Power struggle – Why McGowan’s closed

Posted by Dan Whisenhunt March 24, 2014
McGowan's closed last week. Decaturish wanted to know why. The answers are surprising.

McGowan’s closed last week. Decaturish wanted to know why. The answers are surprising.

It just didn’t make sense.

McGowan’s Oakhurst Pub at the historic Scottish Rite building on West Hill Street shut its doors last week. For a few days, people weren’t quite sure what had happened.

Chris Seaver, a reader, Tweeted to Decaturish, “Did McGowan’s in Oakhurst close? Any idea what might take its place?”

At first, we had a difficult time finding answers to that basic question. McGowan’s left without fanfare. There were no heartfelt goodbyes to the community and no press releases explaining the circumstances. The restaurant’s website went offline. The emails to McGowan’s bounced back.

The only explanation was a note taped to the door: “McGowan’s Pub Closed as of March 19, 2014.” That was it.

But this wasn’t any old pub. It was a restaurant doing business inside a historic building, a landmark the Oakhurst community fought to save. The rehabilitation of the former convalescent hospital in the early 2000’s was the catalyst for the neighborhood’s gentrification. The building’s east wing, the Solarium, plays host to community events and wedding receptions.

McGowan’s was in a prime location at ground zero of Oakhurst’s renaissance. It closed and no one knew why. It didn’t make sense at all.

We kept digging for answers and found them. But we also found something we weren’t expecting.

The Scottish Rite property is embroiled in a lawsuit pitting the nonprofit that fought to save the historic building against the nonprofit that redeveloped it. The owner of McGowan’s told Decaturish that the lawsuit is directly responsible for her decision to leave Scottish Rite, a claim contradicted by the building’s current landlord. The outcome lawsuit could ultimately determine who owns the building for the foreseeable future.

When we started asking questions about this lawsuit, we learned that few people knew about it or its implications. McGowan’s closing was just the subplot in a story about a power struggle for control of a Decatur landmark.

That struggle dragged on quietly for years. Cover your eardrums, kids. Things are about to get loud.

What’s up with McGowan’s?

By Friday, March 21, word began to get out that McGowan’s had closed. Decaturish.com’s Twitter account received shout-outs from curious readers. Someone asked about it on the Oakhurst neighborhood Facebook page, and it soon filled up with replies. Everyone wanted to know what had happened.

We visited the restaurant and noticed the sign on the door. We reached out to the owner, Jill Alikonis, on March 21 but couldn’t connect with her that day. We checked DeKalb County court records to see if there were any court filings that might shed light on things.

We found something. Alikonis is named as a defendant in a lawsuit filed in Superior Court in March of 2013 by the Community Center of South Decatur. The other defendant is Scottish Rite’s current owner, Progressive Decatur.

Well, holy shit. Keep reading. It only gets more interesting from here.

Back in 2002, Progressive Decatur, a subsidiary of Progressive Redevelopment Incorporated, signed a lease with Community Center of South Decatur, the group that had been working to save Scottish Rite since the 1970s. Under the terms of the lease, Community Center of South Decatur would pay Progressive $10 a year. In exchange, Progressive Decatur took control of the redevelopment of one of Decatur’s key assets. The lease also contained a purchase option clause. It stipulated that if Progressive Decatur tried to transfer or sell the building, Community Center of South Decatur would be able to execute its option to buy it.

Other records obtained by Decaturish.com show that over the years Community Center chafed under that arrangement. There were disagreements about who had the responsibility for making repairs to the structure under the terms of the lease. One of those disagreements sparked the lawsuit.

Local attorney Kyle Williams filed the lawsuit on behalf of Community Center. Williams is also a candidate in the May 20 Democratic Primary for state Senate District 42.

“I have represented for a number of years pro bono (Community Center of South Decatur) which is the tenant of Progressive Decatur, the owner of the totality of the property,” Williams said.

According to the lawsuit, Progressive Decatur claims that during Scottish Rite renovations someone switched power meters for the Solarium with meters for McGowan’s side of the building. Community Center’s lawsuit claims the nonprofit paid about $30,000 worth of electric bills that should’ve been sent to the restaurant. The lawsuit claims that the bill is ultimately Progressive Decatur’s responsibility, as landlord.

Progressive Decatur filed a counter suit alleging that Community Center of South Decatur had slandered the redevelopment firm by misrepresenting its financial condition to Decatur City Commissioners. The counter suit also said the Community Center’s purchase option is unenforceable under state law.

