It's the middle of the afternoon on a Thursday, downtown Atlanta. I'm sitting in a fairly new restaurant directly across the street from a dorm at Georgia State University. It's move-in day. I'm watching freshmen and their parents try to figure out how to roll suitcases and more up and down big city sidewalks after having parked blocks away. There is foot traffic. There is energy. There is almost a sense of excitement with all of these people walking up and down the street. Most of them clearly college students.
One of the most excited people on the block, though, is a man whose college days are long behind him. Ken Brown is set up across the street in the dining room of his newest restaurant to open. Sisters Real Southern Cooking has been open for the better part of the summer in this spot. A hop, skip and a jump from tourist central in Georgia's state capital. It's the Brown family's fourth location to open, and the first of what they hope will be a few locations across Atlanta.
"I was beginning to think people thought I was lying," Brown says. "We've been talking about this for almost two years."
Indeed, the first time Brown mentioned the possibility to me of Sisters expanding to Atlanta was a couple of years ago. But as he made it clear last week, "You have to find the right people."
"A lot of people think they can run a restaurant, but it takes a lot more work than most people realize. This is a 4 a.m. until 10 p.m. job," he says. Clearly, there are no days off.
"I talk to maybe 10 people a year who come to me and want to open a Sisters in their city," Brown tells me. "Many don't have a business background. Others have never worked in restaurants. That just won't work." That brings him back to his original point, which he makes very clear. If you are going to allow someone to purchase a franchise and represent your brand - your standard of quality and excellence - you have to be able to trust that person to do it your way. Patricia Annan fit the bill.
Annan moved to Atlanta once upon a time and made her way up the ranks in the food and beverage industry.
"I knew I wanted to have my own place one day," she says. What she didn't know is that this New York City native would be offering the very essence of Southern cuisine. Fried chicken? Macaroni and cheese? Oxtail? Yes, of course, you can find all of that in New York, but in the South, those foods are a way of life. How'd she connect with the Brown family? Well, kind of by accident.
"I had visited Savannah and eaten at Sisters a couple of times. I loved it and thought, 'This is what I want to do,'" the 36-year-old says. "The flavors were just solid comfort food. The kind of flavors I remember as a child." Meanwhile, her timing was perfect.
"She was actually in our Skidaway store eating," Brown says, "while I was sitting in the dining room talking to someone who wanted to open a Sisters in Jacksonville.
"She overheard the conversation and walked up and said, 'Excuse me, but if you are serious about franchising, I would like to talk to you about doing this in Atlanta.'"
That opened a dialogue that led to Sisters Real Southern Cooking opening in Georgia's largest city. Clearly, Annan checked all of the boxes. She has the rights to a good bit of the Atlanta market and plans to open more Sisters across the sprawling metropolis that is the A-T-L. The space she currently occupies is right downtown in the heart of Georgia State University territory.
"This was just a shell," she says, referring to the space she designed largely herself. "We put in the AC units, the lighting, the counter, all of it. We have a lot more we have yet to do."
The space is bright; the lines are clean. There are some reminders on the walls that this ultimately is old-time Southern cooking, but it is also the big city. There is a definite modern feel to this restaurant. Of course, the star of the show, as it should be, is the food.
The day I visited, the Brown family was just pulling up after their four-hour drive from Savannah.
"Sorry I'm late," Brown says. "We had a huge catering job at Savannah State this morning. We couldn't leave until that was done."
The first thing he does after he settles his family in for the visit is serve himself a plate of food: "That's the first thing I do. We need to make sure it is exactly as you would have it in Savannah."
Twice a week - "usually Thursdays and Saturdays" - the Browns are making the trip from Savannah to Atlanta to make sure Sisters is running as it should.
"We usually spend a couple of hours here and then drive back," he says.
Drive to Atlanta for dinner? Twice a week? That's got to get old.
"We have to do it," Brown tells me. "The food needs to be excellent every time."
Part of being a franchise owner includes access to Sisters recipes, most of which involve their line of spices. There are spices for the chicken, spices for the corn, spices for the oxtail. It's a very precise system the family perfected over the course of a year and a half when they first opened on Skidaway Road in Savannah. There was a lot of trial and error not only on their part, but on the part of the manufacturer. "One time we sent off our corn seasoning and it came back red," Brown tells me through a laugh. "I called them and said our corn cannot be red. We need to do this again."
That was a process, but their process is done. Their spices are right where they want them. So much so, there's a plan to sell them through mail order later in the fall. Of course, having the spices doesn't mean you can cook just like they do at Sisters, but you are more than welcome to try.
The Browns have shuffled the deck a little bit in the last couple of years. It wasn't all that long ago it seemed there was a Sisters on every corner in Savannah. There was a location on Mall Boulevard, another in Pooler, one in Beaufort and the original on Skidaway Road. Today, the Mall Boulevard spot has moved inside of Oglethorpe Mall, Pooler moved up the road to Statesboro and Beaufort is closed. Nothing has changed on Skidaway Road near Victory Drive. Today it is the only location owned and operated by the Brown family. The others are franchises. That doesn't mean for a second, however, that anything at those spots is different. It shouldn't be, anyway.
"The Browns have been amazing," Annan says. "They have been right there with me every step of the way guiding me through this process. Any question I have had, day or night, I call and he always has an answer for me."
The support extends to advertising and community outreach in the area.
"We've already gotten involved with Georgia State and some of their functions," Brown says. "We have all of these kids here in the area. The park (Centennial) is right down the street, the Dome is right over there. Now Georgia State has announced they bought Turner Field and are going to make that their football stadium.
"We think we are in the perfect location in downtown Atlanta."
Sounds like he's right. Of course, merely getting the doors open is half the battle. Now the fun begins.
In five years, Brown tells me he'd like to have five more locations. As we said, there are plans for more in Atlanta. There are also discussions about opening a spot in Calhoun, an hour or so north of Atlanta. That may or may not happen, but discussions are ongoing. Meanwhile, Brown is open to conversation with interested parties about growing his Sisters brand into those 10 stores. It will take a while. He knows that, but really, there's no hurry. As long as there is plenty of good food around, it's all good. It's all about finding the right fit. As he appears to have done in Atlanta.
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