The visual contrast between the scruffy, long-established bar and the refurbished sandwich shop next door on W. Washington Street was hard to ignore. Indicative of a trend in downtown Athens, both businesses are gone now, replaced with something shiny and new.
Uncle Ernie’s Pub n’ Grub and The Max Canada — the two adjoining businesses at 235 and 243 W. Washington Street — officially closed their doors early this January. Both businesses were managed by father-son duo, Ernie and Daniel Battinelli.
The space will be occupied by a new tapas and cocktail concept called Paloma Park, slated to open this spring. According to Daniel Battinelli, Jason Dunn is taking over. Dunn owns and manages Infusia Inc., one of the many corporations involved in downtown development projects, and has held management roles at places like Sandbar and Buddha Bar.
Uncle Ernie’s is relocating to a spot on Hawthorne Avenue, purchased by the Battinellis in 2016 and slated to open this spring. The Max, on the other hand, is closed for good.
Business in flux
This year has seen a series of openings and closures in downtown. In the case of Uncle Ernie’s and The Max, both were shut down briefly following pandemic-related mandates enforced by Athens-Clarke County in March, and they reopened during the summer until another brief closure in December.
That’s when the deal was supposed to go through, Daniel Battinelli said. He said Dunn had expressed interest in leasing the space earlier in the summer, asking to sit down with the Battinellis and the building’s owner, Eric Brown.
Then on Dec. 1, “everything fell through last minute,” Battinelli said. Employees had already been notified that both The Max and Uncle Ernie’s would be closing about a week prior.
“So, we went back to the drawing board, scrambled around, ordered all my licenses for 2021,” Battinelli said. “I guess it's just part of the business that we're in, you know, it's something that we didn't really expect.”
Both The Max and Uncle Ernie’s reopened for the remainder of 2020. By mid-January, Battinelli said more offers to lease the space had come his way. He said that in an effort to honor Dunn’s original offer, the Battinellis reached back out. The deal was closed within a couple weeks.
Former bartender at The Max Andrew Warlick expressed frustration at being “constantly surprised” regarding the business deal. After it fell through in December, Warlick said he wasn’t notified that his employment at the bar was officially over until after the bar was officially sold in January. Warlick had worked at The Max since 2019.
“What we've been told was going to happen was we were just waiting on a liquor license to come through,” Warlick said. “We knew we were going to be down for at least a week or two at the beginning of January. But before that ever resolved itself, we were told [Ernie] had sold the bar.”
Brian Veysey, a former Uncle Ernie’s employee and longtime Athens resident, said he started hearing rumors way before December about a potential closure.
“I took that as a cue to start looking for other work,” Veysey said.
While The Max closed, Uncle Ernie’s employees were given future job opportunities at the Hawthorne location. Autumn Brooke Cleary worked downtown and plans to continue with Uncle Ernie’s as a staff member.
“Daniel was very open and honest with us. He gave us a lot of time to plan, and get our affairs in order,” Cleary said. “I’ll miss downtown, but I’m looking forward to the new location.”
In regards to early conversations with Dunn, Daniel Battinelli said he “didn't see the deal going through” and “thought [Dunn] was just kind of playing around.” But even though the Battinellis hadn’t planned on selling, the potential of a new location for Uncle Ernie’s became a selling point for the duo as the opportunity became more concrete.
“Being downtown is great. I love being downtown,” Battinelli said. “But we just feel like with a parking lot, with extra parking, with extra kitchen space, we have more opportunity to maybe get some more to-go food and some more catering events, things like that.”
Looking back, and moving onward
Uncle Ernie’s opened next to The Max in August 2019, building a customer base with its deli sandwiches and classic bar food. The restaurant was a brainchild of the Battinellis. Ernie Battinelli had been operating businesses in Athens since 1994, when he opened Clayton Street Deli. The duo took over at the W. Washington Street space in September 2018 prior to the Uncle Ernie’s launch, Daniel Battinelli said.
Previous occupants of the space include The Engine Room, which opened in 1994 and became a mainstay of the 1990s and 2000s music scene. The space was then briefly occupied by Room 13 and the relocated venue, Lunch Paper, starting in 2004. The Max opened at the start of 2007, following in the footsteps of its predecessors in both style and patronage. Overall, the spot operated as a bar and music venue for 26 years.
“It seems like another in a long line of victims in Athens trying to shed anything resembling a unique identity.”
- Brian Veysey, former Uncle Ernie's employee
Prior to the pandemic, The Max hosted a variety of local bands and participated in music festivals like AthFest. It was characterized by pool tables and an extensive outdoor porch, always full on weekend nights. For blue-collar workers and townies, it was a common space.
“Max has been, in one shape or another, the working class bar in Athens,” Warlick said. “Our clientele historically, and up until the end, was service industry workers. People like myself who worked in kitchens for years and years.”
Craig McEachern started working at The Max in 2017. For him, it was the “only place that felt right in this town.” Veysey, who said he’d “play pool there after work nearly every night for years,” said something similar.
“It seems like another in a long line of victims in Athens trying to shed anything resembling a unique identity,” Veysey said. “If people want to live in suburban Atlanta, then they should just go and do that, and not systematically gentrify this town one business at a time.”