Williams said a judge will ultimately have to decide whether the purchase option is valid.

“Our position is the letter of option agreement is a valid option. It has all of the essential terms and is a binding contract that gives us the rights of the option,” Williams said.

The lawsuit provoked many questions. we decided to seek an answer to the most basic one: why did McGowan’s close, and did this lawsuit have anything to do with it?

This rabbit hole keeps going and going

We tried multiple times to reach representatives with Progressive Decatur for a comment about this story. Eventually, CEO Bruce Gunter replied with a short email.  “Two not related,” he wrote. “Can’t comment on the lawsuit. That’s about it.” He didn’t respond to an email asking if he knew the reason McGowan’s had closed.

As you might recall, the Scottish Rite went on the market in December 2013 for $2.1 million. Keep in mind that this lawsuit had been going on for several months prior to that announcement. A few days after that news about the listing of the property became public, Community Center of South Decatur released a letter about the situation to Decatur Metro and other media outlets.

“The members of the CCSD board want to reassure the Decatur community that we intend to continue our work as stewards of The Solarium to ensure that it remains available as a public resource,” the letter said. “In that spirit, we have informed Progressive Development, the current owners of the Historic Scottish Rite property, of our intent to exercise a clause in our lease that allows us to purchase The Solarium.”

What most of the public didn’t know at the time is Community Center and Progressive already were haggling over ownership of Scottish Rite in Superior Court.

We spoke to Bill Adams, the Realtor for the Scottish Rite property and a former board member for Progressive Redevelopment, the parent company of Progressive Decatur. He called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said it had nothing to do with why McGowan’s closed.

“I think McGowan’s, they were just behind in their rent,” Adams said. ” … It seemed like a pretty nice little restaurant. It didn’t seem like they had a whole lot of clientele.”

Adams said he didn’t know how far behind McGowan’s was on the rent. He said he only knew about it because of information obtained while getting the property ready to go to market.

“We do an income and expense statement,” Adams said. “We got a rent roll. You look at what all the tenants are paying. That’s when the landlord said they’re supposed to be paying this and they’re behind.”

So that’s clear cut, right? The company that marketed the property said McGowan’s was behind on rent and wasn’t doing a whole lot of business. That’s not uncommon. It sounded like a plausible explanation when we spoke with Adams on Saturday, March 22. Alikonis hadn’t been responding to messages. We reached out to her attorney in the lawsuit filed by Community Center, and he agreed that his client should probably make a statement.

Decaturish was ready to run a story that said Alikonis couldn’t be reached for comment. Then, late on Sunday evening, March 23, we got a phone call.

A different story

It was Alikonis. She promised a statement would be forthcoming. Within an hour she sent the following message via email. Alikonis flatly contradicted what Gunter and Adams said about whether the lawsuit played a part in McGowan’s departure.

“The members of the Board of the CCSD (Community Center of South Decatur or The Solarium) filed a lawsuit against McGowan’s and the building owner, PRI (Progressive Redevelopment INC), in March 2013 regarding switched Georgia Power meters,” Alikonis wrote. “In response to a specific settlement request dated October 7, 2013, from The Solarium Board regarding the lawsuit, PRI listed the entire Scottish Rite Building for sale in late 2013. I decided to relocate my restaurant when I heard rumors of a short sale. I was worried about the stability of the building. Patrons had canceled long standing reservations because of the gossip surrounding the sale of the building. Despite my attempts to negotiate with PRI, my lease expired in January. The uncertainty surrounding the sale of the building, the pending litigation, and the rumored short sale, led me to conclude that relocation is my best option. We are currently scouting for space in Midtown and Inman Park.”

We asked another Realtor to confirm whether Scottish Rite was listed as a short sale, meaning that it would be sold for less than what Progressive Decatur owes on the building. The Realtor said he couldn’t find any evidence that the building is listed as a short sale.

But what about Adams’ claim that Alikonis’ was behind on rent?

Alikonis wrote, “My restaurant had a very easy amicable relationship with Progressive Redevelopment Inc. for some time, including when the general economy was down, and when the unexpected power company invoices surfaced. At several points, we were able to negotiate payment schedules that would work for everyone, until this lawsuit was filed. Soon after that point, the relationship broke down.”

