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Murphy's: 25 Years of Recipes and Memories
Creating a Sense of Belonging


A Neighborhood Waiting to Happen
I had the idea of the neighborhood deli. Now I needed to find the neighborhood. I found what I wanted in Virginia-Highland. My dad knew Linda and John Capozolli, who owned the popular Capo's Restaurant in Virginia-Highland. They really were pioneers for the neighborhood, which had become run down in recent decades. When they opened Capo's in the late seventies, it was seen as something of a gamble. But John was attracted to the area by the sidewalks. He said he saw a neighborhood waiting to happen.

The Capozollis also owned a building at 1019 Los Angeles Avenue. I was bidding on the location against Steve Gorin, the founder of Gorin's Ice Cream. I won out and set about making a deli out of it. Steve and I became friends and watched one another as we both journeyed through the food industry.

The shop was in the basement of a house and I did all the construction myself, even knocking out walls. We spent four days just jack hammering. My manager from the cheese shop, Elaine Feidler [check name?] came along. Then, at a bakery, I found a fabulous cook named Julie Clifford. I knew nothing about cooking. The three of us opened Murphy's.

My late father-in-law, Beverley Lawler, who we all called Bear, owned a large advertising agency in Norfolk, Virginia and he designed our logo. (Pg. 24)

Susan Murphy:
"My dad was a very successful entrepreneur and Tom was a lot like him. My dad came to town and Tom took him to see the building on Los Angeles before he leased it. It housed an antique shop at that point. I'll never forget the look on Tom's face as he was sharing his vision of what Murphy's would be with my dad. He knew that was what he wanted to do. My dad just smiled as he listened to him." (Pg. 25)

Opening Day?
Our opening was scheduled for November 30, 1980. But a funny thing happened on the way to the opening. We had a fantastic pre-opening party, but got way too much into the spirit of things, if you know what I mean. We had to delay our opening by a day until everyone recovered. So we officially opened on December 1, 1980. I was 22 years old.

Then we hit another little snag. My brother-in-law had worked on the plumbing, but apparently didn't quite finish the job. So on opening day, the pipes clogged up and water backed up. We had about an inch of water on the floor and water was running out the doors.

Now, I might have taken these mishaps as bad omens for my brand new business, but I didn't see it that way. You just wipe up the floor and move on. And people were showing up anyway and walking through water, just to see the place. That's when I knew it was going to be successful. We had about 50 people show up on that first day and they were so enthusiastic, I just knew it would take off. (Pg. 26)

The Early Days
And it did. Murphy's was built on the shoulders of earnest women who loved hospitality and cared about food. They gave their heart and soul to it and the neighborhood responded. Julie was a wonderful chef and people loved her cooking. And Elaine was the workhorse behind me, and she kept me organized.

We were the neighborhood gourmet deli, and we started creating relationships. One of my goals was to give people a sense of belonging. I wanted people to be able to eat there or take home components to make a sandwich or take home a bagel or a piece of cheesecake.

Our sandwiches were $1.25 for a half, up to $2.25 for a hot Reuben. You could create your own sandwich too. That price was listed on the menu as "it depends." We had platters for $2.95--a plate of three homemade salads was one of the most popular--and we had daily specials on sandwiches, soups, and entrees. We were the first restaurant in Atlanta to serve a sandwich on a croissant, which set a trend in the city.

Because we served fresh food, we got a reputation as a healthy restaurant. R. Thomas, owner of R. Thomas Deluxe Grille, which has been in business almost as long as Murphy's, called it a "sixties' natural restaurant, with hippies, fresh food, vegetarian chili, and great dishes aimed at eating right."

I wanted Murphy's to be a part of everyone's day every day. To me, the concept of a delicatessen meant the best the neighborhood had. This was a new concept for the South. Atlanta didn't really have a deli culture. Russ' shop was about the closest thing to it, and of course he had shut down. My goal then was the same as it is today: sell a high-quality product at a good price in a comfortable atmosphere.

Of course the meaning of "comfortable" today in our present location is a little different than it was back then. We could only seat about 20 people in the dining area, which had brick walls painted white. Sometimes people would buy food to take out and go outside and sit on the steps. Open shelves held glassware, bottles of wine, and Lucite canisters of coffee beans. (Pg. 27)

When we first opened, we didn't have a license for wine and beer. It took us a while to get one because we were close to a church.

I had my office in a room upstairs with a lounge chair in it, where I often slept at night. I started work at 6 a.m. for breakfast and worked until midnight. I did that six days a week for five years. Back then I had that type of energy. I was driven and the business was growing.

