This year Johnny Liu, the owner of Café at Pharr, will celebrate the 20th anniversary of a restaurant in which he literally grew up.
Liu’s parents, Mike and Shirley, established the business on Pharr Road in Buckhead in 1992, first as a bakery then transitioning to a café the following year.
Liu fondly recalls the now-closed original location where he and his sister, Jenny, while too young to work, would occasionally be unhelpful by throwing dough at one another.
Then, as a student at North Atlanta High School, Liu learned to bake bread.
“The deal was, if I got a car, I’d have to work weekends and bake bread before school,” he said. “Everyone thought it was so cool. I’d show up at high school with fresh-baked croissants.”
In 1998, Liu’s parents were ready to sell the business and retire.
Liu, then a recent high school graduate, said he was ready to run the café despite knowing the challenges.
“They took everything to open [the café],” he said. “It was hard-earned money because they were doing odd jobs to support the business. I was definitely proud as a kid my parents owned it.”
Flash forward to today, and Liu is preparing to open a sixth location of the café in May in Vinings.
Other locations include Peachtree Road, Miami Circle and Chastain Square restaurants in Buckhead, a Westside café on Chattahoochee Avenue and the new Baci Restaurant & Bar by Cafe at Pharr in Brookhaven.
Liu attributes the success of his business predominantly to the café’s customers, some of whom he met as teenagers and who now bring in children of their own.
“Also, we don’t try too hard,” Liu said. “We’re very simple and we don’t try to be something we’re not.”
Carlton Davis and her daughter Louise Cook, both Buckhead residents, enjoy that simplicity.
“The thing about their food is it’s consistent. You know what you’re getting,” Davis said. “Everybody’s friendly. They know what our order is and they always bring me my tea with extra lemon.”
They both favor the celery chicken salad sandwich on wheat which Cook, now a student at the University of Georgia in Athens, says she looks forward to during every visit home.
“We literally meet here every time. We just say, ‘I’ll meet you at noon,’ and we both come here,” Cook said. “I think it’s the perfect combination of comfort food and healthy food, so you’re satisfied without feeling guilty.”
Liu says he is scoping out a location for one final Café at Pharr, either in Dunwoody or Virginia-Highland.
Afterward, he plans to focus on other ventures and is in the early stages of opening a crawfish restaurant in Buckhead.
By Gloria Love