HomeNewsBusinessAugusta eateries gear up for Masters Week after a two-year absence

Augusta eateries gear up for Masters Week after a two-year absence

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As the city braces for the annual swell of visitors during the Augusta National Golf Tournament, local restaurants are already prepared to shift back to the ordinary swing of things.

“All of our orders are normal,” said Walter Clay, owner of Raes Coastal Café on Wimbledon Drive, which has been up and running during plenty of Masters Weeks over the 30 years it’s been open. “All of our staff trainings have become normal again; all of our preparations are back to normal.”

For the last two years Augusta’s signature week-long golf event has been stymied by COVID-19 restrictions, with the tournament being postponed from April to November in 2020, and smaller, socially distanced crowds in 2021. Even the traditional Par 3 contest was canceled both years.

Clay explains that because the Augusta National was forthcoming with how it was going to schedule and coordinate the Masters during the height of the pandemic, adapting to the decrease in customers was a little easier. That, in turn, gradually made it easier to switch back to the usual increase in this year.

“It was kind of a non-event for us, just kind of like every other week of the year,” said Clay about 2020.

The following year was better, he notes, because enough volunteer and support staff attending who decided to go out to eat.

“Last year, they opened it up some, and we knew they weren’t going to have many patrons, so we didn’t worry about overpreparing for that. And then this year’s back to normal.”

While the Masters Tournament may be back in full force, along with the throng of out-of-towners it attracts, many bistros in town that have been around long enough to know how to adapt for the week and are welcoming the return of the April rush.

This year will be the 45th Masters Week for Calvert’s Restaurant at Surrey Center, notes executive chef and manager Justin Vann.

“We had to shut down at the beginning with everybody else, right before the 2020 Masters in late March,” said Vann. “We had our doors shut all the way until August of that year.”

Vann says he is particularly grateful that Calvert’s, which has served the likes of golfers Arnold Palmer and Fuzzy Zoeller, has been able to maintain a full staff amid the pandemic.

“We still had a lot of regulars and locals that came through,” he said about how Calvert’s fared during the more limited tournament week in fall of 2020. “Some of the golfers were able to come in and dine with us.”

With COVID restrictions and space limiting no longer the factors that they’ve been for the last couple of years, Vann says Calvert’s is already booked solid for the week.

“From the way our reservations are right now, it looks like anybody and everybody that can get in is already in,” he said.

Penelope Ballas-Stewart, the fourth generation owner of Luigi’s on Broad Street, said she’s looking forward to seeing crowds return again.

“I think I might be exceptionally optimistic, but I think this year is going to be even better than 2019,” she said.

Five generations of the Ballas family have worked at Luigi’s. Staff photo by Charmain Z. Brackett

Established in 1949, Luigi’s has become a traditional spot for golfers and fans alike to eat during the tournament.

“Two years without it, and I think people want their traditions back,” she said.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condolezza Rice dined at Luigi’s in April 2021, and golfer Ben Crenshaw and his family always make an appearance, Ballas-Stewart said.

Clay says he and the staff at Raes began preparing for this year’s Masters Week the first Tuesday in January. By April, everybody and everything is ready. He also notes that no one is exhausted at the end of the week, partly because the second busiest week of the year is the week after the tournament.

“You have people that rent their houses, and they haven’t been here in a week, so they’re back,” said Clay. “The people that live in town often avoid the restaurants because they expect them to be packed. Then you’ve got the business traveler, calling on different accounts from different cities. They haven’t been able to get in touch with their customers in two weeks because people are getting ready for Masters; and then their bosses are like, ‘You got to get back to Augusta and get to your customers and take them to dinner.’”

Clay is also mindful, as part of all of his planning, to keep things “in the family,” prioritizing regular staff even during one of the city’s biggest weeks.

“Instead of bringing people and training them, I just try to make sure that the benefits of all the hard work goes to the staff that works with me all year long,” he said.

Skyler Q. Andrews is a staff reporter covering education in Columbia County and business-related topics for The Augusta Press. Reach him at [email protected]. Managing editor Charmain Z. Brackett contributed to the story.

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