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Murphy's Owner Tom Murphy on 33 Years at the Virginia-Highland Landmark

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For the first in a new series, Eater talks to Tom Murphy, the owner of iconic Virginia Highland restaurant Murphy's.
Tom Murphy at Murphy's. [Photo: Christopher Watkins]

There's no sign of the basement shop on Los Angeles Avenue where Murphy's got its start in 1980, but a block or two away, at the bustling intersection of Virginia and North Highland, there's no missing Murphy's as it is now. A true Atlanta landmark, the restaurant has evolved from a small delicatessen into a dining destination and culinary training ground. Though both the restaurant and the neighborhood have changed over the last three decades, Murphy's maintains a constant presence and remains a consistent favorite. Below, owner Tom Murphy reflects on 33 years in the restaurant business and in Virginia-Highland— and about what might be next.

How did you get started? A senior project at Georgia State?
It was a management class project at Georgia State University. Our professor invited the class to join groups and to do feasibility studies of opening a business. I had been working in the food industry – the wine and cheese industry – at that time. I actually had a little cheese shop at the Municipal Market, so I'd already been in business. I developed the concept of a neighborhood delicatessen and said to the group, "Let's do a feasibility study of expanding this concept and really researching how a delicatessen would work, and look like, and where would be the best place." We built the feasibility study for that class project in 1979. And I took it to the bank with my professor after doing the feasibility study and got a bank loan and started it. And I was still trying to make an A in that class.

Did you get an A?
I think I got an A. I was so busy opening the restaurant, I didn't even look back.

How did you pick Virginia-Highland for the location?
First of all, I lived in the Highlands while I was in college. It was a transient neighborhood at that time, so it was cheap for college kids to find apartments and share houses in the neighborhood. And there was already a restaurant in the neighborhood known as Capo's, which was across the street from us. It was doing well. I said, "Man, I've got this delicatessen..." That's how we picked the neighborhood.

Can you tell me a little bit more about what Virginia-Highland was like 30 or 35 years ago? How have you seen the neighborhood change?
First of all, this is a neighborhood that wasn't created. This is an Atlanta neighborhood. It's been like this for a hundred years in terms of the fact that it was already a solid neighborhood. In the 60s, early 70s, you had an exodus from this neighborhood to outside the city. Part of the reason was white flight, as we call it, and the other thing was the city was building [Georgia] 400. They were going to take it right through this neighborhood and connect it to Freedom Parkway, where Jimmy Carter's library is. You were going to literally have a highway in the middle of Virginia-Highland. And that galvanized this neighborhood to come together and not abandon it, but to actually support it and keep it from dying. All the old neighborhood people pulled together, and young people joined in; the neighborhood just sort of banded together and stopped that highway. That was the beginning of this coalition that was "living in town is cool." The Highlands was sort of the forefront of that. All it did was, over the 35 years, go from being sort of a blighted neighborhood to now a mature and great neighborhood.

How did you decide to make the shift from the original location on Los Angeles Avenue and that concept to here where you are now?
It was 1993, and it was very difficult because what had happened was I had tried to buy my property, the old restaurant. I tried to buy it, and in a land deal, I got snubbed and I lost the lease. My neighbor bought it. In a quick shift of properties, I went from basically thinking I was going to own my property to losing my property and having to move. I didn't move because I wanted to. I moved because I had to. But we had the right momentum and it was the right time, so we did. We were fortunate to find this corner. We went from Murphy's Round the Corner to Murphy's On the Corner.

I liked reading about people coming in every day and making Murphy's a part of their daily routine. That sounds like a unique thing that really doesn't exist that much in Virginia-Highland any more.
Nope. That's because there are more options in the Highlands today. You don't have to go to one place to find your coffee, and one place to have a good lunch. You have variety now, though we lost Aurora, which is a shame. People say, "Why don't you open for coffee in the morning?" But, you know, we're a restaurant, we're not a coffee house, and I think that you need to stay to what you do.

How did you find the process of writing a cookbook?
It was great because all I did was tell Jan Schroder, who was my partner in writing it, the stories. And I did that because, obviously, as you age, you forget all of the things that have happened and I wanted to really put it down in a diary, in a memory, so that someday when my grandkids said, "Grandpa, what'd you do?" I'd say, "Read the book. I don't remember." It really was a way of galvanizing this great journey of a restaurant.

