This is the second of an eight-part “Best New Small Businesses” series highlighting Atlanta’s growing entrepreneurial scene. This series is sponsored by PNC Bank.
Whenever Ben and Jen Johnson would visit New York City, they’d stop by their favourite Jewish delis, because
“it’s always the last deli dinner until the next time.”But three months ago, they decided to change that by opening their own New York-inspired Jewish deli in East Atlanta, an industrial area that reminds the Johnsons of New York’s Meatpacking District. This will be the couple’s second restaurant — their first is West Egg, a place known for its brunch menu also located in East Atlanta.
“We really wanted a place that would have the food that we’ve craved that isn’t being done on the level that we want it to be done in Atlanta,” Jen tells us.
Lined with white tiles that resemble New York’s subway scene, The General Muir gives off a classic deli vibe that was most popular in America’s northeast in the early-to-mid-1900s. This old American vibe is hard to replicate in the up-and-coming East Atlanta area, where most of the construction is new and modern.
When you browse through the menu, the restaurant is “far from kosher” with items such
pastrami and corned beef piled on rye bread, matzoh ball soup, chopped liver and a Reuben sandwich, which includes sliced beef, Gruyère cheese and sauerkraut. But the owners did decide to eliminate pork from the menu — a risky decision to make in the South, where pork is a huge part of most people’s diets. Jen tells us that the decision was made between her and executive chef Todd Ginsberg, who is also a partner. “Neither Todd or I were raised kosher, so we sat around the table and debated what kinds of food we should have on the menu … we decided not to include bacon, because besides what it symbolizes in the Jewish community, bacon is a crutch … it’s delicious, but you can still make your food delicious without pork, so as of right now, we serve no pork in the restaurant.”
Although more common in the Northeast, Jewish food is scarce in the South where there isn’t a big Jewish population. The Johnsons see this as an opportunity.
“In recent years, Atlanta has become a metropolitan area filled with young people willing to try new things,” says Jen. “There are also a lot of young, creative people who work in professions where they don’t have to be in an office at all times, and they can use our restaurant as their office.”
The concept is to create a place that’s part of the community and “not so expensive so that you can come every day if you want,” she says, because, inevitably, that’s what the Jewish deli represents in American history.
“It’s not necessarily Jewish food; ultimately it’s American food … it was a place for immigrants back then which represents America; everyone has their own immigration story.” In fact, the restaurant is named after the ship that brought Jen’s grandmother — a Holocaust survivor — to New York Harbor on March 23, 1949.
“We really wanted to create an atmosphere deeply rooted in the neighbourhood,” she says. “We have photographs of everyone’s family throughout the restaurant. We wanted to give off this vibe of something more communal where people could go if they wanted solo dining because they’re working, or if they wanted to bring their friends and family.”
“Spending time with others is the same as sharing the food you’re eating … the hospitality you receive, the environment that you’re eating the food in is probably just as important as the food you’re eating. That’s the restaurant business.”
“There were definitely moments when I woke up thinking maybe there’s not this food in Atlanta for a reason … maybe people don’t want it … maybe only Ben and I want it,” but so far, Atlantans seem to be embracing the Jewish concept. The General Muir was featured in Atlanta Magazine’s most anticipated restaurant opening article published earlier this year.
As Jewish deli food is introduced down South, The General Muir — located near Emory University — might be another sign that Atlanta is quickly becoming “The New York of the South.”
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