By John Schaffner
On Saturdays, cars sit idling in the small parking lot of the Pharr Road Shopping Center, waiting sometimes 15 minutes to jockey for a parking space to grab a salad or sandwich at the Café at Pharr.
Since it was opened in 1992 by Mike and Shirley Liu at it present location, 316 Pharr Road, Café at Pharr has become a Buckhead institution — a lunch spot where it is difficult to find a place to park, much less a place to sit, on just about any day of the week. But it wasn’t always so.
Present owner Johnny Liu was about 12 when his father took “the quarters and dollars he had made” after opening the first sushi bar at the Disco Kroger on Piedmont Road and with his wife opened the Café at Pharr as a bakery, offering cakes, pastries and breads.
Shirley Liu quit her job as a maid to a local real estate developer, who helped the Lius find the Pharr Road location for their new business.
“In 1992 Pharr Road wasn’t what it is today,” said Johnny Liu. “It was the outskirts of Buckhead.” And he said business was not good for the first three years. There was a Pepperidge Farm bakery outlet store right next door, which he said sold loaves of bread and cookies for 70 cents. “It was hard to compete with that.”
It took a few years of selling sandwiches now and again to switch things over in 1994 or 1995 to a café specializing in gourmet salads and sandwiches.
Johnny learned to bake bread when he was 14 years old. “Dad said the only way that I was going to get a car was to learn to bake bread and come and bake bread in the mornings to help him out,” Liu recounts. “It was a help-us-out-and-I’ll-help-you-out kind of deal.”
The 30-year-old restaurant entrepreneur recalled, “I did not necessarily love it at that time. What teenager wants to work?”
But today he owns and operates three restaurants in Buckhead and is preparing to open a fourth next year at Sembler Co.’s Town Brookhaven development, next door to where he lives in Ashford Park.
But the big story now is that the Café at Pharr is moving off Pharr Road around Oct. 1 and relocating to the shopping center at 3145 Peachtree Road, where there will be 52 more parking spaces and twice the seating capacity.
Liu took over ownership of Café at Pharr from his parents when he had just turned 22 in 2002. He stopped his parents from selling out to a Korean couple by offering to buy the business, paying them monthly over years.
“I think they have made the money over four or five times in the past 12 years,” Liu said. “We had a funny dinner conversation about it recently during which I asked, ‘Do I have to pay you anymore?’.”
What do his parents think about all the expansion? “They were very simple people,” Liu said. “They thought, Why don’t you enjoy life and just open one and do what they did. They were happy with dad in the kitchen and mom up front. That was not me,” he added.
He said his mom, 56, and dad, 60, are semi-retired. “Mom comes in and helps out one or two days a week. My dad comes in and has coffee with me. That is about it. I love having him in the mornings saying what he thinks is a good move and what is not a good move.” He said his dad refers to himself as a consultant “for maybe six minutes every morning over coffee.”
Although Liu has had mainly successes in his expansions, he also has had one that turned sour, a Café Pharr Out he opened in 2003 on Huff Road. He shut it down and sold off the equipment five years later.
He opened a very small Café Pharr inside Foxglove Antiques at 699 Miami Circle in 2007, and “it is pretty much only for the Miami Circle dealers,” he explained.
Then, in October 2007, he opened a Café at Pharr in the Chastain area at 4225 Roswell Road, the only Café at Pharr that serves dinner. “That one is doing phenomenal,” Liu said.
“We opened that one as an insurance policy because we were not sure what was going to happen here on Pharr Road at the time,” Liu explained. “There were rumors that we were being evicted. Ben Carter was supposedly buying it” as part of The Streets of Buckhead assemblage. “Then they said there was an environmental contamination from the cleaners back in the 1980s. That meant we could be evicted at any time,” he added.
“We freaked out,” Liu said. I looked elsewhere and found the Roswell Road location. It was perfect — big enough and semi close enough. I signed a lease and said I would keep both open as long as I break even. Business went up 130 percent,” he said. “I had customers I hadn’t seen in five years come in. They said they just don’t go down to Buckhead anymore.”
And they do dinner at Chastain. “Because we are opening in Brookhaven next year, I was trying to focus on the fact that over there it is mostly all residential, so I wanted to tap into the whole aspect of a restaurant, not just the lunch thing,” Liu explained. “We wanted to do a test run on Roswell Road to make sure we can handle it and customers would come back for dinner. And they did.”
He said the dinner-menu best seller at Roswell Road is the Chilean sea bass, “which is served Hong Kong style, with spinach and rice. We have everything from kabobs to scallops, beef tenderloin.”
Café at Pharr will not serve dinner at the larger Peachtree Road location, but it will have extended hours. They’ll be open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. for people who get off work and want to pick up something on their way home — “get a salad that they can take home, put in the refrigerator and go work out. I think the extended hours are going to be really beneficial,” Liu said.
He said he hopes to open in Town Brookhaven in May or June of 2011. “We don’t want to open in the dead of summer, so if things get delayed, we will try to open in August or September. Costco wants to open by November and Publix by April of next year, along with LA Fitness. That is why I said May or June,” he explained.
He tries to know his customers — not just their names, but what they do. “You want them to come in and feel like they are guests in your home, not just customers.”
Although he was born in Sao Paulo, Brazil, and now lives in Brookhaven with wife Katie and two-and-a-half-year-old son Gavin, Liu has been all Buckhead since his family moved to Atlanta in 1984.
His family still owns the house on West Wesley in West Buckhead where he grew up, although they rent it out now. He went to Jackson Elementary School, Sutton Middle School and North Atlanta High, which was then Northside High School.
Tyson Boehme, his general manager, has been a friend since the third grade and was best man at Liu’s wedding. Boehme has been with the company for 10 years. Katie Liu’s sister is coming to join the business to make sure everything transitions well for Buckhead and Brookhaven. She was manager of a Kroger in Sugarloaf.
“We keep it in the family,” Liu said, “people you can trust and know.” He said he is trying to “build an empire for his son to enjoy, but I am not going to force him like my dad forced me. It worked out well for me, but I definitely won’t force him.”