Hotchkiss: Fate of Don Pablo’s chain runs through Augusta

Michael Holahan /FIle The freshly renovated Partridge Inn on Walton Way in Augusta Monday afternoon March 30, 2015.

I wrote in my July 2 column how local “breastaurant” Twin Peaks, torched last month by an arsonist, will be rebuilt.

 

I joked that the location – 277 Robert C. Daniel Jr. Parkway – might be cursed because that’s the fifth restaurant to occupy that building. But there was some other interesting fact about that piece of property that I couldn’t quite recall.

But a reader did. He let me know via Facebook: “Before Sticky Fingers, the first three were all concept restaurants by the same company. The intent is to gauge their market appeal and work out kinks in operations and menus.”

Ding ding ding! That’s what I was trying to remember.

Twenty years ago I edited a tri-weekly newspaper in Covington, near Atlanta. Just a few hoe handles down the road is the city of Madison. It was the corporate headquarters of Apple South Inc., a company that ran about a billion (I’m rounding up) Applebee’s restaurant franchises.

Turns out there’s a lot I didn’t know about the rise and fall of Apple South, and it illustrates the twists and turns often seen in restaurant franchising.

And if you want to know whatever happened to Don Pablo’s, read on.

Bill and T.J. Palmer first hatched the Applebee’s concept in Decatur, Ga., in 1980. In 1986 Tom E. DuPree Jr. started his first Applebee’s Neighborhood Grill and Bar franchise in Greenville, S.C. He also was operating six Burger Kings and 10 Hardee’s under the company Sunburst Restaurants.

Then DuPree started another Applebee’s. And another. In 1988 he had so many he changed the name of his company to Apple South. In 1994, the company’s 100th Applebee’s opened.

In the mid-1990s, Apple South started tinkering with other restaurant concepts instead of developing its own. Through several acquisitions, Apple South grew to oversee such restaurant chains as Gianni’s Little Italy (renamed Tomato Rumba Pastaria Grill), Harrigan’s Grill and Bar, McCormick &Schmick’s, Hops Grill and Bar, Canyon Café and — sound familiar, Augustans? – Don Pablo’s Mexican Kitchen.

In 1997 Apple South announced it was selling 264 Applebee’s franchises in a divestment estimated at $500 million, so it could concentrate on the other chains it owned where it saw high growth.

Don Pablo’s was one of those chains, and not too long after that sell-off, a Don Pablo’s opened in Augusta, in April 1998. The following October, Apple South – presumably because it no longer had anything to do with apples – renamed itself Avado Brands Inc.

But reality didn’t match Avado’s high hopes for growth. It scaled down 1999 expansions of Don Pablo’s and Canyon Cafes in 1999. Augusta’s Don Pablo’s closed in April 2001.

Then Avado filed for bankruptcy twice – in 2004 and 2007, each time selling off restaurants to help stay afloat.

In February 2008, a newly formed firm in Madison, named Rita Restaurant Corp., bought the 41 Don Pablo’s restaurants in 15 states and seven Hops restaurants in four states, and instituted a new management structure.

That didn’t take, either. In 2014, Food Management Partners of San Antonio bought Rita, and Don Pablo’s locations kept closing. Rita finally declared bankruptcy in October 2016 with only a handful of restaurants left.

Still craving Don Pablo’s? Drive safely. The closest one is in Cincinnati. At the chain’s height, it ran 120 restaurants. Today, there are 10 left in business.

THE PARTRIDGE FAMILY: Before last Monday, the last time I had set foot in The Partridge Inn was maybe 15 years ago to try the hotel’s deservedly famous Sunday brunch. But if I ever write about that brunch it’ll be a love song instead of a business column.

Instead I visited last week for a delightful interview with Tijuana Jenkins, general manager of the Partridge since February (you can read about what makes her special on the front of this section). She told me something about Augusta’s “Grand Hotel of the Classic South” that I didn’t know, and you might have forgotten.

It’s a Hilton: It has been since 2015. But it’s a special brand – the Curio Collection by Hilton. It’s what’s known as a “soft brand,” which means while the hotel is supported by Hilton Worldwide Holdings Inc., its unique charm stays independent.

“There are no two Curios that are exactly alike,” Jenkins explained. “You get to keep your individuality and your brand recognition – in other words, the local hometown equity The Partridge Inn has. We get to keep The Partridge Inn name. But it opened up a world for us nationally.”

The hotel gets to maintain and cultivate its unique local identity while leveraging the power and influence of an international chain. Win-win.

It’s one of just 47 Curio properties under the Hilton umbrella and the only one in Georgia. Not all Curios inhabit historic buildings, but many do.

Marriott International operates something similar with its Autograph Collection Hotels. So does Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide with its Tribute Portfolio.

JUST YOU WAIT: For economic development, it’s been a heck of a month for Augusta. And who would know better than Henry Ingram, chairman of the Augusta Economic Development Authority?

“The last 30 days — with ADP’s expansion, with the cyber training center groundbreaking and with this new news of a $120 million expansion with Starbucks — is the greatest 30 days in our history, when you take into account the residuals that will emanate from all this economic impact,” Ingram said July 6.

His comments came after news broke of Starbucks embarking on a $120 million expansion of its soluble coffee plant in the Augusta Corporate Park off Georgia Highway 56.

But he was a model of restraint. He could have gone on and on about Augusta’s recent development game-changers.

Tax-preparation software company TaxSlayer, based in Evans, said it would renovate and move into the Downtown Y building.

Ground broken for a Hyatt House hotel on the 1200 block of Broad Street — downtown’s first new business-class hotel in decades.

Augusta University Health signed a lease for space in former Wells Fargo building downtown that gives the university naming rights to the building and permission to post the school’s distinctive new crest on two of the building’s outside faces.

And all that was just in June. And word is, even more changes are coming soon, particularly for downtown. Brace yourselves.

 

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