After all these years, when President Jimmy Carter walks into Manuel's Tavern, everyone still stands.
For decades, the tavern--unassuming from the outside, with its slate-grey exterior and red wall mural proclaiming "Ice Cold Coca-Cola Sold Here"--has been the unofficial center of Atlanta's Democratic party. Carter and his wife, Rosalynn, became regulars following their visit during the 1970 governor's race. Barack Obama and Bill Clinton have been known to drop in unannounced.
Academics, blue-collar workers, policemen, journalists, and just about anyone in between also frequent the place. Still, the tavern makes most of its money from politics: watch parties, candidate appearances, fundraiser event hosting, and the like. Election Day 2016 was the best financial day in its 64-year history, with 3,000 people packed into the bar and its parking lot, accounting for a week-and-a-half's worth of sales.
This year should have been a banner year, with Georgia at the center of the national political consciousness--for the presidential election and two consequential Senate races, both of which are headed to runoffs on January 5. One of the Senate candidates, Jon Ossoff, even used Manuel's as an unofficial campaign headquarters during his run for the House of Representatives in 2017. But as November 3 passed, second-generation owner Brian Maloof had a secret that barely anyone knew. Manuel's was weeks away from going under.
Here's what he didn't know: The next 30 days would change his life, and illustrate the power of being beloved by your customers.
The family legacy
The Manuel's Tavern lore, as Maloof tells it, starts with his grandfather, Gibran Maloof--a Lebanese man who ran a bar called the Tip Top Billiards Parlor, across the street from the state capitol. Gibran was an unusual public figure for the Jim Crow South. Neither Black nor White, state legislators would use him as a middleman who could effectively speak to anyone. In return, Gibran would insist on some kind of community action: pave a street, add a sidewalk, invest in a local school.
Gibran's son Manuel was raised in that environment. So when Manuel launched his own tavern in 1956, after Tip Top had closed, the state legislators migrated over. The tavern's reputation grew, and soon, political campaigns and social protest movements were born within its walls. Manuel would become a public servant himself, rising to the position of CEO and commission chairman of DeKalb County. (He died in 2004.) It was said for many years that any Democrat who wanted to run for public office in Atlanta--or even in the state of Georgia--had to visit Manuel's Tavern to first get the proprietor's blessing.
Brian Maloof, Manuel's son, officially took ownership in 2006, putting his own spin on the family legacy. "Manuel knew that Brian was probably the one member of the family who had the ability and desire to keep the tavern going forever," says Angelo Fuster, a tavern patron since the mid-1970s who became one of Manuel's best friends.
Take, for example, what Maloof calls the Very Odd Interview, which every new employee experiences during the hiring process. "Would it bother you to know that the owner of this restaurant makes business decisions based on prayer and meditation more than the checkbook?" Maloof asks them. Another question: "The moment somebody comes into the restaurant, it's your responsibility to relieve all their anxieties and make them comfortable. Are you prepared for that responsibility?"
That responsibility became an entirely new kind of challenge in March, with the onset of the pandemic. For his part, Maloof drew on his 11 years of experience as a paramedic to quickly institute Covid-19 protocols: masks, gloves, disposable paper menus, and a daily hour of sanitizing starting at 4:45 a.m. The team reduced the 4,800-square-foot space from a 340-customer capacity to five booths, eight barstools, and some folding chairs outside.
Sales dropped by 62 percent overnight. Maloof made work optional for the many longtime staffers in high-risk age brackets, and raised base pay for everyone else to make up for the decline in tips. He got a Paycheck Protection Program loan, and used the funds judiciously. Still, the tavern was losing $25,000 per month, and he was forced to reduce headcount from 51 to 27.
To keep Manuel's alive, Maloof emptied the business's emergency funds and added as much of his own money as he could afford. He and his family stopped taking paychecks and reorganized the tavern's hours of operations to maximize its most profitable times.
Meanwhile, the political events that should have supercharged the bottom line barely happened. A watch party on election night drew roughly 200 patrons, bundled up in the parking lot in high-30s temperatures. Maloof tried to acquire some heaters, but came up empty--every joint in America wanted them.
Eventually, he came to a grim realization: He'd be out of money by December. He could see only one way out.
Phoning a friend
Each day, the closing-down checklist in Maloof's head got longer and sadder, sending him into a tailspin of depression. The walls of Manuel's Tavern are an archive of Atlanta's political left over the past half-century, and all that memorabilia would need to go somewhere. There were urns on the wall containing the remains of notable Atlantans, which he'd have to return to their families, and shadow-boxed uniform shirts of fallen officers he'd need to pack.
In October, he notified the rest of his family that his father's business was going under. He also notified Fuster, who was practically family--and a longtime political operative who had served on the staffs of multiple Atlanta mayors, including Maynard Jackson, the South's first Black mayor, and legendary civil rights leader Andrew Young. Upset, Fuster asked Maloof how much money he'd need to keep the tavern open into 2021. Maloof tallied up the cost of his liquor license renewal, the up-front payment on a year-long insurance policy, and a couple months' worth of operating costs: $75,000.
Fuster's immediate, visceral reaction: "Holy shit." His second thought: We need a fundraiser to save Manuel's Tavern. On December 2, he set up a GoFundMe page. "It was really a selfish effort on my part," Fuster says. "Because I did not want to lose the place that I loved to go to. I don't know what I would do."
But $75,000 is a lot of money, and Maloof wasn't optimistic. So, at the same time, he drafted a Facebook post to inform his customers that Manuel's was likely closing, with a link to the fundraiser at the bottom almost as an afterthought. He saved a draft and went to sleep. At 3:30 the next morning, while getting ready for work, he saw his wife Margie drinking coffee, looking at her phone, and crying: The GoFundMe had already raised $12,000. Inspired, Maloof loaded up Facebook and published his post.
The comments on the "Save Manuel's Tavern" GoFundMe page, which has now raised more than $170,000 from at least 2,800 donors, are touching enough to draw tears: stories of great memories shared, tributes to lost loved ones, and for every $500 donation, a $10 one from someone between jobs who only wished they could donate more.
"Atlanta without Manuel's is not Atlanta," wrote one supporter. Another: "Some things are worth saving."
Maloof may have been the last person to know about the fundraiser's success. After publishing his Facebook post, he went about his day. On the phone with Inc., less than 12 hours later, he learned that the campaign had ripped past $100,000 and was still going.
"You're kidding!" he said, with a touch of bewilderment. "That is unbelievable. That's crazy." After a moment, he gathered his thoughts: "Wow. Look at that. You talk about something humbling and tugging on your heartstrings."
Manuel's now has enough money to stay open through at least mid-2021, which Maloof hopes will coincide with a new round of Covid stimulus and a widely distributed vaccine. He's unsure how much of his old staff he'll be able to hire back once foot traffic returns, but he's already told the 27 current employees that their jobs are safe. He's applied for the tavern's 2021 liquor license and insurance coverage, and he's trying to plan a Covid-safe Christmas party to celebrate.
On December 6, Maloof sat down to type a new Facebook post. "It has been the most humbling and overwhelming experience in my life," he wrote. "It will not be forgotten, abused, or taken for granted."
He promised to keep Manuel's operating for "as long as possible. When the next major global problem comes up, I will look back on these past months and weeks with more optimism, faith, and hope."
He's seen the classic Christmas movie before, and now he's living it. Signing off, he wrote: "It really is a wonderful life."