Editor’s Note: The following article was written by Madeline Burgess, wife of former Social Circle mayor Jim Burgess.
SOCIAL CIRCLE, Ga. — Good news from Social Circle. The revised version of the iconic Blue Will Inn is expected to open again possibly as early as December.
The Blue Willow Inn may be credited with putting Social Circle on the map and this renowned establishment had quite a history. An old home, the John Upshaw House (circa 1917) on N Cherokee, was last used as a church when it was acquired by Louis and Billie Van Dyke in 1991. They both loved antiques and Billie was especially fond of the Blue Willow china pattern. The old house now had a new purpose, a new name, and Blue Willow china.
This is where luck played its role. The Blue Willow Inn hosted a visit from the late popular writer, Lewis Grizzard, who wrote a nationally syndicated column about the restaurant and the now legendary fried green tomatoes. It was fried green tomatoes along with many other Southern “fixins” and its famed hospitality which drew thousands of visitors to the restaurant over the following years. The Blue Willow Inn became more than a restaurant; it became a southern institution of fine dining.
Then came the bad luck. The great recession of 2007-2009 coincided with Lewis’s ambitious plan to create a retail shopping center behind the restaurant. Under the severe financial strain from heavily mortgaged properties and loss of tenants, the Van Dykes filed for bankruptcy in 2010. Sadly, Lewis passed away in November of that year and Billie was left to deal with the financial crisis. In August 2011, under a plan to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy, the 7.1 acre property was acquired by local real estate investor, Donald Poss.
Fast forward to 2022 when the property was purchased for $2.5 million by Covington real estate businessman Andre Merkerson and four partners who live in New York State. The property included the Blue Willow Inn building, a residential structure used as an office, and a commercial/retail center which includes the Church at the Grove, Hot Rod’s Diner, Willow Boutique Salon and Spa, a clothing sales distribution center and other small businesses. The Blue Willow Inn restaurant, under lease to Donald Poss, closed its door due to the pandemic in March 2020.
Current owners plan to reopen the restaurant under new management by the end of this year. Former Blue Willow Inn Operations Manager Steve DeMoss was hired as part of the team to head up marketing and web site management for the project. A three step process has been initiated to reach the December goal. The first step includes hiring a contractor to undertake the building restoration and updating. In the second step, all building codes and requirements need to be met in order to “get the door open.” The next step, following the completion of steps one and two, is to open the new restaurant.
The opening of a restaurant involves the review and approval of several government agencies. State law administered by the Walton County Health Department requires extensive documentation to obtain a permit for a food service establishment.
Added to this is the need for compliance with the City’s numerous building codes and regulations. It may take several weeks to complete necessary technical reviews and approval. City Zoning Administrator Barbara Schlageter pointed out that the Blue Willow reopening is the equivalent of starting a new business since the building has been vacant for so long a period.
A local chef has been selected to organize and manage the new restaurant. She will also be a part owner of the business. Executive Chef Carmenia Morgan-Tyrus currently owns and operates the Musulyn’s International Restaurant and Musulyn’s Catering & Event Planning, LLC in Covington. The restaurant assimilates offerings in African, Caribbean, and Southern cuisine. Chef Carmenia holds a degree in Culinary Arts from Gwinnett Technical College with hands-on kitchen experience from Georgia Terrace Hotel and nine years of personal catering.
Chef Carmenia plans to retain the Blue Willow logo in naming the restaurant which will be called, “Blue Willow Fine Southern Cuisine.” It will be a family restaurant with a bar for cocktails, beer and wine and will also include a quick lunch menu. A “Coffee with Carmenia” shop could be incorporated in the gift area. In addition to meats and seafood, her vegetable selection will of course include fried green tomatoes! The restaurant style (buffet, sit down, meat and two, etc.) has yet to be decided. The chef has also talked to former owner Billie Van Dyke who has offered suggestions about basic southern menu items and the restaurant format.
Above all, Chef Carmenia doesn’t want “to disappoint.” Her goal is to “bring the restaurant back, to elevate it, to make it even better, and to make it into a destination again.”
She realizes that her dream and biggest challenge will be “to give customers what they want, to make customer service the highest priority and achieve an ‘A’ rating by her guests.” And she is putting her trust in the Lord, who she says, “has never let her down.”
The Blue Willow was an era that has come and gone. For years is it was a destination for many local and international travelers, which was great for our local economy and we all enjoyed the international recognition of Social Circle as a place to dine.
Thanks primarily to COVID, however, those tourist dollars have effectively dried up.
Chef Carmina hopes to turn her restaurant once again into a major tourist destination. I think if she is able to achieve even half of her goals and ambitions, she will be rewarded by the strong support of this community.