Few things have the power to bring a community together like a welcoming place to gather. With support from both the neighborhood and American Express, Tom Murphy, owner of the popular upscale comfort food restaurant Murphy’s in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood of Atlanta, has been mastering that art for more than 40 years. But when he first opened a small business in that community in 1980, he had another kind of eating establishment in mind.
Born in New York but raised in Atlanta, Murphy always had an affinity for delicatessens. So, when he was a junior at Georgia State University, he did a feasibility study on how to open a neighborhood deli. “My professor went to the bank with me, and I got a loan,” he recalls. “I’ve been trying to make an A in that class for 43 years!”
For more than a decade, Murphy’s Deli was in a house around the corner from his current location. “The best delis in cities are the pantries of people’s homes where the neighbors gather,” he says. “The staple place people come back to again and again.” But when his next-door neighbor bought the property and tore the house down, Murphy moved across the street and pivoted from being a deli to a full-service restaurant. “From the beginning, it was about being a part of the community.”
Murphy started by offering breakfast, and that evolved into brunch. “People would come on the weekends to have Bloody Marys and Mimosas,” he says. “It was very popular. Brunch became a calling card, a signature for us.” His restaurant has continued to evolve, now serving popular dinner entrées like brisket and shrimp and grits, and Murphy even opened an in-house wine shop that features weekly themed tastings.
Virginia-Highland wasn’t trendy when Murphy first started out. But his popular establishment certainly helped the community grow in popularity, and the neighborhood is part of Murphy’s soul. “I raised my family here. My friendships are here,” he says. During the early days of the pandemic when so many restaurants were struggling or closing, Murphy wanted to be the eatery that stayed open. “We were the one place people could count on for takeout. We fed families.”
After four decades in the business—including a time when chain restaurants were surpassing the locally-owned shops—he’s starting to notice more mom-and-pops open up again. “It’s great to see,” he says. “Atlanta is seeing a lot more independent restaurants that have roots in their community.”
American Express has been a pioneer for championing these independent shops and restaurants. Small Business Saturday, which began in 2010, helps businesses like Murphy’s attract customers. And many businesses in his community have jumped on board. To help promote visibility, “we all had posters on our doors in the Highlands, and each business tried to have a special item featured for sale,” says Murphy. He offered curated wine assortments from his shop to help bring in new business.
By now, Murphy is well aware that running a successful small business means knowing what you’re good at—and what you aren’t. “We had a catering company a while ago, but we realized that wasn’t where we wanted to go,” he says. “So, we focused on creating the ideal place for dine-in customers. Keeping the folks happy within our four walls is what we’re about.”