrick. As I got closer I could read the handwritten message, "Closed. Thank you for 15 great years. Barry Merrell."
Later in the afternoon of 31 May 2007, the message sign out front was being modified by a man using a long pole with a suction cup on the end to hang the letters. The reverse side was already complete. It read simply, "Thank you for 15 great years."
It was one in a series of Tallahassee restaurant closings, ranging in severity of misfortune. In the case of B. Merrell's, I found the closure most unfortunate. Offering a wide range of lunch and dinner entrees, B. Merrell's became my default destination, frequently visited if another restaurant did not attract my attention.
According to an article in the Tallahassee Democrat by Will Brown published 08 June 2007, Barry Merrell closed the 1433 East Lafayette Street eatery to focus on another location in Columbus, Georgia. A desire to stop driving the seven and some hour roundtrip between the two locations was cited as a reason for leaving the area. Local sources claim medical reasons pushed the decision as well. In any event, I hope to some day visit the Columbus location for a trip down lunch break memory lane.
Update: 14 June 2009 — Read a follow-up to this article in The Movable Feasts, where we see what has become of these restaurants of the past.Another lunchtime regular to shutter was Southern Fixin's at 2840 Apalachee Parkway. Formerly the Florida Grill and then Capri Italian Restaurant, Southern Fixin's got off to a rocky start. At first the place just needed to improve service and get organized, not exactly surprising from a restaurant getting started. After some time and once a regular staff was aboard, things improved dramatically.
The food was good from day one, however. Their full menu included all the classic favorites including meatloaf, fried chicken, pork chops, fish, vegetables and all the sides. It was like a local version of Cracker Barrel—without the nostalgia and store—and soon made a great, reliable addition to my lunch rotation.
One day I stopped in for my usual meatloaf with mashed potatoes and green beans and could not help but notice the recent installation of a buffet. It was a new all you can eat option for around $10, plus a takeaway option billed per pound. I initially ignored the buffet and continued to order from the menu as I have no need to consume such massive quantities, particularly for lunch.
Before long I was told the menu was eliminated and the buffet established as the sole option. It contained most, if not all or more of the items from the former menu and was good, but by making the buffet the only option they lost my regular business. I do not know if it was a similar sentiment or other factors, but the buffet-only Southern Fixin's was soon closed for business, another eastside restaurant down the tubes1.
One closure that made no sense to me was that of Back Yard Burgers. I was familiar with the chain's one hundred percent Black Angus burgers charbroiled over an open flame, chicken sandwiches and waffle fries from their location in Altamonte Springs. Upon moving to Tallahassee, I was surprised to find two locations, one near the FSU campus at 1410 West Tennessee Street and the other near my office at 2014 Apalachee Parkway. While the central Florida location is drive-thru and walk-up only, the Tallahassee locations featured full dining rooms with self-service beverage fountains. For a fast food chain, the food was delicious and the service exceptional.
The Tennessee Street location was the first to go, but since I never dined there I could not tell if the students simply did not take to the place—a hard scenario to imagine—or if poor service and management were to blame. I can, however, attest to the quality and efficiency of the Parkway location where lunches were often busy but always fast and fresh. So it came as quite a surprise when I saw that location eventually gone as well.
27 January would have marked the third anniversary of the Parkway location, but regardless of their closure Back Yard Burgers is up for a 2007 Tally Award in the Best Hamburgers category, an accolade bestowed on the restaurant last year. The latest winners will be announced 25 January.
Other lunch casualties include Durango Steakhouse at 2705 Apalachee Parkway, The Original Italian Pie at 1140 Capital Circle Southeast, Philly Connection at 1490 Apalachee Parkway and Uncle Ed's Subs & Salads at 3551 Blairstone Road, Suite 132.
The most recent closing was not a lunchtime haunt at all, but rather a nice place to have dinner. The Main Ingredient at 1710 West Tharpe Street is well-known in town for their appetizing mix and match menu and daily specials. The meals were not cheap, but they were amazing.
It was a shock to many locals when near the end of November 2007 the restaurant closed without notice. Several business close or reduce hours when college is not in session and even more over the holidays, so there was a bit of lingering hope the doors would reopen in the new year. That never happened and the word on the street is financial trouble plus the failure to secure a backing deal forced the closure.
No doubt, restaurants are a tough make it or break it business with complex logistical operations, high costs and frequent employee turnover. Smart franchisers need to approach Tallahassee without visions of grandeur and focus on the essentials in order to succeed.
I specifically invite Five Guys "Famous Burgers and Fries" and Jersey Mike's Subs, a growing franchise started as a stand-alone in 1956, to give our capital market a spin. Both former Back Yard Burgers locations need new occupants anyway.
1 "Down the tubes—hear that one a lot. People say, 'Ah, the country is going down the tubes.' What tubes? Have you seen any tubes? Where are these tubes? And where do they go? And how come there's more than one tube? It would seem to me, one country, one tube. But does every state all of a sudden have to have its own tube now? One tube is all you need. But a tube that big? Somebody would have seen it by now." – George Carlin
Photo Credit: David July