The wafting aroma of fresh biscuits and fried chicken greets the hungry diner long before they step foot into Longstreet Cafe on a given morning. Inside, their fellow noshers move through the cafeteria-style lineup of scratch-made Southern fare, filling the dining room with neighborly chatter and the clang of cutlery scraping every last bite from the tray before them.
Owner Tim Bunch sits in the midst of it, greeting customers by name and reflecting on what it means to be Gainesville’s conduit for home cooking since March 17, 1997.
“I would have never dreamed we’d be here 25 years,” he said.
Bunch got his footing in the restaurant business working at Shoney’s in the 1970s. From there, he migrated to L & K Cafeteria, then to the Collegiate Grill off the downtown square before opening Longstreet — which he said the customers had a hand in naming — inside the Dairy Queen on Riverside Drive.
“We opened at the Dairy Queen (and) didn’t have a sign. It was very, very hard,” he said. “We probably had five or six employees, and it was the first time I’d ever had a drive-thru, so it was like running two businesses.”
Five years later, the flagship eatery settled into its home on Riverside Terrace, later expanding to a second location on Pearl Nix Parkway in 2008, with hopes of creating a “smaller footprint” by opening additional, miniature cafes throughout Gainesville — but “it seems to be that this size is more family-oriented,” Bunch said.
According to Bunch, Longstreet has been wildly popular on both sides of town. He attributes his loyal customer base — whom he claims to personally know 80% of — to quality comfort food and a style of dining reminiscent of a get-together at grandma’s house.
“Once you taste the product, it’s hard not to come back,” Bunch said. “We do everything the old-fashioned way, the hard way. Growing up, my grandmother and my mother cooked. We try to do everything from scratch — biscuits, cornbread, we still peel potatoes, cut ‘em, mash ‘em. We use fresh chicken. We bread it, fry it. That’s been the staple. It’s real labor-intense, but that’s what the customer wants. I’ve always said, ‘Use all the resources you can.’”
Amid the pandemic, Bunch said Longstreet remained fortunate, with last year being one of the restaurant’s busiest yet.
“We really never slowed down,” he said.
For Bunch, it’s a labor of love.
“It doesn’t fall in your lap,” he said. “You get up at 4 o’clock every morning and go after it. Some days will be 12 and 16 hours a day. That’s the nature of this beast. I’ve always said nobody’s going to outwork me. I’m getting older now, so it’s a little bit harder. I hope we make it another 25 years — we’ll see what the future brings. I don’t know how to get out (of the industry). If you’ve worked in the restaurant business, it gets in your blood.”
As a restaurateur in the world’s chicken capital, Bunch found a mentor in Chick-fil-A founder Truett Cathy, who partly inspired his decision to close Longstreet on Sundays.
“Fifteen years ago, we were open on Sundays,” he said. “What you find out in the restaurant business is you get better help by closing on Sunday. Chick-fil-A does an astounding job — we try to follow what they do.”
There are other principles that guide the way Bunch does business, including hard work and the Golden Rule.
“I’m working for the employees and the customers. And as long as you do that, you’ll be OK,” Bunch said. “Starting out, I’d make biscuits; I’d do it all. Once they see you working, they are apt to work a little bit harder also. (I) try to be a leader in that aspect of it. I try to treat them like I’d want to be treated if I was on the other side.”
According to Bunch, Longstreet is also a tool for evangelism.
“The food is secondary. Since I’ve accepted Christ, I believe that’s what we’re supposed to do — give and share and love.”
On a given Tuesday morning, the dining room is the host of seven or eight Bible studies meeting in tandem. Bunch said he’s also seen folks come to faith after hearing the gospel inside his restaurant. It’s not himself at the helm, he said, but God, who’s faithfully guided him throughout the years.
At 65, Bunch said had he not been involved in “so much mischief” in his school days, he may have become a football coach like his father. But Bunch is a coach of sorts, from his own vantage point, of a team composed of line cooks and managers and bussers. If given the chance, he wouldn’t change a thing.
“I can’t think of anything I could have done different,” he said. “It wasn’t me. I’m not smart enough to do it — so many other people are a lot smarter than I am. God’s just had his blessing over it. We’ve got unbelievable employees and probably one of the lowest turnover ratios in any restaurant business. Everybody’s (been here) eight, 10, 15, 20 years, and that’s been the success, the relationships.”