The lawsuit, it seems, played a central role in McGowan’s closing. But it’s also unearthing some other interesting things, too.

Truth as a defense

Remember the counterclaim of “slander” that Progressive Decatur filed against Community Center that we mentioned earlier?

“Plaintiff has falsely stated and continues to falsely state that defendant is insolvent,” Progressive’s counterclaim says. “Plaintiff has falsely stated and continues to falsely state that defendant is in default of the loan secured by the property of which the premises described in the lease is located. The foregoing allegations by defendant are false in that defendant is not insolvent and is not in default under the loan encumbering the property.”

In its response to the counter suit, Community Center cites the “affirmative defense of truth” as a rebuttal to Progressive Decatur’s “slander” claim.

We didn’t find evidence that the building is under threat of foreclosure. But Adams, the Reatlor, did raise the possibility that the property could be in foreclosure at some point. Adams made the comment while saying that Community Center’s lawsuit is “frivolous.”

“The only thing the lawsuit could potentially do is throw the whole property into foreclosure,” Adams said. “The nonprofit that owns it (Progressive Redevelopment), doesn’t have a whole lot of cash now with McGowan’s closing. If they have to defend this suit, then it could be that the building could go into foreclosure. If that’s the case, then all bets are off on leases. So you really could be killing the goose that laid the golden egg.”

So why doesn’t Progressive “have a lot of cash now,” as Adams put it?

Well, back in 2010 the Atlanta Journal Constitution reported that Progressive Redevelopment Inc. defaulted on $8 million worth of bad loans and had several properties in foreclosure. The AJC story quotes Gunter extensively.

“We’re fighting for our survival,” he told the AJC. “We’re out of money. We made the mistake of trying to do too much with too little. And when the housing market tanked, we got shot full of holes.”

We couldn’t find the original article on AJC.com, but some astute individual published it on their Live Journal page.

The article said that Gunter planned to hold on to about 12 of his properties and use those to rebuild his company.

We asked Adams whether or not Progressive Redevelopment is still in the business of providing affordable housing.

“They’re still in business,” Adams said. “They are just winding down, in a pretty orderly fashion. They had sold or had given back all the properties that they own. They have a couple of properties that are under contract. They’re down to three properties.”

The sale of Scottish Rite for $2.1 million would probably help make the winding down process easier if it weren’t tied up in this lawsuit.

Williams, Community Center’s attorney, said there is currently no scheduled hearing on the purchase option. He didn’t rule out the possibility of seeking a temporary restraining order to block Progressive Decatur’s sale of the property.

“The Community Center of South Decatur will do whatever it needs to do,” Williams said.

And we’ll need to stop the story right there, for now. we have several more questions that deserve a response and more trails to follow.

But, the short story is, that’s why McGowan’s closed.

Editor’s note:

This story was updated from its original version to clarify the source of the claims outlined in the lawsuit. 

By the way, this story was a pain in the damn ass to report. It required calling numerous people, scouring records and several pots of coffee. Do you like having this kind of journalism in your community? I can’t keep doing it without your support. There’s a donation button in the bottom right hand side of the screen. Any amount you give will go toward paying writers who can provide the kind of journalism this community needs and deserves. As you can see, a lot of things fly under the radar around here. 

About Dan Whisenhunt

Dan Whisenhunt is editor and publisher of Decaturish.com. https://www.linkedin.com/in/danwhisenhunt

View all posts by Dan Whisenhunt

  • OakhurstMom

    This is a great article and lays out what facts are available. Here’s the color it is missing and has been so blatantly trampled by Bill Adam’s comments about McGowan’s being a nice little restaurant with few clientele. McGowan’s was an extension of home for many of us. Our little ones were safe there, the staff were more than servers, Jill Alikonis took care of every detail and made the place comfortable and warm. I have spent many evenings there with friends and family. Held birthdays, gathered after community chior practice, met friends after a stressful day, created ad hoc parties for the Kentucky Derby and the like…a group of us chose to spend the 2014 New Year’s Eve together in this restaurant. Jill and her staff and this amazing place will be sorely missed and the next tenant will never be able to live up to McGowans. Decaturish, track down the rest of this story and follow the trail of the next tenant. All of this is way too suspicious.

  • R Willingham

    Our family has loved the businesses Jill Alikonis has fostered and lovingly nourished for over a decade now. From the art gallery to Palate to McGowans. What a sad turn of events. We will miss McGowan’s as the “Cheers” of Oakhurst. Jill, we wish you all the best and thank you for your dedication to our neighborhood.

