Manuel’s Tavern saved by community

The iconic Coca-Cola mural serves as an eye-catching signal to remind those who pass by that Manuel’s Tavern is the perfect place to grab a quick meal. The mural, repainted last year, is a recognizable and charming aspect of the restaurant’s history.

Alannah Edwards

The walls of Manuel’s Tavern overflow with newspaper articles, photos of political figures and sports stars, vintage posters and every knick-knack imaginable.  

The history of Atlanta resides in every corner of the acclaimed establishment, and though it’s one of the city’s most famous gathering spots, Manuel’s was at risk of permanent closure due to Covid-19. But thanks to the overwhelming response from loyal customers, Manuel’s future appears promising. 

First opened in Poncey-Highland in 1956 by Manuel Maloof, former local politician and DeKalb County Commission Chairman, the Tavern serves as the meeting spot for influential political figures, particularly in the Democratic Party, as well as advocacy groups, neighborhood groups and journalists.

“It’s a place where presidents and janitors can meet,” Maria Saporta, former Atlanta Journal-Constitution business columnist, current publisher of Saporta Report and a Grady graduate, said. “It is like a neutral ground for all people to come together.”

The restaurant eventually became known as a go-to spot for everything from casual gatherings to high class events. It is considered a crucial part of the surrounding community. 

“We have been going for years now, ”Kristie Cannon, an Inman Park resident and regular at Manuel’s, said. “It’s always a place we find ourselves drawn to on weekends. Great food and an entertaining atmosphere, I mean what else could you ask for?”

Like most restaurants in Atlanta, Covid-19 had a major impact on business. Manuel’s followed federal health regulations beginning in March and has since experienced a decline in sales.

 “There was no hesitation on our part to shut down,” Brian Maloof, the son of Manuel and current owner of the Tavern, said. “We very enthusiastically agreed, and we wanted to be part of the solution. It started as two weeks, but quickly became something much more than 14 days. That’s when it really became a problem.”

Manuel’s eventually reopened but with limited space and new regulations that only allowed  people to dine outside. Originally, the weather worked to the restaurant’s advantage, but as it got colder, sitting outside was less enticing to potential customers. 

“Early on, during the spring and summer, the sitting was beneficial, Maloof said.  “It has been helpful, and people have enjoyed it. Now, with this second wave of the virus and the cold weather, outside seating has diminished quite a bit.”

Despite federal assistance aimed at helping businesses remain open and support employees, Manuel’s began to struggle in the winter months. December was a particularly difficult month for the Tavern. Maloof considered closing the restaurant. 

“We did everything we could to cut costs, and I mean everything,”  Maloof said. “We were working under the impression that this would be a short term blip. It just became open ended, nonstop.”

Customers noticed business was down and began to do everything they could to support the Tavern. This included tipping more than normal and visiting the restaurant as often as possible. 

“We went once during Covid, there was socially-distanced seating, but because of the cool weather, we decided to get takeout,” sophomore Ally Bliss said. “It was sad to see the restaurant so empty. I could tell the place was struggling.”

The management cut every possible cost it could afford. This included reducing internet speed, replacing the cable package and cutting back on supplies. These adjustments, however, were not enough to keep the business afloat. 

“There are bills that just don’t end,” Maloof said. “I have to spend as much on electricity if I have 50 people in here or if I have 500. There is no difference. Businesses like certainty, and nothing is certain during this time.”

The community knew action was needed to save Manuel’s. Angelo Fuster, a regular at the Tavern and close friend of Manuel Maloof, created a Go Fund Me page with faith that the community would support the fundraiser.

“I talked to a couple of regulars and we figured that we could come up with about $15,000,” Fuster said. “That wasn’t going to do anything. That’s when the idea of doing a Go Fund Me page came to mind.”

The goal was set to 60,000 dollars with the intent of sustaining the restaurant for a few months.

“We activated the page at about 10 o’clock at night, and by 1 pm the next day we had reached the goal,” Fuster said. “I was astounded by the amount of support. I left the page open hoping people would continue to donate, and they did.”

As of January, the total donation has reached over $186,000.

“When we got to $60,000 in a matter of hours I was just blown away, overwhelmed,” Maloof said. “It was very humbling to know how much this place means to so many people. It’s when the total continued to grow that I was truly astounded.”

Much of the credit for the quick and extensive response can be attributed to Saporta, who wrote an article concerning Manuel’s possible closure. The piece caught fire among local news stations such as the and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and led thousands to the Go Fund Me page.

“Her work of sending the word out to many places solidified the success,” Fuster said. “She wrote an extremely powerful piece where she embedded the link in the online article. That had a ton to do with the success of the effort.”

People from all backgrounds, states and statuses donated to the Go Fund Me to support Manuel’s. This quick and collective effort is what allowed for the goal to be surpassed in such a short period of time.

“The loyalty of the people to Manuel’s was part of the reason that they stayed open,” Saporta said. “I mean the story caught fire. It caught fire because the restaurant speaks to the heart.”

Saporta said the immediate response from the surrounding community was “unimaginable.” As Saporta explains, the immense generosity from others in a matter of days not only saved the Tavern from closure, but saved decades of history.

“It is much more than just a place, a tavern, a building,” Saporta said. “It’s a living spirit that has become part of Atlanta’s fabric.