Blue Willow owner pleads for more business

Blue Willow Inn owner Billie Van Dyke met with the press Friday to get the word out that the restaurant, though struggling, is still in business.

Blue Willow Inn owner Billie Van Dyke met with the press Friday to get the word out that the restaurant, though struggling, is still in business.

SOCIAL CIRCLE -- Blue Willow Inn owner Billie Van Dyke wants to keep frying green tomatoes. She just hopes there will be enough customers to eat them.

The landmark restaurant in Social Circle has seen a decline in customers since news of financial troubles has spread and following the death of Van Dyke's husband and Blue Willow founder, Louis Van Dyke, in November.

Van Dyke called a press conference Friday to let the public know the Blue Willow is still in business and needs support more than ever.

"We want everybody to know we're not (closed.) We're doing business as usual. The pots on the stove are full," she said.

The restaurant, which is currently under Chapter 11 Bankruptcy protection, is in danger of closing if the customer count doesn't rise, Van Dyke said. The real trouble is the financial drain of the Blue Willow Village, which sits on 7 acres behind the restaurant.

The Van Dykes attempted to widen the economic impact of the Blue Willow Inn by opening the village in 2008. The Village was designed to expand the appeal of the Blue Willow Inn restaurant by offering a mix of retail shops, restaurants and 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.

The Village was pre-leased at near full capacity, but when the economy took a nosedive, tenants backed out, leaving the new retail center largely vacant. The Village is now for sale, along with Magnolia Hall, Van Dyke's catering and events facility, and the Blue Willow office building, located next to the restaurant. A commercial real estate firm is marketing the facilities and working on getting tenants in the Village, Van Dyke said. The restaurant is not for sale, but Van Dyke worries about its future.

Social Circle Mayor Jim Burgess said the Blue Willow has a local, regional and even international impact, noting that he encountered someone while vacationing in Scotland who was familiar with the restaurant. Prior to the economic downturn, the restaurant drew more than 200,000 people a year and provided 80 to 100 jobs, he said.

Clara Deemer, tourism director with the Covington-Newton County Chamber of Commerce, said the restaurant's impact has been felt in Newton County and surrounding communities.

"The Blue Willow Inn has been a mainstay in the community for years and now I think it is time that the surrounding communities get behind this great institution and do everything we can to help the iconic restaurant continue to live and thrive," Deemer said. "Covington has always enjoyed hosting bus tours to our beautiful town either before or after they have had a meal at Blue Willow. The Blue Willow is a tourist draw for the small town of Social Circle as well as Rutledge, Madison, Monroe, Conyers and Covington. Blue Willow called attention to our areas long before we had funding for tourism and so many of these communities were able to become tourist destinations because of the huge draw of the Blue Willow."

The Van Dykes opened Blue Willow Inn on Thanksgiving Day 1991. A few months later, columnist and author Lewis Grizzard dined at the restaurant and wrote an article praising the Southern cooking. The column syndicated in 280 newspapers throughout the country, and Blue Willow's popularity soared.

The restaurant has received recognition from Southern Living Magazine, winning the Readers Choice Award for Best Small Town Restaurant in the South from 1996 to 2001. After the category was retired, Blue Willow won Best Country Restaurant in the South in 2002 and 2003, and was selected as a top regional restaurant by the magazine in 2006.