We had all kinds of people who wanted to help. An elderly lady who lived across the street wandered over one day and asked if she could work for us. Her name was Zelda Wiggins. She was built like a spark plug and was just a burst of energy. She said, "I have nothing to do, Can I be your host?" We said, "Sure!" Then she asked if she could make biscuits for us, which she did every Sunday morning. Zelda worked with us for a couple of years and when she wasn't working, she would keep an eye on the place after we closed up for the night.

Another woman who contributed to my success was Katherine Huffaker--she was a huge influence on me. A really eccentric Christian Scientist, she walked around the neighborhood delivering fruit and copies of the Christian Science Monitor to the elderly from a buggy. She tutored me when I was young, then lent me money and did the books for Murphy's in the early days. She loved the journey of learning and seemed to always have the right answer for everything. She really helped show me the right way.

The first time I saw her I was in the sixth grade and she scared me to death-she had a face like an old Indian woman, all weathered. She was in her 60's and thought heat was bad for you so she'd leave her windows open, even when the drinking water for her cats would freeze.

For a while before we were married Susan lived in an apartment behind Katherine's house. She told Susan that if I was going into the restaurant business, she needed not to worry about jealousy. More on that later.

Years later Katherine got ill and called me. I went over there and she was in a lot of pain. I flew with her in my arms to Des Moines so her son could take care of her. She died shortly after that.

Her son sold her house and the lady who bought it knew we had been friends. She called me and said, "Tom, my husband and I keep hearing things, like something's moving around. We went up to the attic and found a box with a picture of her inside."

They gave me the picture and never heard the noise again. That, to me, was just more proof of Zelda's strong spiritual presence. I feel blessed to have had had a lot of great eccentrics in my life. (Pg. 28)

Elaine:
"Tom and I were in the same management class at Georgia State. I had just moved to Atlanta and saw an ad for a job at the cheese shop on a board near where I lived. I walked in to the cheese shop and Tom hired me on the spot. I had never done that type of work before, but I learned as I went along. My major was in management, but I started at the bottom at the cheese shop! I made sandwiches and sold cheese. Then when he opened Murphy's, I moved there with him. We worked together for about10 years.

For me, there were two really special things about Murphy's. It was very personal. When guests came we would get their name and eventually we knew a lot of the customers by name. The second thing was the excellent food. I always told Tom that if I didn't work there I would still come there to eat. In the restaurant business you work a lot. But Tom always said, 'We work hard but we play hard too.'

At first he was hiring a lot of pretty girls. Finally I said, 'You have to find the ones who will actually do the job, not just look pretty.'

We laughed a lot and had a lot of fun. Of course we had our share of mishaps. Once when Tom was on vacation it seemed like everything went wrong. We had a fire in the meter box and a cash register shut down. Murphy's Law was in effect.

Tom is a really hard worker and a tremendous boss. He became like a brother to me. He really cares about the people who work for him and is an exceptional human being with great business sense." (Pg. 29)

Julie Clifford
"I was working at a bakery when I met Tom. He came in to look at all the breads. When we started I was the food person and Tom was the money person. We started small, with simple soups and salads and it just evolved from there. Murphy's was like a little kid with its own personality.

And we were the new kid in town, so we were busy fairly quickly. We became a part of people's everyday routines. For breakfast we had the Southern Crescent: a croissant with ham and cheese. People would come by every day for that. They had their favorites and would get pretty irate if we ran out.

We were all over the place with our food. We made it all from scratch and had a good range of different foods. Vegetarians could find a good selection; our veggie chili was a big hit.

Zelda Wiggins was about 4 feet tall and 75 years old. She loved to help us out and would carry a huge frying pan of eggs up the stairs to the kitchen to put in the warmer.

We worked some incredible hours and were closed only on Tuesdays, when we would clean up. People would still come knock on the door on Tuesdays, wanting to come in for lunch.

I left, went to Seattle and then came back and helped start the bakery, which was upstairs with the catering department. I had also seen some new things in Seattle and we added things like basil pesto bread. I worked there the first three years, and then after that I was there off and on. In fact, I got kind of burned out. When you're in management you're accountable when things don't go right. It can be wonderful, but it can also be really stressful. Now I'm a physical therapist assistant.

Tom was always very generous and gave other folks a lot of credit. He was quick to acknowledge people's talents. We had such great support from the neighborhood and Murphy's was really a catalyst for making it such a trendy area." (Pg. 30)

 

 

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Early Press and Customer Feedback
We started to attract the attention of the media. An article came out in the Intown Extra section of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution a month after we opened and said, "Murphy's is already well on its way to becoming a popular intown place." The writer, Donna Williams, referred to our tiny dining room as "reminiscent of the renovated basement of a home-simple, but cozy." She gave our food a pretty glowing review and noted our extensive selection of gourmet products.

