At Mary Mac’s, family meal takes on a whole different meaning. For more than 70 years, the restaurant has embodied the very ideals of comfort food and southern hospitality.
That’s in part thanks to owner John Ferrell, who has shepherded the Atlanta institution through nearly 25 years of change in the city surrounding it while keeping the restaurant steeped in much-loved traditions, including complimentary pot likker for rst-time diners and pencils on the table for guests to mark their orders with.
“For Mary Mac’s, tradition is everything,” Ferrell says. “ ere’s not many places you can go back to a er 40, 50 years and basically have the same menu. … So it’s comforting, as well as comfort food, to just come back home and see the same faces and enjoy meals that you grew up with.”
Founder Mary McKenzie first opened the restaurant in 1945 with 75 seats; today, it has six dining rooms and seats 400 at a time. An average of 2,000 guests are served each day.
Generations of families return time and again to experience the same authentic hospitality and southern staples like fried chicken, sweet potato sou é and collard greens that the restaurant is known for.
“With Emory University, Georgia State and Georgia Tech all right here, we’ve fed so many students,” Ferrell says. “Some stay in Atlanta and have families, and they all dine here and eat with us. And those that move around the world, they’re always coming back in.”
People visit from all over, and the restaurant’s walls are lined with photos of some its well-known guests, like former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, James Brown, Justin Bieber and even the Dalai Lama.
A Tallahassee, Fla., native, Ferrell was born into the hospitality industry – his family developed some of the state’s rst tourist inns, and his grandmother still owned two roadside inns in Pensacola when he was a boy. It was there that he rst helped guests by carrying their luggage and getting them ice. “I learned at an early age that hospitality pays. I’d get a nickel or a dime maybe a quarter tip,” he recalls. “I loved it.”
Growing up, his Aunt Frankie embedded in him both the importance of southern hospitality and his love of southern food.
“She was quite a cook,” he says. “Anytime you would walk into her house or her kitchen, she had two stoves, two refrigerators, three or four tables all pulled together with different tablecloths.” And of course those tables were groaning with southern classics like fried chicken, vegetables and cornbread.
“She was so intent on making sure you were well taken care of. She’d fix you an ice tea, fix you something to eat. And I’ve always loved that,” he says. “It’s like coming home, and you’re welcome.”
The seed was planted for the rest of Ferrell’s career.
He later attended Florida State University’s Dedman School of Hospitality, then made his way to Atlanta in 1979. It was at Florida State where he met Marie, daughter of former Mary Mac owner Margaret Lupo, who had run the restaurant since the 1960s. The two became good friends. Marie later went on to marry another close friend, industry veteran Steve Nygren. When Marie’s mother decided it was time to retire, the family knew John was the right person to continue the legacy of Mary Mac’s.
“I always wanted a small restaurant, and I knew I wanted to do southern food because I knew it,” Ferrell says. “But I never dreamed I would be doing something as big as Mary Mac’s.”
The restaurant has since won awards and recognition from all over the country – even a proclamation from the Georgia State Legislature in 2011 declaring Mary Mac’s “Atlanta’s Dining Room” – but for Ferrell, there’s nothing like hearing from guests about how much the restaurant means to them.
“It’s just the customers who really keep you excited about being in the business,” Ferrell says. “It’s the sweet little notes – now emails or tweets or whatever you read – that make it all worthwhile.” – Christy Simo