Is the Flying Biscuit selling up or selling out?
BY BESHA RODELL
"What's up with that?" my friend asked when she heard about the recent acquisition of the Flying Biscuit Café by Raving Brands. "It just seems so weird."
She is not alone in her feelings about the deal. The Flying Biscuit has become an Atlanta institution in the 13 years since it opened, notorious for its quirky wait staff and hour-long waits on the weekend. Raving Brands is the Atlanta company responsible for franchise successes Moe's Southwest Grill and Doc Green's, among others. All over town, and in chat on the Internet, all I've heard about the deal is an uneasy disapproval.
On the surface, it's not obvious where this discomfort comes from. Delia Champion, the Biscuit's founder, and Steve LaMastra, president of Raving Brands, insist that the original locations will not change at all. "Nothing is changing, nothing will change," Champion says. "My biscuit is not changing, my employees are not changing, my storefront is not changing." Champion herself is planning on remaining involved in both the current restaurants, and in certain aspects of franchised Flying Biscuits that will open in the future.
But the idea of making the Flying Biscuit into a national brand is a significant departure from the restaurant's roots. After all, this is the place that served a "Bohemian Breakfast" when it opened in 1993 that consisted of an espresso brownie, a cup of coffee and two cigarettes. Its interior can best be described as quirky, with wonky painted sunflowers adorning the walls, and homemade curtains hanging from the ceiling. It is a place that feels anything but corporate.
On a recent morning, the Candler Park Flying Biscuit seemed like a microcosm of the neighborhood itself. Young families and attractive couples sat on brightly painted wooden chairs and broke open the famously tall biscuits to sop up their eggs and grits. Pigtailed waitresses poured coffee with smiling efficiency, and shrugged off inquiries about the change in ownership.
Raving Brands plans to open up to 100 Flying Biscuits across the country in the next two years. So then the question becomes: Is it possible to successfully franchise quirky? LaMastra talks about opening a franchise in Nashville because "it is a market that will absolutely embrace the Flying Biscuit. It's a funky, genuine, cultured market. If we pick the right real estate and the right communities, they will take to the Flying Biscuit exactly the way that our local communities have taken to it."
He also refers to the experience at Moe's Southwest Grill, saying, "If you look at Moe's for example, it was absolutely an organic concept, exactly the way that the Flying Biscuit is. Martin Sprock and others created Moe's six years ago, saying, 'We want to do something different, we want it to be colorful and relaxing and inviting and friendly, and we want good music to be playing and we want the food to be great, and we really want to stay focused on those things.' If you go to a Moe's in Phoenix, Ariz., I think you'll find a lot of that original feeling in that Moe's."
But while Moe's provides food of a significantly higher quality than many fast-food restaurants, the experience of eating there could hardly be described as personable. Everything about Moe's -- from the brochures describing their philosophy to the dining rooms that look like any other fast-food establishment -- feels as if it was conceived in a boardroom, and not as a labor of love.
Both LaMastra and Champion admit that the Flying Biscuits that open in the future will not be copies of the original. "Every store will be its own store," Champion says. "It's that simple. It's like when I went from Candler Park to Midtown. I knew when I signed the Midtown lease that it couldn't possibly be what Candler Park is. The Biscuit is going to fit into the location." When asked what she thinks makes the Flying Biscuit so popular in Atlanta, she replies, "The biscuits!" If she's right about that, that the biscuits are the magic ingredient and not the vibe, then there's no reason that Flying Biscuits all over the country make any less sense than Atlanta's most successful export, Krispy Kreme.
So, if the original restaurant is staying the same, and Raving Brands is simply a vehicle to spread good biscuits over the land in Atlanta's name, then what makes this acquisition so hard for us to swallow?
Other neighborhood spots like Ria's Bluebird Café in Grant Park and Carroll Street Café in Cabbagetown are natural followers of the Biscuit's legacy, and the idea that a corporation could come in and co-opt these places, or try to re-create them outside their natural environment, is counter to their nature. Atlanta's discomfort with Raving Brand's acquisition of the Flying Biscuit speaks to our unease about the city's changing personality and corporatization. The Flying Biscuit represents everything urban Atlantans love about intown living -- it's unique, it's neighborhood centric, it's an experience you can't get in suburban America. Raving Brands taking it over gives us the same willies that Atlantic Station and the Edgewood retail district give us. It's the fear that the homogenized, corporate landscape is gobbling up our city and robbing our neighborhoods of their personalities, their character and their independently run cafes.
"Nobody's giving me credit for choosing an organization that's going to honor what I've worked so hard for," Champion says. "Raving Brands is willing to do business with me because of what we have, because of the culture that we've created. It's hard for someone to understand why I partnered with them. But what will change is, I will be able to buy eggs 30 percent cheaper than I can today. I'll be able to give my employees opportunities that I could not afford them before."
As far as Delia Champion is concerned, she's just a small-business owner looking for an opportunity to expand, and to keep her business alive and thriving. The question is, will the Flying Biscuit still work when it's no longer just a small neighborhood phenomenon? And will we forgive the company for outgrowing us?