We got more reviews in local publications and business just kept growing. Just as I had hoped, we became a part of people's lives and a large part of my clientele from the Market followed me to Virginia-Highland. (Pg. 31)

Here are some of the comments our customers made about our first location.
"I moved to Atlanta in 1984 from Providence, where I was working for the Providence Journal. I had been hired as the national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution, and upon moving here was anxious to make myself feel at home. For me, one way to do this is to find the restaurant or cafe or bar in which you feel immediately at ease when you enter. In Providence, this was a joint called Leo's. In Tucson, it was the Shanty. In Atlanta, I found Murphy's.

I'm can't recall how I first 'discovered' it. At the time, I was renting a wonderful apartment in Druid Hills, but it had no laundry facilities. There was, then, a grungy (and that would be putting it politely) laundromat in Virginia-Highland, across the street from Highland Hardware. And most likely, while waiting for my clothes to dry, I ambled outside and into Murphy's (it was then on Los Angeles). I was home.

From that point on, if I was in town, I was at Murphy's either every Saturday or Sunday morning, or both, newspaper in one hand, coffee in the other. The wait staff knew that I wanted to get through my first two cups of coffee before I ordered breakfast, which took me through the A and B sections of the paper. And then breakfast, and then more coffee. On Sunday, with a 700-page newspaper in front of me, this could be a three-hour process.

I'd get there when the doors opened, but you couldn't help but notice that by 9 a.m. or so, there would be a wait. And there I was, leisurely strolling through Dixie Living, Sports, and Arts & Entertainment, while waiting customers cooled their heels. On some of these mornings I would chat with Tom and one time I mentioned my concern that I was hogging a table, thus preventing him from 'turning the tables.' He said--and I've remembered this always--that he felt his café should be like those in Paris, that once you occupied a table, it was yours for as long as you sat there, it didn't matter whether it was just you, coffee, and cream, or a party of five. The ultimate host.
(Pg. 32)

I was never made to feel rushed, never once given even a subtle suggestion from the waiter. I felt at home.

While I enjoy the present location, my heart goes out to the old one, to that marvelous patio, that intimate feel. In later years, my wife (who lived in Paris for six years) and I would go to France and I saw for myself what Tom referred to. A table is yours till you decide it isn't."

Rob Levin

"When I moved to Virginia Highland in 1991, Murphy's was still located on Los Angeles Avenue across from the fire station, and I was just down the street. One evening, my parents and adult siblings came to pick me up for dinner before a Braves playoff game (still a novelty at the time). We walked around the neighborhood looking at the options and eventually made our way to Murphy's. My parents were studying the menu posted on the window when they were accosted by a friendly guy who seemed to be hanging out in front of the restaurant. 'Murphy's is really good,' he said. 'I'm sure you'll enjoy yourselves. If every- thing isn't terrific, Tom Murphy will make it right or give you your money back. And I should know; I'm Tom Murphy.' Needless to say, we entered and had a great meal."

Jeff Alperin

"One of my favorite memories of Murphy's was when it was around the corner in that little house. My mom and I would wait outside, sometimes for an hour, for that unbelievable stuffed waffle. We were always honored when Tom would stop by to check on us, as if we were royalty. Everybody recognized us, and even though times have changed and people have come and gone, Murphy's still feels comfortable and welcoming."

Angie Wolaver

"I remember eating at the original location, before it moved to the corner of Highland and Virginia. It was a very warm, comfortable place with an incredible atmosphere. I loved the outdoor seating area and the fact that all the neighborhood cats hung around looking for scraps."

Mitch Leff

"Back when Murphy's was operating out of the little place on Los Angeles, there were signs posted around to 'please bus your own table.' After lunch there one day, my husband carted his trash off to the garbage can, and I stood at the table and carefully swept all the crumbs, paper bits, and salt grains off the table into my plastic sandwich basket (former Girl Scout).0As soon as I finished, Tom (whom I hadn't noticed before) approached me and thanked me heartily for busing my table so well ... and treated me to lunch that day!"

Leigh Douglas

Mixing Family and Business
Despite my ridiculous hours at the shop, as she called it, Susan and I were still dating. I'll never forget the first time I met her father. We had gone up to Virginia to see her family. He was out in the backyard and I wandered out there to meet him. I thought he was the gardener! After I introduced myself, he said, "What are your intentions toward my daughter?" "No good," I said. Lucky for me he laughed.

