SOCIAL CIRCLE -- The landmark Blue Willow Inn Restaurant will remain open, serving customers who often travel great distances to partake of the classically Southern cuisine, and continue the legacy of its founder, Louis Van Dyke, who died last week.
"We will continue to operate as normal," said Patsy Joiner, who was Van Dyke's administrative assistant for the past six years. "We all know what Mr. Van Dyke expected."
Joiner said Van Dyke's wife, Billie Van Dyke, had retired some years ago, but she plans to return to the business.
Van Dyke, 63, died suddenly in the early morning hours Thursday. He was co-owner of the Blue Willow Inn, Van Dyke Hospitality and Lou's Soda Fountain & Grill in Social Circle.
Van Dyke was born Aug. 23, 1947, in Henderson, N.C., and later moved to Port Wentworth, Ga., before making his home in Social Circle.
He is survived by his wife, Billie Van Dyke, and three children, Donna Sanders of Duluth, William (Chip) Edgerly of Athens and Brett Sanders of Social Circle.
Visitation and funeral services for Van Dyke were Monday afternoon and evening at Meadows Funeral Home. Joiner said that the Blue Willow Inn would remain open for the afternoon crowd, taking the last seating at 2 p.m.
"We will close only (Monday) evening," Joiner said. "Lou would kill us if we closed (Monday) afternoon."
The Van Dykes opened the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant on Thanksgiving Day in 1991. Joiner said the Van Dykes made it a tradition to begin the day with a prayer of Thanksgiving.
"This was our 19th year for Thanksgiving, and Mrs. Van Dyke made a point to be here and pray with the staff," Joiner said. "She came back when the shift changed at 2:30 that afternoon to be there and to continue that tradition."
Joiner said Van Dyke's death has been difficult for the staff and Thanksgiving was a particularly sad day.
"The staff was having a hard time Thursday, but we worked hard and made sure our customers received the same service and were unaware of what was going on," she said.
The Blue Willow Inn has become a destination for thousands of people who drive to Social Circle to enjoy the Southern cuisine and hospitality. Joiner estimated that the Blue Willow attracts approximately 250,000 people each year. Travelers from all 50 states and several countries have eaten at the Blue Willow.
"Tour groups come in from all over, and we've had a number of visitors from foreign countries," she said. "We have groups that come regularly from Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, all over, and they come and enjoy lunch."
In a 2009 interview with the Citizen, Van Dyke spoke of a woman who flew to Atlanta the day before Thanksgiving to pick up a carry-out order from The Blue Willow Inn to take back to her family in California.
"She flew from California to Atlanta because her niece lived in Georgia," Van Dyke said. "She brought in several containers to put food in and a container to keep it fresh in, and she left for the airport and flew back."
Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess said the death of Van Dyke is "a tragic loss for our community."
"Louis Van Dyke invested in our downtown when no one else did. He will be missed," Burgess said.
Van Dyke attempted to widen the economic impact of The Blue Willow Inn on Social Circle and the surrounding area in 2008 when he and his wife opened the Blue Willow Village on 7.1 acres behind the historic restaurant. The Village was designed to expand the appeal of the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant by offering a mix of retail shops, restaurants, including Lou's Soda Fountain & Grill and, at one time, a religious-themed museum.
The Downtown Development Authority of Social Circle and the OneGeorgia Authority in 2007 gave Van Dyke about $800,000 in low-interest loans to help get the project off the ground. At the time, the Georgia Department of Economic Development projected the Blue Willow Village would bring 90 jobs, 150,000 new visitors and more than $14 million in tourism to Walton and surrounding counties.
The Van Dykes, however, were victims of circumstances. The economy plummeted just as The Blue Willow Village opened in October 2008, leaving the new retail center largely vacant.
Financial pressures continued to mount and the Van Dykes faced foreclosure on the Village and Magnolia Hall, a special events venue also owned by the Van Dykes, located across the road from the Blue Willow Inn.
In an interview with the Citizen in April, Van Dyke explained how the economy impacted the Village.
"Every unit was pre-leased within the Village before we opened, but the majority of those tenants came to us and said they would be unable to weather the serious downturn in economy," Van Dyke said at the time. "They told us they wouldn't be able to hold to their pre-lease agreement."
He said he allowed those tenants to back out and offered to talk with them again when the economy rebounded.
"It might not have been the smartest business decision to make, but I have to operate with some level of morality," Van Dyke said.