  • Bella

    I can’t wait to find my favorite Shrimp and Grits place relocated, hopefully close-by and soon! Shame Oakhurst lost its best restaurant.

    • Benjamin

      Steinbecks is gone?

      • Bella

        Why not just bring a six pack and sit in the street’s median only feet away? Oakhurst loves to sit six inches from the road, sucking in traffic fumes, and basking in the headlights (Hey look at me!) McGowans had the best patio by far, and food at least as good as elsewhere. It was just too far from the street for Oakhurst to see, be seen, and gossip about later.

        • LetsBeFrank

          ^^^ Makes no sense. None.

        • kjs3atl

          This axe you found to grind…I do not think it’s from Oakhurst.

  • Patrick Nonnenmacher

    McGowan’s will

  • Josh

    McGowan’s was and will be our home pub wherever it is. The food is freaking fantastic, the drinks are great, and the people and the vibe and everything about it is just like home. Just open ‘er back up, Jill. We’ll be there.

  • ksl

    I am curious to know who the members of The Solarium board are, and why they would initiate a lawsuit which could jeopardize their sweet $10 per year rent. Couldn’t this have been worked out between Georgia Power and the landlord without dragging poor McGowan’s into it? Something doesn’t smell right, and it’s not the food at McGowan’s! I’m going to miss that place; it’s sad that Oakhurst is losing its best patio.

    • Rest assured there will be further stories about this. After I hit 2,000 words, I figured that was enough for people to digest for a few days.

    • Bryan Swann

      Hi I am Bryan Swann. The past CCSD president that initiated all of this. I have never hidden from the public. I can’t hide given all I have done for the community.
      This was a landlord tenant issue and it didn’t go well. The story didn’t include a lot of facts, although it did have a lot correct. Please wait for this to play out.

      • Bryan, are there any specific corrections that need to be made? I try to be as accurate as possible. Everything here is either from interviews or the public record of the lawsuit. If there’s something that needs fixing, please let me know ASAP so I can take care of it.

  • Jennifer Yamamoto

    McGowans closing has had a big impact with our friends and family!! We have been there every step of the way and my kids have grown up in this restaurant with Jill and her amazing staff. From when my husband and I took our first outing 6 days after our son was born, to when my, then 6-year old, had to cancel her birthday party suddenly and Jill hosted the sweetest tea party, to my annual corporate Christmas parties, to EVERY Halloween and snow day in Oakhurst, to just a spontaneous friday night with our closest friends and family. We are so saddened by the closing of our pub. We can not wait to frequent the new location Jill locates. To us and MANY Oakhurst restaurants, McGowans was ‘a sweet little restaurant’ with the most important clientele-all of our friends and family who were well taken care of by this restaurant!!! Good luck Jill we know you will come out even better than before….stronger and happier!

  • Penelope Campbell

    While the author of this piece has done a lot of spade work in uncovering the reasons for the closure of the pub, I object to the coarseness of his language. Using such vulgarities as “holy shit” and “damn ass” is an affront to civil discourse and reveals his deficiency in knowing what is an appropriate vocabulary for the articles he publishes in public spaces.

    • “An affront to civil discourse.” That’s the coolest thing anyone has ever said about my writing. Thank you. 🙂

      • marcusowens

        How dare you use such language! On the internet of all places!!!

  • IzK

    This is solid journalism, Dan. Keep up the good work!

  • FM Fats

    This would be a great location for a Brick Store folks’ concept when they’re ready to expand and the dust has settled over the building ownership.

    • John Duckworth

      My family will McGowans terribly. We always felt that it was our place or as a earlier poster described “cheers”. Jill continuosly brought new ideas to her restaurant that struck the perfect balance between kid/ adult friendly place. I will always look back fondly at my daughter’s win in the Halloween costume contest or the late nights/early evenings with my friends. It took alot of guts to open a restaurant in a historic building solo and offer an innovative alternative to the Oakhurst Village market. She was the first restauranteur to offer craft draft beers in Oakhurst, which now is commonplace. I can go on (Jazz Nights, Wedding receptions etc) but I think most of what I will miss is the personal touch that she added to her restaurant. She was there almost every night greeting new and old friends and I know it is trite, but “Where everyone knows your name” was 100% accurate at her restaurant, which is not as evident elswhere. It is sad that this situation seemingly could have been avoided. Jill, best of luck in your new venture! I am sure it will be successful and look forward to visiting.

