If you buy something from an Eater link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics policy.
The Wendy’s on University Avenue burned through the night of June 13, 2020, after suspected arsonists set fire to the building during protests on the property. The crowds were protesting police brutality following the killing of Rayshard Brooks, an unarmed Black man shot in the back while running from Atlanta police officer Garrett Rolfe. The next morning, against a backdrop of overcast skies, the charred ruins were a somber sight as people gathered at the site throughout the day. The once-pristine building now featured shards of glass and smudges of black soot. Even little Wendy, still smiling inside the logo, looked just a little less innocent.
This fire may be one of the most incendiary examples in recent history, but it’s not the first time an Atlanta restaurant was connected to a protest. There’s a long relationship between Atlanta restaurants and civil uprisings, although the reasoning and results have differed with as much range as recipes for soul food menu standards made in commercial kitchens.
During the 2020 summer protests in Atlanta, many restaurants and bars stood with those demanding justice for George Floyd, and then Brooks. Several restaurants, such as Summerhill Thai spot Talat Market and Koinonia Coffee ATL, a former coffee shop in southwest Atlanta, donated proceeds to the Atlanta Solidarity Fund and similar groups providing bail funds and pro-bono legal assistance to protesters. Now, in a moment informed by recent years’ protests, marked by overlapping social and global crises, and braced for the lead up to another state election that will prompt further political engagement from restaurants and residents across Atlanta, it’s even more crucial to revisit the city’s political legacy through food. The work to achieve an equitable society for all is ongoing and never finished.
Atlanta’s trailblazing culinary canon
Akila McConnell, author of A Culinary History of Atlanta, says there’s an established legacy of local restaurants championing or involving themselves in social justice movements and politically controversial issues. In the 1960s, McConnell says, Joe Rogers Sr., co-founder of Waffle House, welcomed Black protesters demonstrating outside the former Midtown location of the all-day breakfast chain. Around the same time, Lester Maddox, an avowed segregationist who later became governor of Georgia, chose to shut down his Pickrick Restaurant rather than comply with the 1964 Civil Rights Act and allow Black patrons to dine there. He went so far as to block the restaurant’s entrance while brandishing a pistol. Maddox ended up closing the restaurant rather than integrate it under the new law.
For McConnell, understanding Atlanta restaurants’ relationships with social justice and advocacy requires understanding the city’s beginnings, starting with Ransom Montgomery in the late 1840s. Montgomery would become the second Black person in Atlanta to own property, open a small but widely impactful food stand, and establish himself as what McConnell calls “Atlanta’s first restaurateur.”
After he saved the lives of 100 passengers on a train headed toward a burning bridge over the Chattahoochee River in 1849,