Annie Bell Price died Saturday evening a few days after her 72nd birthday. To most in Atlanta who knew her she was simply "Miss Ann" -- the Miss Ann who for the last 43 years operated the Atlanta institution known as "Ann's Snack Bar."
Miss Ann would probably have been the first to scoff at the word "institution." Her restaurant was quite simple, in reality. It consisted of one counter for service and exactly eight stools for diners. Only once in all my visits did I ever see Miss Ann acquiesce to serving nine diners at a time. "Eight stools and eight rules" was the semi-official motto of her establishment. Miss Ann was known to run a tight ship.
The rules were legendary to outsiders who frequented the establishment as a warning and perhaps a bit of a game. To those who ate there frequently the rules were merely a sign that inside the Snack Bar was a very different environment than the area that surrounded her establishment. When dining with Miss Ann there was order. There were manners. And there was respect that had been earned.
Miss Ann worked hard her entire life, serving customers eight at a time for four decades. Most of that time was without accolade beyond a base of recurring customers. Her restaurant was not in a fashionable part of town and she understood that, naming her signature entrée the ghetto burger.
A burger as good as she prepared could not remain a secret for long, and eventually folks from beyond her neighborhood, including more than a few adventurous foodies, took notice. Several years ago the hype around her restaurant peaked when the Wall Street Journal credited her with serving "The Best Hamburger in America."
My conversations with Miss Ann seemed to indicate she enjoyed the notoriety to a degree, but was acutely cautious of those it brought out of the woodwork. She had worked hard every day to achieve what she had -- and was rightfully proud of it. But she also knew all too well that flattery was a tool often used to separate one from what he or she had earned.
The truth is, you often had to work a bit to get her talking. While she had her system down to a routine, it is still a lot of work to prepare food from scratch and to order for every diner from lunch to supper. But if you asked her about her history or about her restaurant, or paid her a genuine complement, her expression would change from one solely focused on the multiple tasks at hand to one of the most beautiful smiles in Georgia.
Miss Ann was not a person of hubris. She had spent a lifetime earning the pride of owning her own successful establishment in one of the most unlikely places. She understood that it was the work of her hands that kept it going, and taking the briefest of occasional moments when she was able to share that pride with one of her patrons was a rare luxury she only occasionally allowed herself.
I took many of my friends to visit over the years. Many had never visited the neighborhood despite frequently being at Georgia's Capitol just a couple of miles down Memorial Drive.
Other times I would go alone. Regardless, I would usually be eating with exactly seven other diners. And while most knew the rules, it was neither a solemn nor a quiet place. Whether seated next to another suburban "tourist" or a local resident, there was easy common ground to talk about. We all knew we were about to be served the best hamburger in America, that it was being prepared just for us, and that we would have about 30-45 minutes to occupy ourselves until it was ready.
We had to talk to each other because cell phones weren't allowed at Miss Ann's. That was one of the rules. She was kind enough to allow me to use my phone to make pictures of her culinary artwork, though I'm not quite sure she understood why I needed a picture every time I ate there. She would not, however, stand still and allow me to take a picture of her. I still, on a couple of occasions, managed to get a few.
The food was always great at Ann's Snack Bar, even as Miss Ann was absent during recurring illnesses over the past couple of years. The company and conversation from fellow diners continued on as well. Food at meal times in the South has long been a great equalizer, where we can all come to the table on common ground.
Miss Ann did a lot more than serve food. She fostered community in an area of town where there was little. She did so while living as an example of hard work, discipline, and mutual respect. She brought wide swaths of Atlanta together, eight of us at a time.
The world needs more Annie Bell Prices and more Ann's Snack Bars. She's going to be missed.
Charlie Harper, author and editor of the Peach Pundit blog, writes on Georgia politics and government; www.peachpundit.com.