Marietta sandwich staple closing after 42 years

Oct. 28—MARIETTA — At the north end of the unassuming brick building on Cherokee Street, against the backdrop of Wellstar Kennestone Hospital, is a Marietta lunch staple known for its homemade chicken salad, efficient service and no-nonsense deli fare.

On Nov. 15, the Lunch Basket, after 42 years serving Mariettans meats and cheeses sliced in house, along with desserts, vegetables, and various specials, will close its doors for good.

However, the Lunch Basket's legacy will live on, as a newer restaurant, Daily Bread Cafe, with the same owner and menu, is open at 531 Roselane Street in Marietta, dishing out the sandwiches so many in the city have come to savor.

Out with the old

Owner Tonya Bruce began working at the Lunch Basket in 1990. The woman who then owned the store, Mary Dale, needed staffing help when one of her employees, whose children Bruce nannied, did not feel like coming into work.

The woman asked Bruce if she could take her shift at the Lunch Basket instead of nannying the kids, which Bruce did, kicking off her decades-long relationship with the sandwich shop. Bruce helped Dale at the restaurant "off and on" for a year while she attended college night classes. She then got a job at Wellstar and would frequent the store for lunch. About 10 years after she first worked the counter, Bruce was in line for a bite when Dale approached her about buying the store.

"I'm back in the back of the line and she goes, 'Hey Tonya, I'm turning 65 next month. You want to buy it?' And I said, 'Yeah,' and she goes, 'Are you sure?' And I said, 'Yeah,'" Bruce said.

Bruce had the keys in November 2000 and was running the show by May 2001. (Dale, now 87, still comes into the store, her go-to order a veggie sandwich.) Bruce quickly came to appreciate the loyal customer base of the restaurant.

"It's just neat that people come in, and you might have 10 people in line and literally, you don't have to ask any of them what they want because you know all of them," Bruce said.

One of those regulars, Marietta attorney John Hesmer, told the MDJ he has been eating at the Lunch Basket since the 1990s.

"I like a simple place. I like something that I can get into and out of and something I can depend on and not have to go through a bunch of hassle at some other more popular restaurant," Hesmer said. "For years I just decided to go in there and it just became a habit, so I go there all the time."

Bruce said Hesmer used to go with a half-tuna salad sandwich, a Diet Coke and a brownie, but he eventually switched over to chicken salad when he got tired of tuna. Hesmer has remained loyal to the Lunch Basket through the years.

"I didn't want to go any place else and take a chance on liking or not liking the food. I just sort of take it as my daily ritual," Hesmer said with a chuckle.

Nancy Dorsey of Marietta, another regular at the Lunch Basket, said she's been going there since before Bruce owned the shop. She usually gets a chicken salad sandwich, which she said is the best there is, or the BLT. She recalled picking her granddaughter, Lauren Grundmeyer, up from kindergarten and heading over to the restaurant for chicken salad, also Lauren's favorite.

They would see Hesmer, who Dorsey said would always ask Lauren if he could borrow the bow she was wearing.

"Even now, she's 14 years old, and any time she gets out of school early release, she wants to go to the Lunch Basket," Dorsey said. "You always see somebody there you know. Tonya is so friendly, she remembers what you order, and you can go there by yourself and you'll find somebody to sit with that you have something in common with."

Last Wednesday, Dorsey dined at the Lunch Basket with none other than John Hesmer.

COVID challenges

Like many other restaurants, the Lunch Basket was hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

When her entire staff quit at the start of the outbreak, Bruce enlisted the help of her two youngest daughters, Maddie and Abigail, to run the Lunch Basket. For a year and a half, Tonya said, they ran the restaurant while she ran Daily Bread Cafe. Maddie had just started at the University of Georgia and Abigail was still in high school.

"Truly, I would not have made it the last two and a half years without them," Bruce said of her daughters as they helped set up the restaurant last Tuesday morning, Abigail stocking the fridge with desserts and salads while Maddie coordinated group orders.

Tonya Bruce's oldest daughter, Makenzie, has helped out plenty over the years as well, while Bruce's son Ethan, now serving as a Marine in Japan, helped a little, too. Her husband, Ed Bruce, is a vice commander with the American Legion in Marietta.

COVID was not the reason Bruce decided to close shop. She said Wellstar purchased the building and began telling her to prepare to move out. That was nine years ago.

Fast forward to January 2022, and Wellstar told Bruce she had 30 days to leave but that it was an unofficial notice, eventually informing her she would need to be out by Christmas.

Bruce did credit some of her regular customers with helping the restaurant stay afloat during COVID.

"If it was not for Helen (Wilson) at Cobb EMC, and for Danielle and Ashley at Wellstar, Robin Burruss with Tip Top, we wouldn't have made it through COVID, 100% no doubt, we would not have made it," Bruce said.

Wilson, who has been with Cobb EMC for 25 years, said she has been eating at the Lunch Basket for just as long. She said Bruce has always been reliable in providing Wilson with meals for repair crews returning from late night outages, starting years ago with a breakfast order.

"She was there for me, been there for me every time, so now even when there's not an outage ... it's a quarter of the price for me to use her than, say, Jason's Deli, and the quality of food is three times better than Jason's Deli," Wilson said. "Honest to goodness, I support her because she's a small business, because when the times were bad and I couldn't find anybody, she was there."

In with the new

While Bruce is not sure what Wellstar plans to do with the building — she said they have talked about building a minute clinic and helipad there, among other ideas — she will turn her focus to Daily Bread Cafe once the Lunch Basket is closed.

Last Tuesday, two employees of the Atlanta Eye Specialists next door to the Lunch Basket came in to pick up sandwiches in the late morning.

Debbie Howell, who has eaten at the Lunch Basket for 15 years, and her colleague Samantha Kelly, who has been a customer for about a year, echoed Hesmer's praise of the restaurant.

"It's great food, quick and convenient," Howell said. "I call from my cell phone, Tonya answers the phone and has my sandwich within five minutes after I call."

Howell got an egg salad sandwich and Kelly ordered a BLT.

"I'm obsessed with the BLTs," Kelly said.

While Howell said Daily Bread Cafe cannot beat the convenience of the Lunch Basket, she will try and make it over to the other restaurant when she can. Kelly said she was at Daily Bread last Friday, and that the BLT there is as good as the Lunch Basket's.

Howell told Bruce she's going to miss the restaurant, and Bruce feels the same way.

However, her Daily Bread Cafe, almost a decade old, will honor its elder sibling's legacy. Bruce plans to add "the Lunch Basket" to the newer shop's name once the original restaurant is no more. Most likely, the name will be added by the start of 2023.

While Bruce looks forward to what Daily Bread holds for the future, she could not help but lament the closing of such a central part of her life and that of Marietta's lunch rush.

"It's depressing," Bruce said. "When I opened (Daily Bread Cafe), I would work here, but I would work there also, and I would tell the girls over there, I'm like, 'No, I gotta go back, it's home over there.' So, you know, it just feels like—"

Bruce paused.