Susan had helped me out at the Market and now at Murphy's. But we didn't always see eye to eye. With Murphy's getting more successful, I was starting to attract the attention of some of the ladies in the neighborhood. There was one in particular who used to come visit me named Donna. We were just closing the restaurant one night the first summer we were open and Susan was there, wiping off a table. We heard a knock on the door and Susan said tiredly, "Please don't open it. We're closed."

I saw that it was Donna, wearing a pair of white hot pants, so naturally I let her in. Susan couldn't believe I had opened the door. She was so mad that she just about wiped the stainless steel finish right off the table. Donna floated in and picked up a pound of coffee, then went to pay Susan, who walked over to the register, seething. The money practically levitated in the air, it was so thick with tension. I opened the door to let Donna out and she stopped and gave me a big old kiss. Right on the lips. Of course, I smiled at that and dreamily watched her walk away, wanting to catch every last glimpse of those cute little hot pants.

I turned back toward Susan, who glared at me and then lifted that dirty towel and heaved it across the room with that superhuman strength that's normally found in women only when their children are trapped under a car (or when they perceive themselves to be wronged by a man). If we could bottle that energy, we wouldn't need power plants.

Anyway, that towel smacked me right in the middle of the forehead, sending my beret flying and practically knocking me down. "You clean this $%^@^& place yourself!" she said, and stomped away.

Susan:

"I had been working there all day. It was 1:00 in the morning and I was just getting ready to go clean the bathroom. Instead, I left."

A few months later Susan gave a gal change and it fell in her coffee. The woman said that it was okay, but I didn't think it was. So we had a difference of opinion over that one.

But the last straw happened shortly after that. We had these long deli cases where we kept the salads. I was getting some salad out for a customer when another customer walked in. Susan was helping that customer, so she flung open the door to the deli case, while my head was still in it. The door slammed into my head and I'm stuck in the case. I was stunned by it, and waited for her to apologize and help me out. Instead she started laughing. Then two customers who are watching are laughing so hard I think they are going to wet their pants right there in my restaurant. I'm the boss and everyone is laughing at me.

So I fired her. But then I married her. (Pg. 34)

Susan:
"We did not work together well. We're both Irish and we're both head strong. I wanted to help him out and wanted to work with him so I could see him, because he worked all the time. But we realized it was not a good idea. After we got married, I got a job in a doctor's office for a while, then went to work for a travel agency. I tell people it's best not to have your family working in the business. I think it can destroy a family. I was always supportive of his career, but thought it was best if I went my own way. I grew up in a family where my dad taught us to separate business from family and he never had any of us work for him.

One thing Tom learned from my family is that you have to take time off. Tom has always worked so hard, it was tough for him to relax. My family rented a place at Nag's Head, North Carolina every year for one or two weeks. When we were dating, we invited Tom along. One year Tom didn't come and I met someone else and started dating him. Tom didn't miss the trip after that. My dad worked really hard, but he knew how to have fun. I think that opened Tom's eyes.

Shortly after he opened the restaurant I put some money in a savings account and took a class at Emory called 'Europe on a Budget.' I made him take three and a half weeks off and Elaine ran the shop. We spent a week in London, went to Scotland, then Paris, and took a bike trip through Burgundy. I believe that trip really opened up the world for him; he could see what was out there. He realized that you must have balance. This business can be really hard on families and it would really be difficult if we both had full-time careers."

After dating for five years, I figured it was time to marry Susan. She was the only girl I knew who would come to see me at the Municipal Market. I wanted to marry her because she accepted me for who I was.

Susan:
"We had been dating for five years. I was helping him with the shop as much as I could. I was also helping him do work on his house. Finally I put my foot down and said, 'You know I'm helping you do all this work, and I really don't want to be making this big investment of my time and energy just so another woman can come along and benefit from it. 'Sometimes it helps to be direct."

Her family always had a traditional Christmas, so I flew up to Virginia as a surprise and proposed in front of her whole family. They loved it. Fortunately she said yes. We got married on August 28 and I took a whole month off for our wedding and honeymoon in Napa Valley and Lake Tahoe. Her dad told her that his ability to be a successful businessman was dependent on him having a strong stable life at home. He taught her to keep work and family separate.

We bought our first home on Amsterdam Avenue from one of our customers. We bartered having our floors done with another customer, who did the floors in exchange for eating at the restaurant. I think he ate lunch there every day for a year. (Pg. 35)

 

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