    • kjs3atl

      Since the Brickstore folks pretty much own the Square, perhaps a different group. It’s not like there’s a lack of first rate restaurateurs in town.

  • VS

    Follow the money…..there is more to the story. Who crafted the original deal and what are the stipulations? Who is PRI and what other deals have they been involved in?

    • Anonymous

      Follow the relationships that the board had with other Pub Owners in Oakhurst (hint)

      • Scot Hollonbeck

        Wow. Pathetic. If you mean the Pub owner that joined the board three months ago and donates thousands of dollars annually to numerous local fundraisers. I begged him to join and be our Treasurer as we needed one, he understands business and he has an accounting degree. After he joined and became an officer he was fully briefed on the legal issues.

  • Marcus

    The only thing that sounds fishy here is Jill’s comment about “cancelling long-standing reservations.” First, McGowan’s never struck me as the place where people had a standing or long-in-advance reservation. And, if someone liked the place enough to set such a reservation, would “rumors about the building” really cause them to cancel said reservation?

    Always sad to see a good place go, however. McGowans will be missed.

    • FM Fats

      I often saw private events in the wine bar side of the place.

    • McGowans Minion

      Fishy? There were wedding receptions planned, as I understand, which would give any nervous couple second thoughts. Sorry, I guess most of us don’t have Marcus’s funds for larger wedding spreads.

      But I’d like to thank McGowans for those nights I’d come into town late and was greeted by her friendly staff, sports-filled HD’s and cold spirits. That quiet, candlelit pub will be sorely missed in your town.

  • Scot Hollonbeck

    Timeout. CCSD Board President here – writing unofficially as a private citizen. This
    story goes much deeper and I look forward to reading more of what Dan turns up.
    In the meantime, while I am saddened to see McGowan’s depart the
    neighborhood and I wish Jill the best, here are a couple facts for additional
    consideration: THERE WAS NOT A POWER METER SWITCH, that is a Progressive Decatur “claim”. But, lets look closer at the “frivolous claim” that Mr. Adams has referred to.

    CCSD was given a bill by the landlord, Progressive Decatur LLC (PD). Bruce Gunter is a partner in that private for profit company. Now, he also manages PRI a 501 C-3 non-profit that is also a tenant in the Old Scottish Rite complexl. PRI and PD are separate entities. Yes, I know, it gets complicated. Back to the power bill, Georgia Power records show that neither of the meters in question were ever worked on. There is no evidence that there was a “power meter switch”. The tenants were provided bills by PD. CCSD received a bill from PD and starting pay it in 2003. In 2011, the non-profit Community Center of South Decatur (CCSD) that governs The Solarium noticed continued power bill increases. The then board president, Bryan Swann, conducted an audit and realized CCSD paid an estimated $40,000 worth of Jill’s Palate and McGowan bills. CCSD asked Jill and PD the landlord to make good on the situation. Jill and the landlord declined claiming “hard times”. As,neither party was willing to pay this debt, As both Jill and PD were involved, CCSD filed its claims in late 2013.

    On the issue of the $10 per year Solarium lease. Some history is needed to get the full picture. Another of Mr. Gunter’s companies was selected to refurbish the multi-acre Old Scottish Rite complex by the City in 2000. Bruce’s company paid $10 to the City for a multi – acre property in Oakhurst under a contract called the “City Development Agreement”. That agreement insured that the community would get to keep the Solarium as a non-profit community center. PD got a multi-million dollar property for $10, plus public funds to restore the main buildings and the rights to sell off other buildings and lots as long as they maintained the roof and exterior of the Solarium until 2021.

    Under that agreement, Progressive Decatur was not allowed, to mortgage the Solarium, but in 2007 they did just that – for over $1.8 million. Now the property is upside down. Where did the money from the loan go? I am not sure.

    SunTrust recently sold the mortgage, to an under-performing commercial trust PNC-Midland, which is not accepting short sale offers (2 offers have already been denied) and as the property is saddled with a mortgage that is worth more than the property, it will likely go into foreclosure. If you are not sure look about that foreclosure concern, give Vickie Taylor of LNR Partners in Miami Beach a call at 305.695.5076. She was hired as a Special Servicer of a CMBS Turst by Midland Loan Services owned by PNC. As it turns out, PNC hasa vast REO property business.

