Social Circle's Blue Willow Inn exits bankruptcy

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- After little more than a year, the Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle is on track to exit from bankruptcy.

According to J.D. Holmes, a certified turnaround professional, the famed Southern-style restaurant recently filed paperwork with the court to emerge from Chapter 11 bankruptcy by the end of the year.

"We came up with a plan of reorganization and submitted a plan of restructuring how to pay the bank off, pay the taxes and how much is left to pay the unsecured creditors over time," Holmes said.

The owners of the Blue Willow Inn, Billie and Louis Van Dyke, filed bankruptcy in July 2010 after months of working to stave off foreclosure on their other properties, the Blue Willow Village located behind the restaurant, and Magnolia Hall, a special events venue across the street from the Blue Willow Inn.

"Right now we're doing well. It's been an encouraging and discouraging adventure since November." -- Billie Van Dyke.

The Van Dykes opened the Blue Willow Village in October 2008. The 7.1-acre Village was designed to expand the appeal of the renowned Blue Willow Inn Restaurant by offering a mix of retail shops and, at one time, a religious-themed museum. At the time the Downtown Development Authority and OneGeorgia announced their loans for the Van Dykes' project in 2007, 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.

Even though every unit was pre-leased, most of the tenants were unable to fulfill their obligation due to the crash in the banking industry and U.S. economy. Van Dyke allowed those tenants to back out of their leases.

"It might not have been the smartest business decision to make, but I have to operate with some level of morality," Louis Van Dyke said in April 2010.

Then in 2009, the mortgage payments on the Village doubled, catching the Van Dykes by surprise and unable to make those payments.

While the Blue Willow Inn Restaurant remained profitable, it began to suffer financially since it was leveraged to the Village. In July 2010, the Van Dykes filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy.

"I never dreamed my wife and I would ever do this, but sometimes it becomes a necessity," Louis Van Dyke said prior to the filing.

In November, tragedy struck the Van Dyke family again. Louis Van Dyke died suddenly at the age 63, almost 19 years to the day when the Blue Willow Inn opened its doors. His wife, Billie, was left to face the financial storm and continue to operate the restaurant.

And that's where Holmes came in.

Holmes said he and his family had not dined at the Blue Willow Inn for several years until this spring when he and his wife decided to make a special trip from their home in Fayetteville to visit the restaurant for lunch. Hearing of the financial troubles, Holmes said he left his business card for Mrs. Van Dyke.

Holmes said Mrs. Van Dyke called him and he began to work with her to help navigate the business through, and hopefully out of, bankruptcy. He said he typically works to help companies avoid bankruptcy, but he made an exception in this case.

"It just tugged at my heart strings," said Holmes, who has worked as a turnaround consultant since 1975. "Here was a 74-year-old widow about to lose her home and her business. I had seen the numbers and everything was explainable as to why they were in trouble. It wasn't just the economy. There were reasons extraneous to the restaurant that were pulling it down."

Holmes said he focused on the restaurant and suggested making some marketing and operational changes. He also worked in tandem with Mrs. Van Dyke's attorney to develop a reorganization plan.

Holmes said one of the biggest challenges was dispelling persistent rumors that the Blue Willow Inn had closed.

"Getting the word out that 'we're open' was one of the biggest hurdles," he said. Holmes said the efforts are beginning to pay off. He said costs are coming in line and the restaurant is now profitable enough to support a payout plan.

"This is one of the most successful Chapter 11's in my career," said Holmes.

Mrs. Van Dyke said she is encouraged by the progress made and the deep loyalty of the Blue Willow's customers.

"Right now we're doing well," she said. "It's been an encouraging and discouraging adventure since November."