Like any good conversation, it always seems better if you can do it while breaking bread. It would help if you could have a glass of wine or a cold beer to wash it down.
Just know that on Sundays in downtown Columbus, your options to find a place to break that bread and quench that thirst are somewhat limited. For years, many of the downtown restaurants have traditionally closed on Sundays — and few folks noticed. It has not been a huge deal because after the church crowd headed home, the downtown streets emptied. You might run into a couple of runners, a group of cyclists and someone being dropped off to pick up a car they left the night before. But that was about it.
Now, when more than half of the restaurants are closed, you notice it. And you also notice people from Columbus and beyond are rafting in the Chattahoochee River and zip lining across it most Sundays, not to mention the growing number of residents within walking distance of those downtown restaurants.
Spring is not even here yet and Sunday evening there were people — lots of people — walking around the streets in the 1000 and 1100 blocks.
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But one thing hasn’t changed. Less than half the downtown restaurants were open.
“There is a conversation going on right now, where a couple of restaurant owners are already thinking about how to deal with it,” said Uptown Columbus Inc., President Richard Bishop.
To be fair, there were a few choices — Houlihan's, Your Pie, Barberitos, Momma Goldberg's, Subway, Picasso Pizza, Cannon Brew Pub and Country’s. The two downtown coffee shops — Iron Bank and Fountain City — were open as well. So was Freeze Frame, the yogurt shop . But many of the other popular restaurants such as The Loft, Mabella’s Italian Steakhouse, 11th and Bay, Black Cow, Chili Thai, Flip Side, Plucked Up, Meritage and Epic were closed.
It’s a touchy conversation and nobody frames it better than Buddy Nelms, who has been in the downtown restaurant and bar business for more than a quarter century. Nelms owns two popular downtown restaurants, The Loft in the 1000 block of Broadway and MaBella’s, a half block off Broadway on 11th Street. Both of them are closed on Sundays.
“The capitalist part of me says, ‘Hell, yeah, that one’s simple,’” Nelms said on Monday.
But Nelms is not all capitalist.
“The the human part of me overrides that,” he finished.
It boils down to making money over quality of life. And downtown is different, it is not generic, a place when the big boxes are king and chain restaurants abound. It is about quality of life and lifestyle. It’s about what we have that others don’t.
But Nelms, who also owns Ride On Bikes and keeps it closed on Sundays, knows there are potential customers walking past his businesses every single Sunday.
“You can’t find a parking space down here on Sunday, it’s obvious,” he said. “... We know we are leaving money on the table. But as a human being, we need time to recover. There is wear and tear on the buildings; there is wear and tear on the equipment; and there is wear and tear on the people.”
It is the people that Nelms is most worried about. Some of them work for him because he closes shop on Sundays.
“I had a guy who came to work with me from Longhorn,” Nelms said. “He took a pay cut, but he said at least he knew he would be home with his family every Sunday.”
Ironic, isn’t it? The same quality of life that leads people to downtown also keeps many of its businesses closed on Sundays. It’s strangely comforting.
Nelms has more than 100 employees that draw full- and part-time paychecks from his businesses. In many ways, he is protecting his brands by protecting his employees.
“Happy employees — and a happy owner — need time to recover,” he said.
But that may be coming to an end.
“There is no doubt there is a demand for more restaurants and retail on Sundays,” Bishop said.
Demand creates opportunity, which creates change. And all of that has created an interesting discussion.