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Levin: The City Pharmacy: High dollar, high value. Can it last?

According to industry experts, most people who open a restaurant have no business doing so. They lack a concept, they have no experience, they misread the market. It’s a business with fixed costs and elastic demand and new owners usually fail to balance the two, or not adequately monetize the space in order to squeeze a dollar of revenue out of every available square foot.

And that’s just the start of it. Burning a sauce, over pouring at the bar, food waste, ingredient costs, labor—it doesn’t take much for razor-thin profit margins to shrink to the loss column. One prominent chef noted that he watched the pricing of ingredients the way some people watch stock market screens.

So, it’s statistically safe to say that City Pharmacy — the latest shiny thing on the square — will close its doors within two years, adhering to industry statistics that claim 70 percent of all new dining establishments within 24 months of its soft opening.

City Pharmacy owners Tedo and Sasha Stone recognize all of this. “The first thing we found out was we didn’t know how to run a restaurant,” says Tedo. “We didn’t know how to cook. We didn’t even meet our chef until two months before we opened.” Their learning curve, he says, “was straight up.”

Still . . . there is something about City Pharmacy that sets it apart from its food cousins in Covington. Call it vision or naiveté, instinct or a fool’s errand, but the Stones have carved a niche that from outside appearances seems to be working. With a price point that tops the Covington scale (where dinner and wine for two can steamroll past $150 before you even get to dessert), this is not the place where you come for a quick meal or a “bite to eat.” Tedo acknowledges that at their price point, “everything has to be above par — the food, the service, the ambience.” In any event, he says opening Newton County’s most expensive restaurant was never the point. “We just wanted a good welcoming atmosphere, a communal place with great food and quality ingredients.”

Toss in the county’s first raw bar, a heavy emphasis on craft cocktails and mixology (they even hold classes for the staff to educate them on the finer points of bourbon and other spirits), and an inventive chef in Christian Perez and her commendable culinary pedigree, and it creates an interesting mix. 

Covington’s rapid restaurant evolution over the last several years has been virtually head-turning in a town that had seen very little variation for years prior to that. It perhaps started with Milazzo’s in Clark’s Grove, where Christina Milazzo proved Covington had an appetite for quality and presentation. And there is no debate that the Mystic was the spark that revitalized the square itself — without it, it’s likely that Your Pie and Irish Bred Pub would never have opened its doors when they did, much less the other retail shops that have since hung out their shingles. Bread & Butter, while hardly the cheapest lunch on the square, offers something extra—an open invitation to just lounge and chill, by yourself or with friends.

Locals know the City Pharmacy building had been in the Stone family for some time, an actual pharmacy for decades that then took a couple of other retail turns (including as Square Perk). By the time Family Stone, which includes Tedo’s father and his sister, began eyeing the space as a restaurant, the beautiful tile floor was a mess, the stained-glass arch window up front had long since been boarded over, and the pressed-tin ceiling had been shrouded with drop ceilings. 

“We loved the location,” says Ed Seiber, the Atlanta architect whose firm has designed dozens of culinary establishments throughout the South, including City Pharmacy. “But it was a narrow space and we knew we were going to have get creative to create focal points.” They also knew what the Stones already knew—that Tedo and Sasha were going to need help. Lots of it. That led to Seiber referring restaurant and food consultants to the Stones, which led to a chef and the creation of a menu. 

Now a few months in, Tedo Stone still acknowledges a learning curve that changes by the day and he knows the hours are never going to get shorter. He grew up on Floyd Street, majored in business at Ole Miss (where he grew to love Oxford’s burgeoning foodie scene), and plays guitar in a rock ’n’ roll band. But while Sasha handles the marketing reins and all-critical social media, Edward Theodore Stone (his given name that perhaps is featured only on his birth certificate and social security card) reports to work every day ready to do whatever it takes. He recognizes that City Pharmacy has raised the dining scene bar another notch and he and Sasha are determined to rise to the challenge and keep their 32 full- and part-time employees busy.

“When it’s Saturday night and the tables are packed, I love the energy,” Stone says. “I love being part of something central to downtown.”   

Rob Levin is president and editor of a book publishing company in Covington and is a former national feature writer for the Atlanta Constitution.