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Barnhill's Buffet closes shop

By By Janet Little Cooper
The kitchen at Charles Barnhill's Buffet in Atmore was busy with activity Monday morning, but as the clock approached the normal opening time, residents of Atmore began to realize that the day's activity was far from normal.
After many months of rumors and speculation, Barnhill's closed its doors for good at 7:45 p.m. Sunday night after serving customers lunch and dinner. Customers who arrived for service on Monday were greeted with a locked door and a sign stating the restaurant's closure.
"It was a hard decision to make," Barnhill's founder and owner Charles Barnhill said. "Atmore was probably $75,000 in the hole for the year. We had a big electric bill that came due that pushed us over the cliff. The stores in Goshee, Miss., and Saraland were making pretty good money and Atmore was losing it. I still didn't want to close it. It was one of those times when your heart was telling you to stay and your head was telling you to go."
The Atmore restaurant, which opened in Dec. 2004, was one of four that was operated under the control of Barnhill and a partner in the business.
"I felt like things would be better in a year, but I wasn't the one paying the bills and my partner just didn't feel like he could support it that long, so he pulled out" Barnhill said. "I believe that a lot of good things are happening in Atmore and that it would be different in a year, but he just didn't feel that he could hold out that long."
The Atmore location, previously known as Golden Corral, began its struggle for survival soon after opening its doors.
"It was our fault that we didn't make it," Barnhill said. "When we opened we had a pretty good lady running things, I ate up there and the food was good. And over time something went wrong. I was getting bad comments at least once a day. I went up there one day and it was every bit as bad as I had been told."
During this time, the buffet was not only getting bad comments from patrons but from health inspections as well. According to reports the restaurant received a series of low ratings that placed the facility on a time table for improvements or an imposed closure would be enforced.
In an effort to turn things around, Barnhill enlisted the help of Rick Mick, a longtime Barn hills associate who was currently managing the Mobile Highway location in Pensacola, Fla.
"I pulled the manager from Mobile Highway and the comments turned around almost over night," Barnhill said. "With Rick up there, we were getting good comments again. We just started a big advertising campaign to let people know that things were different and if they had been unhappy before to come back in and give us another try."
However, for Barnhill it was a little late. He would need more time to build the business back up.
"It takes at least a year to turn a restaurant around and to regain a customer's trust," Barnhill said. "We just ran out of money. The blame falls on us. If you don't keep the quality of a restaurant up this is what happens."
Barnhill's move to bring Mick into the Atmore picture was working but just not soon enough to balance out the losses.
"I came to the Atmore store about three months ago," Atmore manager Rick Mick said. "I tried to turn things around, but it just wasn't quick enough."
Mick, who had plans to relocate to Atmore, will return to his position at the Mobile Highway location in Pensacola where he resides.
According to Mick, the closure is leaving 20 to 25 people without a job. Most could transfer to one of the two restaurants in Pensacola provided they were willing and had the means to make the daily 40 to 45 mile journey Mick said.
Barnhill had a lease agreement with Golden Corral that will now fall back into their hands.
Barnhill, who spends most of his days working at the original Barnhill's buffet at the intersection of Olive and Davis Highways in Pensacola, Fla., blames himself for taking his eye off the ball.
"I was spending a lot of time with my wife after she had a heart attack and then suffered a stroke," Barnhill said. "Between her and the Olive Road restaurant, I just didn't have the time to get up to Atmore like I should have. Knowing I needed to go I just couldn't go to Atmore like I should have. In this kind of business you just can't take your eye off the ball and that is what I did."
With the recent development of the Rivercane project at I-65, Barnhill could see good things happening in Atmore within the year, but was just not able to hold on that long.
"A lot of people from Atmore and the surrounding area come into our buffet on Olive and Davis," Barnhill said. "I could see good things happening in Atmore. Our closure wasn't Atmore's fault. It wasn't the people or the city. My apologies go to the people in Atmore. They treated us right and we did them right some of the time and wrong most of the time."