Georgia’s rural eating places supply old-school hospitality and check out to not suppose too onerous concerning the future

But there’s been an increase in tourism in rural areas, according to Salazar, because people are better able to socially distance themselves, which improves the profit side of the ledger. “We’re seeing the rural communities be in a position that they haven’t been in before, which is they’re really poised to make an impact on the broader state tourism product, because there hasn’t been a full-on return for the urban market just yet,” he said. Until I interviewed him, I hadn’t considered my husband and myself “nature-based travelers,” though our pandemic hobby has been to leave Athens, where we live, to hike each of Georgia’s state parks. A recent Saturday found us an hour’s drive from home in Taliaferro County—Georgia’s least populated, and the second least populated county east of the Mississippi River.

After a hike in AJ Stephens State Park, we drove to Crawfordville, the county seat, for lunch. At Nick’s Place, we met Flores, 60, who opened his restaurant after a 25-year career with Hyatt Hotels, including his last position as executive sous chef at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.

For residents of Crawfordville and other communities, restaurants occupy a critical community space, serving as a source not just of food and entertainment but also of social connection. Without Ila, the town would be “hollow,” said Sinclair, its center a four-way stop sign on a two-lane state highway, with few other businesses. Leslie Martin, a Crawfordville resident, said Nick’s Place “has absolutely provided social connection for the community” that lacked restaurants or even a grocery store. “We had nothing,” she said. Martin, a retired chef, was so convinced of the value of Nick’s Place that she drove an hour in various directions to auctions in nearby cities to help Flores furnish the restaurant.

Every Friday morning at 7 am for the past 31 years, the Rotary Club of Madison County has been meeting in a large dining room in the back of Ila Restaurant. The building’s owner, a Rotarian, built the addition for club meetings; it’s open to any customer outside of meeting times. The morning I visited, the restaurant’s parking lot was full of pick-up trucks and sedans. About 25 Rotarians had gathered inside to dine on grits, eggs, and bacon from the front room’s breakfast buffet before they settled in with cups of coffee and sweet tea to listen to the day’s speakers.

“This room has really become a community meeting room,” said state Sen. Frank Ginn, 59, a charter member, whose table I joined. “Do you remember watching ‘It’s a Wonderful Life?’ Well, you never know the impact you have and the good that has happened in Madison County” as a result of residents being able to meet and connect at the restaurant.

For Morgan Barnett, 30, Ila Restaurant has been a source of unexpected friendship. A married mother of two young boys, Barnett shows up with her younger son nearly every weekday morning, after her husband goes to work and their older son to school, to have breakfast with a group of retired local men who once were strangers.

The hardships these restaurants face are also specific to their location, the flip side of that attractive isolation: they have to figure out how to market to visitors and travelers who might otherwise not discover them; how to contend with high food and delivery costs while keeping meal prices affordable for locals; and how to plan for the future in what are often graying rural economies.

Outside coastal tourist communities, rural Georgia means two-lane roads where vistas are farmland or forests, and where even the “center of town” might not look like much to an outside eye. Restaurants there can be hard to find—and hard to sustain. Every Sunday morning at 7, Flores and an employee load his Dodge Ram truck with four empty ice chests for the nearly two-hour drive to Restaurant Depot in Buford, north of Atlanta, to stock up on a week’s supply of eggs, French fries, chicken tenders, and meat for Philly cheesesteaks. It’s too expensive to use Houston-based Sysco Corp., for food deliveries, which used to put a $1,200 dent in his monthly profits, between the $45 delivery fees and the higher cost of food. “Sysco has great products, but they were charging for everything,” Flores said.

And then there’s the issue of succession when today’s restaurant owners retire. Salazar believes that the average age of restaurant owners is rising, like the average age of Georgia farmers is rising—57.9 years according to the last US Census of Agriculture—as younger generations seek opportunities outside the family business. Sinclair’s daughter has settled with her family in suburban Atlanta, where she works as a therapist, though Sinclair is confident she can find a buyer for her business when it’s time to retire. Flores said he is not focused on the future of Nick’s Place. “As long as I have two hands, I will be here,” he said. “I’m going to die here.”