    So, while I am sorry that McGowan’s was not profitable, despite the community paying the bulk of its power bills, and that PRI and PD are not making as much money as they would like, I am more concerned that Oakhurst and Decatur may lose The Solarium.

    The Solarium/CCSD now hosts over 200 events per year. Many events like: MLK Service Days, Barbecue and Blues and BlueGrass Festival, Patio Party, Jazz Nights, PTA and school fundraisers and ONA meeting are subsidized by the CCSD board. CCSD has also made over $50,000 worth of grants to community organizations in the last few years. One last thing, the CCSD volunteer board has 14 members, they are long time Decatur residents who donate their time from family and work to preserve this community center. Look forward to reading the next edition .

    Scot Hollonbeck

    • Thank you for the response, Scott. I’ve updated the story to clarify where the claims came from in the suit. One question I have: Why didn’t CCSD inform the public about this lawsuit when the nonprofit emailed Metro about the intent to exercise the purchase option? That’s one of the strangest parts of this, from my perspective. This had been going on for some time but it was not disclosed when CCSD wrote that letter. I realize that there’s attorney-client privilege and all of that, but I’m amazed that news about this didn’t get out on its own, given the number of people involved in the dispute. (Also, because it’s Decatur and gossip is our second largest export, behind fighting on the internet.) If you could shed some light on that, it would be helpful.

      • Scot

        Hi Dan,

        I would be happy to speak with you. Awaiting your call.


    • abmagic

      Scot, thanks for providing some additional color. Question on the “short sale” reference you made. You said PNC Midland (or LNR as the servicer) was not accepting offers, but then contradicted yourself by saying 2 offers had been denied. It seems they are accepting offers but haven’t been presented one they deem reasonable for the property. Are you familiar enough to share the content of the offers you imply they should have accepted? My guess is it is directly tied to the lawsuit, and they likely won’t consider any offers until the lawsuit is resolved as the value of the underlying collateral is substantially different with or without the Solarium.

      • Scot

        Sorry for any confusion,LNR is not accepting “short sale offers” – anything less than the loan amount. Best I can tell, PNC Midland and LNR were unaware of the CCSD lawsuit and the City Development Agreement. We sent them both certified notice when we realized a few weeks ago that SunTrust had sold the loan. The power bill lawsuit is less of an issue for LNR and any pending sale of the rest of the property than the fact that CCSD owns the rights to the Solarium under its state filed Option to Purchase. This was always part of the deal and thankfully the volunteer board of 2003 had the sense to file that option with the state.. Otherwise, per the initial agreement with the city and PD, CCSD automatically assumed ownership in 2021 for another $10. Additional question will have to wait until Dan’s second article. Cheers.

    • Josh

      You’re not writing unofficially as a private citizen, mister. You’re doing everything you can to defend your organization’s part in this. That’s fine to do, but don’t pretend you’re some impartial regular citizen.

  • OakhurstResident

    As a patron of McGowans for several years, I’m sad to see the bar close so ubruptly. That Jill was forced (by whatever parties involved owner-not owner-board-whoever) to close her doors without warning, stole her patrons the opportunity to give her a proper send off. As you can see, many people considered the bar a part of their lives (Halloween, Races, Sports Fans etc) and to have it just end….sucks. I understand business is business and can respect that, but play nice. Unfair is unfair and cheating is still cheating.

    • LetsBeFrank

      Read again. She said that she chose to close the restaurant based on rumors. That doesn’t sound like she was forced. I understand that some people loved the place. Not nearly enough, though. Sometimes the market speaks.

  • Familiar Face

    Here’s my issue with all of this, regardless of bad business and/or lawsuits that tie into this whole ordeal: the Oakhurst community, in my opinion, isn’t allowed to be too upset over McGowan’s closing because the community as a whole never gave it enough business in the first place.

    Think about it…large, 2 dining room restaurant, full kitchen, 20 craft beer taps. It had the potential, if given enough business, to have had 20 kegs tapped, great food firing out of the kitchen, and a great atmosphere. But it probably cost a lot to keep that business running, and in an area where repeat local business is key, they weren’t getting enough.

