A few years ago, when I was a cubicle dweller in Alpharetta, I went out to lunch almost every day at one of the approximately seventeen thousand restaurants along Windward Parkway. Now, many people who enjoy talking and writing about food don’t really pay attention to this corridor, as you will find very few independently-owned restaurants, or examples of farm-to-table or sustainability or the latest foodie trends, or even anything with a very local flavor. This should not be surprising, because this is a lunchtime corridor for office workers like I was at the time. Area residents simply don’t come back to this strip for dinner time, meaning restaurants that want to try out here have to budget pretty closely and cross fingers for a lunch rush or die. The turnover in this area is absolutely brutal. I worked here for a little less than three years, and I bet the restaurant turnover was close to 20%.
Most of these are chains, of course, but what I have found incredibly interesting are the number of out-of-town chains that experiment with a store here first before trying elsewhere in the city. Some of these may be franchisees hoping to build into the Atlanta market or some might be company-owned and considering a footprint in Atlanta. There have been a couple of successes; I believe that the first Five Guys and Lenny’s Sub Shops in this region were on Windward. Z Pizza is still hanging on, with one of its two Atlanta locations here, and Tacone Flavor Grill, from California, has had its only Atlanta store here for about five years*. There have been several more fascinating failures. Apple Spice Junction, Taxi’s Hamburgers, Tin Star and Logan Farms are all out-of-towners who have tried to set up shop here on this stretch of road and bit the dust. If, like me, you are intrigued by regional chains, then there was usually something of interest on Windward to catch your eye. At least there was in 2006-2009, anyway.
Windward can’t even keep a barbecue place open. I was not surprised that the very popular Pig n’ Chik – not popular with me, mind you, but it has plenty of fans – closed its Windward store recently, as they might have opened in the single worst location in the history of real estate. Big D’s Barbecue, from up in Dawsonville, only had a location here for about eight months. Even One Star Ranch, at one time a baseball’s throw south of Windward on Highway 9, shuttered some weeks ago.
I had been intending for ages to see what was going on up at exit 11, but never got around to it. I did myself a huge disservice in not heading back that way, because the very best restaurant on Windward Parkway, the locally-owned Red Hen, closed in December. Now this place really was special, and they cooked up a really amazing hamburger, easily one of the best in the region. When I heard about that, I followed a link or two to the notice about the closure on a blog called Roots in Alpharetta. I enjoyed this blogger’s writing and continued to see what he had to say about the town where I used to work. There, I found something quite remarkable.
You know Krystal, right? The only local fast food place that I’ll eat, and don’t you judge me, right? Since October, they have been quietly, and without promotion, hype or commentary, testing a new “fast casual concept” on Windward Parkway, in the strip once occupied by a Carvel ice cream store. It is called K Cafe, and I just had to get back to my old stomping grounds and try this place.
I popped in on Thursday just after the lunch rush, and had a surprisingly tasty burger, but the most impressive things here were the service and the ketchup, which I am still loving and tasting. It might not last beyond the prototype stage, but the restaurant opened with an incredibly neat concept: ketchup of the month. Apart from your basic, “classic” ketchup, if you will, K Cafe is testing a rotation of different flavors to go along with it. This time out, it’s a chipotle ketchup which is just amazing, and goes very well with the fries. These, incidentally, proved to be the only minor disappointment of the meal. Basic cookie-cutter shoestring fries, these were not at all like the wonderfully chewy and potato-heavy fries you get at a Krystal. That chipotle ketchup would taste even better with those.
The service was first-rate. The girl at the register asked whether it was my first visit and showed off some of the sample foods prepared and resting in a refrigerated display case along with the desserts. K Cafe is not too different from a Panera or Rising Roll, just with burgers as well. They do a variety of sandwiches and salads, all of which have Moe’s-like silly names. She recommended their chicken salad, but I just wanted their basic burger. While they do serve traditional Krystals here if you want them, the patties on their proper burgers here are somewhat thicker, you’ll be glad to hear, and come fully dressed – with diced tomatoes, oddly – on ciabatta bread.
The other staffers who came by, including a manager who introduced himself, were similarly attentive and good-natured. I think that everybody is aware that this place is under a corporate microscope and under pressure to do well. With that in mind, Windward might prove to be a reasonable location for a place with this kind of menu. It really feels like a “lunch place,” something for quick, simple, tasty and inexpensive meals. Most of the sandwiches and burgers, which come with a side, cost about six bucks, so it’s perfectly reasonable and perfectly tasty. Plus there’s the wonderful novelty factor of trying someplace corporate-but-unique. If the concept fails (see below), I can still tell my grandkids about it, just like some folk can talk about those long extinct Kentucky Roast Beef stores that the Colonel once attempted.
Now, some no-frills restaurants are able to make the transition from junky fast food to something a little better. Whether Krystal has managed it won’t be for me to say; some corporate synergy bipartisan executive board steering committee will figure that out, but I think that it’s a success. On the other side of the equation, there’s the Taco Stand. I heard that this favorite from Athens had opened a store in Alpharetta, returning to this market after their Buckhead store closed a couple of football seasons ago, probably in anticipation of how badly the Bulldogs would end up playing. So I looked it up and swung by after finishing up at K Cafe, intending to grab a couple of two buck tacos and some chips and salsa. Heh.
The Taco Stand’s new place is three exits south, off Mansell Road, where restaurants usually live a little longer. Around North Point Parkway and the Old Alabama Road Connector, there are lots of homes, apartments and malls and movie theaters to keep families interested in the evenings, and so the restaurant turnover between exits 8 and 9 does not appear to be quite as murderous as on exit 11. I smiled broadly as I spotted the Taco Stand’s classic Milledge Avenue location’s lettering and pulled in. There was a car parked out front with the engine running as I snapped a couple of pictures. The driver, a twentysomething girl, was already waiting in the airlock at the host station of the Taco Stand for somebody to notice her.
If you figured that things were going to go spectacularly wrong at the point that I used the words “airlock,” “host station” and “Taco Stand” in the same sentence, you figured right. That evening, I was telling my family about my trip over a wonderful supper of lemon pepper chicken and rice that Marie had prepared. My son had already told me that he wanted to go check out this new Taco Stand. I got to this point in the anecdote, and when the words “host station” passed my lips, Marie visibly winced and my son’s head instantly fell, his chin hitting his chest.
So anyway, this girl and I waited for almost two minutes before somebody popped his head in from the dining room and asked “Uhhh, two?” The girl replied “I just need a to-go menu.” The fellow said that he’d be right back.
The dining room, classy, spotless, and perhaps a quarter full, looked so spectacularly unlike a Taco Stand that I started looking around for that Mr. Spock with the beard. There was a second door, perhaps to an eighteen-and-up smoking section with a bar. “This must be the upscale Taco Stand,” I said to the girl, who said that this place definitely needed to get its customer service together. She gave it one more minute and left. I learned later that the store’s grand opening was actually a couple of days off, and that they were just doing a soft opening to work out the kinks. I wish these guys the best of luck – I love the Stand – but I gave them one more minute and left as well. Losing two guests to an inattentive host – that’s the sort of kink that needs working out. Just as soon as you figure out what in the name of Herschel Walker a Taco Stand is doing with a host station in the first place.
*(2/26/11) Tacone evidently closed about three weeks after I wrote up this entry.
(8/3/11) Sadly, Krystal seems to have ended this experiment, and closed this prototype store at the end of July. They scrubbed the concept’s website and Facebook page almost instantly, suggesting that this experiment was not successful. What a shame!