There have been a lot of big name chefs who've started at Murphy's and come through Murphy's. How do you feel about being an incubator of sorts?
I consider myself a playground for great chefs to emerge. How I feel about it is, isn't it great that chefs view Murphy's as sort of a finishing school to learn how to be restaurateurs? They may be good chefs, but that doesn't make them a good restaurateur. They go from culinary school to cooks, sous-chefs, chefs, but that doesn't mean they're restaurateurs yet, and I think Murphy's is the last finishing school for a chef who wants to be a restaurateur. And I'm proud of the fact that people have come through here and have learned enough to go and actually be successful. That means that we're imparting some good things to good people that create good community.

Can you give me a little background on Good Measure Meals, [the meal delivery service you started in 2005]?
If there was one thing that I would say, it's that Murphy's has been my career and my work, my commitment, part of my community and family day-to-day. But I've been gifted with a creation that I think has even a bigger potential to live a lot longer than Murphy's. When my mom had ovarian cancer, I would bring her food while she was taking chemo. In doing this, I realized, "Gosh, if your son owns a restaurant or you're rich and you can hire a chef, you get fed if you're ill. If you're poor, you get Meals on Wheels. But if you're Middle America, you're SOL." And that's wrong. When my mom passed away, I started researching home meal replacement, and what I found was there wasn't really any. And a lot of people can't get out to the grocery stores, and even if they could, they couldn't put together a meal, didn't have the time, money, or expertise or energy.

I brought [the idea] to Project Open Hand and said, "What you're doing for poor people who can't pay, there's a whole market out here— a middle market— that could pay." And [Project Open Hand's director] instantly saw, as I explained, that social entrepreneurship was emerging as a mechanism to which businesses were going to migrate. There was a new conversation about how a business needs to be socially conscious in treating the earth, and also in treating its community. I felt like here was a business model that could go into a non-profit that was already doing it, that had the capital assets of kitchens, and people, and distribution, and dieticians. It could take this idea and then bring it to the market as a for-profit entity. They bought it and understood the idea, so I launched Good Measure Meals in 2005. I took it to Project Open Hand and invested this business model and put it inside their operations and started it, and today it does over 4 million bucks, and it's a major contributor to a non-profit and a leader in its industry.

Are you still involved in the day-to-day operations?
No, I'm not involved any longer, because what I realized ultimately, as a for-profit entity working within a non-profit, which they did not own at the time, there was a conflict psychologically. It needed to be owned by Project Open Hand so that it would be owned by Project Open Hand. And so I basically donated it to them and worked an arrangement out on the stuff that I had in it and they took it and off they went with that opportunity.

Are you thinking about opening another restaurant?
I would like to open another restaurant. I think that Atlanta's a great market and I'd like to open another restaurant.

Any idea where it would be?
Well, the right question is, why, after 33 years, why would you now decide [to open another restaurant]? The answer to the why is that I've raised three great children and I've always wanted to be with my family. I wanted business to be something that facilitated my family, not detracted. I have two boys— 27 and 25— and a daughter that's 19 going on 30, and she is now off to college. Now that she's gone and my wife and I are empty nesters, I'm in a position where I have time to take my passion and to develop it. My passion is still my family and my business, but before my family required more time, and I am so thankful that I never did [open another restaurant]. I had many, many opportunities, and certainly had the desire, but it wasn't the right time. I feel now is the right time to take the passion and what I've learned and look at a potential second restaurant.

Do you think it would be Murphy's 2 or something totally different?
It could be a hybrid. It could be Murphy's 2, but not Murphy's 1. Because I don't think you ever recreate a Murphy's as it resides in Virginia-Highland. But if Tom Murphy's there it's always going to have the flavor of Murphy's, right?

What's your favorite thing about this restaurant?
The guest. Period. I love the guest. And what I mean by that is that there is a simpatico in all relationships when they're positive. We have people that come in and they're blowing off a bad day a work, or they're blowing off something, somewhere that might have a little negativity. But when they walk through the front door, if there's love here, if there's a good vibe here, if there's a friendly vibe here... I have always felt that at the root of the human condition, everyone is good. And if we can set an environment that brings to the light their goodness, they have a great time. What we find is, 9 times out of 10 – we don't hit it 100% – that we have fun with our guests, and that our staff has fun with our guests, and they have fun with us. And when you have an environment where people are coming into your home and they are feeling that, then that's entertainment at its best, because there's a real give and take in a relationship, and that's how I view hospitality. It's not cooking the food, it's not the ambiance and setting, it's really creating true, sincere hospitality. And we have great guests who come through the door. That's why we do it.
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997 Virginia Avenue NE, Atlanta, GA 30306 404 872 0904