    They used to have some of the nicest food in Oakhurst with the salmon, scallops, pot roast, etc., but in the last year or two had scaled everything back. They would sometimes only have 4-6 beers on tap, and would be running out of items on the food menu quite often. I bet this was because the lax, less-is-more places that make up most of the square were being patronized by the community and leaving McGowan’s with the scraps. They had to convert to a less-costly strategy to uphold due to slower business. (Lower demand brought lower supply, not the other way around.) Oakhurst loves to feel so upper-class and polished, but they wouldn’t fuel a business that was a tad nicer/bigger than the rest of those on the square.

    So, in scaling back, it went to more neighborhood pub-type food and fewer beverage choices all to better match the amount of clientele they had. They came with great wings and burgers, along with the best atmosphere (all the TVs and game sound!) to watch sports within miles of Oakhurst. Throw in some of the best staff (Joe, Jeff, Eric) to interact with while watching your game, grabbing dinner, or just a few beers, it seems like they tried to adapt to what the community was giving them. But the community didn’t respond, not due to lack of trying from McGowan’s end.

    Although Jill, according to this article, backed away due to uncertainty regarding the building or what not, Oakhurst, in my opinion, wasn’t giving her enough business to fight for. Sad to see them go, but I saw it coming.

    • OakhurstSoLong

      I totally agree with this assessment. Oakhurst just isn’t ready for an upscale bar/restaurant. Oakhurst does think of itself as upper-class and polished (nevermind the overgrown, weedy front yard, we like to keep it natural), but this restaurant’s failure is likley an indication that it’s not quite there yet. Actually probably not by a long shot. I suspect this trend will continue for awhile as just about everyone new to the neighborhood is house-poor or house-broke. There’s also the appeal of appearing to “slum it” and Oakhurst does that so well. Burgers and tacos are the order of the day, at least for the foreseeable future. But at least they are good burgers and tacos.

      • LetsBeFrank

        I’ve lived in/around Oakhurst for a long time. Much of what you, and Familar Face, say here about the neighborhood, and how it thinks of itself, makes no sense. None.

        Oakhurst didn’t give it enough business because potential patrons deemed that it wasn’t as good as the other options. I ate at McGowan’s many times, starting with the week it opened. Never once did I think of it as “upscale.” Nothing about it said “upscale” to me. It was ok. My many Oakhurst friends and I never really considered it our first option. It was always a good back up plan if you couldn’t get a table somewhere else. I got the sense that was pretty much the case for the majority (not all) of patrons there.

        • EvenMoreFrank

          Could not agree more, LFB. I live just feet from the Village, and we eat out there all the time, usually multiple times a week. In just the Village itself, McGowan’s was, at best, the sixth best option — Steinbecks, UJ, Mojo, Mezcalitos, and Saba all head and shoulders better. (And to be honest, I’d take a chicken salad sandwich from Oakhurst Market over McGowan’s too.) That location always had, and still has, enormous unfulfilled potential. Maybe now we’ll get a restaurant worthy of the space.

        • OakhurstSoLong

          Sorry to be unclear. I agree that McGowan’s just wasn’t that good. But they did try, especially early-on to provide more than gut-bombing fried/grilled foods. And they did this well, but the place didn’t succeed because patrons didn’t want it. It’s impossible to know for sure but my sense is that if you plucked any higher-end restaurant out of the Highlands and stuck it into any space in Oakhurst it would be out of business in 18 months. It’s not the Highlands or Morningside, which can support nicer restaurants because residents have deeper pockets. But house prices are not that far off anymore between these neighborhoods. Seems like there’s a disconnect and from my observations living in the neighborhood, it’s because people in Oakhurst stretch finances to live there and take advantage of the good schools, but make significant financial sacrifices to be here. One of them is eating out at nicer restaurants. Just my theory. Shouldn’t a neighborhood with $850k homes support a higher-end restaurant? At least one?

          • LetsBeFrank

            I know there are more and more $850k homes in our area, but the fact is, there are currently not that many, relatively speaking. Maybe 40 at most priced that high? Even if there were 100, those wouldn’t be enough to support a high-end restaurant. Further, Stienbecks has food worthy of a higher-end restaurant in an atmosphere that better fits the neighborhood.

