Saturday, August 16, 2008

Del Taco

Del Taco is a staple in the southwest, and more than once attempted to gain the
national exposure of Taco Bell. Unfortunately, this did not seem to work out so well for the company, which has retracted completely to its core market with a few exceptions. Today, the only Del Taco remaining in Georgia is on St. Simons Island, which as of recent still looks exactly the same as its initial entry into Georgia.

Del Taco's grand entry into Georgia came in 1980 where it opened many, many locations across the state. While it was initially quite successful, its fortunes began to wane across the state by the end of the 1980's. In 1992, after only 12 years, every single Del Taco closed with exception to St Simons, meaning lots of vacant restaurants and an end to an era where Georgians were offered an alternative to Taco Bell for fast-food Mexican.

Alas! Del Taco wasn't through with the Peach State yet! In 1995, it came back but this time with a different logo and all new locations. The new locations were almost all joint locations with Mrs. Winner's, which to those not from Georgia is a local chicken restaurant. The only free-standing one to knowledge was in the Food Court at North Point Mall, which actually may have been there longer. Unfortunately, this new concept of two in one lasted even less long than the previous, and the locations all fell into poor management by the end of the decade. By late 2001, Del Taco was removed from all the Mrs. Winner's restaurants that it shared, now all just Mrs. Winner's.

Today, unless you're visiting St. Simons Island, Del Taco is not on the menu in Georgia. Nevertheless, a few of its scars remain including this notable one in the photos here in Cedartown, GA. Until recently, this location looked like it had just closed despite being closed over a decade. In fact, the sign continued to read "Closed. Thanks For 12 Great Years" with absolutely no vandalism or missing letters for at least a decade. Most of the others have been converted to other uses or demolished.

Georgia Square Mall: Athens, GA

Athens is best known for University of Georgia, the oldest university in the United States, and the small city that grew around it. While not a major city, the sheer size and economic impact of UGA gives the entire city in the northeastern part of the state a big city feel. While not located on or even very near any interstate, the city is ringed by a major freeway (Loop 10), features a vibrant urban scene and has created a relatively fast growing metro area that has spilled into neighboring counties outside of the consolidated Athens-Clarke County. Such growth and the encroaching Atlanta area has recently pushed a plan to upgrade its major link to Atlanta, GA 316, into a freeway or toll road.

The impact of the university and the money that came with it was not lost on retailers. The City of Athens had its very own branch of Davison's in downtown alongside much larger Augusta and Macon, and in 1981 Athens got its very own Atlanta-style mall with Georgia Square. Georgia Square, needless to say, was a mall of its time. It was so outlandishly 70's/80's modern that it was jokingly referred to as the "Disco Mall". Even to this day and subsequent renovations, this is not lost on the center. It's latest renovation actually seems to very successfully take it actually back to its roots as a mall that paid its reverences to the era of polyester, disco music, skating rinks and Atari.

Georgia Square was also responsible for the end of the downtown retail era in Athens. When the mall opened, all of the stores formerly in downtown including Davison's and Belk packed up and staked their claim in the large two-story mall. It is rather easy to see why this happened, as travel in downtown is very difficult on a normal day and parking was impossible. In finding the original Davison's store, I found that it was impossible to get a parking place near the store, which is now part of UGA. Nevertheless, at the time the mall was built there was concern the mall was too large for its market considering that Athens was not a very large city and that the surrounding market was all rural. Nearby Barrow County and Jackson Counties were remote farming eras when the mall opened while today they are dotted with many new subdivisions. That has not held back the mall, though, in that not only the help of college crowds but also its super-regional status have made the center more than successful...especially for shoppers weary of chaotic Atlanta traffic to the west.

Disco-style bulbs hang over the lower level entrance to JCPenney

Also, the mall's opening brought out a plethora of retail onto what was then US 29/78. Nearly every retail chain came into the area including one of the most remote locations of Richway, even though there had never been a Rich's in that city up to that time period. While the Richway is gone, the area around Georgia Square both to the west and east along Atlanta Highway (US 78 Business) remains the premier retail corridor in the city. Little changes have occurred to the mall either beyond cosmetic. All of the original anchors remain to this day with exception to the Davison's. Its wild name changes took it from Davison's to Macy's in 1986, Rich's in 1998, Rich's-Macy's in 2003 and back to Macy's in 2005.

A rare look at the short-lived Rich's at Georgia Square. Note the classic Davison's/Macy's exterior of the era. It's just as classic inside!

The mall itself has a slightly distinct layout in that it is not entirely a two-story mall. In fact, the mall shrinks to one level on the west end just before the Sears, accessed by escalators that climb beside a wall that leads to bathrooms under the esclators and a very peculiar truncation of the structure at that. The Sears is also the only one level anchor at the mall. In contrast, the Belk is one of very few original two-story Belks in Georgia. The Davison's/Macy's is what is really the experience of the mall, though. The store is completely in a time warp and has never been updated at all since the mall opened. Both inside and out, the store looks like it would have fit right in with the "Dynasty" era chocked full of women with short hair wearing silk blouses with padded shoulders. The Belk is slightly more modern looking, but what stands out is the outlandish copper-foil mall entrance sign and the very dated skinny escalators in an octagon court with tarnished brass and brown rubber railings. In the mall itself, the planters, fountains and brown tiles are long gone but yet the funkiness never quite left the place. It should be noted that the pictures are at the end of of a brand new renovation done this year. Nonetheless, many of the store signs in the mall still pay ode to the era.

Escalators in the mall take shoppers on the bottom level up to the upper level single story Sears wing.

Photos of the Belk inside and out. Note the extremely retro look both inside and outside the mall

More shots of the Rich's

Enjoy these pics of the disco mall. I'm sure many of you Athens fans and UGA grads have seen this place as well, so this should be a rather unique view of Georgia's own Athens.