        • Hungry Oakhurst resident

          So true . . we gave them way to many opportunities, but were always disappointed in the menu, food, layout, service, etc. I refused to go there after a few weeks ago when I had out-of-town guests and took them there. The owner walked right by our table (of 15+ guests) and did not even acknowledge us, even though the rest of the restaurant was close to empty. I’m not sure what she was so busy doing (I’m my own experience working in restaurants, the managers/owners are ALWAYS polite to guests, especially large parties). After that example of unprofessionalism I swore to never return. Convenient that they closed within the month.

  • kjs3atl

    You returned “once a week since it opened” to inedible food and poor service? Really?

  • pixie3

    I will really miss McGowan’s. It was a gem of a place to hang out, eat, drink, socialize, chill…but reading the details of this story leads me to understand why Jill would make the decision to move out of the neighborhood. What a shame. But I am looking forward to seeing what she will do next, and hopefully it will include that divine fried chicken with collard greens and jalapeño cheese grits. Damn!

  • adventuresome

    This beautiful building was the beginning of my disenfranchisement of city politics. This building used to belong to the community and I was on the committee to explore options for developing. The committee found an architect willing to develop it based on grants so it would continue to be a community asset. Out of the blue, the property was given away and the option we all explored and knew to be viable was discounted. I remember thinking at the time, how nice, wish someone would give me a million dollar property…. Profits have always been at the heart of this development and nothing would surprise me, however deceitful.

  • LivedinOakhurst

    After reading a ton of these posts.. I have to add my own.

    First off.. I love Jill to pieces. She’s great and I wish her the best. That being said..

    This might have been the best thing for McGowans. Or better yet, a better way out than having to close the door due to lack of business. I lived in Oakhurst for over 2 years and its my main landing pad for visiting my bar patrons as I’m there on a regular basis (5 years). My view on posts saying that maybe Oakhurst isn’t ready for an “Upscale” restaurant = What? Are you kidding me? Have you been to Oakhurst and noticed the current clientele recently? All the soccer moms walking their strollers in and around Oakhurst Square? The $700k homes that are being built in place of the 30’s-50’s bungalows that are being either torn down or built on top of? Oakhurst has its own cleaners, an automobile service station and its own friggen CHURCH for crying out loud. I think that alone, along with 4 convenient stores (Dollar General (barf), The O market (overpriced), The Stab and Grab and the little store on Oakview road indicates this is an up and coming community that’s growing and needs this support and has one of the best school systems in Atlanta. So yes.. Oakhurst is WAY over due for a nice, upscale place to eat. Those who think its not ready for a nice place to eat haven’t a clue as to what they are saying. The only regret to Oakhurst bursting at the seams now is it will lose its appeal to the already frustrated local’s who can’t have their quiet, cozy, kid-less, little secret any more. The local restaurants are loving it and it shows when every time you turn around the price of your beer and food get higher and the portions get smaller (Steinbecks).

    McGowans had EVERY opportunity to bring in new business from ALL OVER the boardering villages of Oakhurst: East Lake, Belvedere, Lake Claire, Kirkwood, Edgewood, etc..etc.. The problems were that the food was mediocre (at best), horrible marketing, lack of menu change, no beer selection and many other things. And that’s being nice. McGowans had the largest footprint of any restaurant in Oakhurst, a separate wine bar with a connected dining room that could seat a boat load of people, an area that could be considered its own pub, an art gallery and not to mention they have the 2nd best patio space in the neighborhood. (UJ being a little better). They held wedding receptions, parties and benefited immensely from Jazz Festivals that cycle through twice a year. These are all problems that filter down to one issue.. business management. The place was a dud and I’m suprised it lasted as long as it did. I’ve known several ex servers/cooks that worked there and they all left to pursue better opportunities in the food service industry, in other villages due to not being able to make any money. There are pubs in that neighborhood that are RAKING it in because they have an identity. They can appeal to all flavors of people.. McGowans only identity were a few consistent patrons and Jill’s large friend base. That’s it.

    With all the neighboring places to eat outside of the square (Wahoo, Sun In My Belly, The Imperial, all the places in Kirkwood/Eastlake and the establishments in Oakhurst).. McGowans didn’t stand a chance because it wasn’t a great place to go. Period.

    I hope that something does move in there that brings more people to Oakhurst. It’s only going to help people like me that live outside of the neighborhood and are looking for home values to rise. Its a win win for Oakhurst but losing battle for the patrons that want all the newcomers and tourists to get the hell out.

    Who the hell brings their kids to a f’ing bar anyway?

Receive the Daily Email DIgest

* = required field