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More than a pit stop: South Hall diner marks 20 years of family business
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Customers line up at the counter Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, at Nichols Diner. The popular restaurant, which has its roots as the Dairy Mart in Oakwood, has been in business for 20 years. - photo by Scott Rogers

Nichols Diner’s motto is simple, summed up by a sign hanging over the register that reads, “Proudly making every order fresh.” 

In its 20th year in business, the South Hall diner continues to serve breakfast and lunch the only way owner Alan Nichols learned how during his nearly 40-year career in the restaurant business: one plate at a time.

Nichols Diner

Where: 3603 Southland Drive, Flowery Branch

Hours: 6 a.m to 2 p.m. Monday-Friday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday

More info:

“This is a destination instead of just being a pit stop,” Nichols, 59, said. “We still do things the same way.”

The special for the day was a grilled cheese sandwich with the choice of vegetable soup or chili and a drink. The rest of the menu offered customers the usual breakfast and lunch items that have made diner fare a staple of American life: sausage, chicken or bacon biscuits, grits, eggs, country-fried steaks, hamburgers, hot dogs, tater tots and fries. 

“This is institutional food and it still matters how we serve it every day,” Nichols said.

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Nichols Diner owner Alan Nichols, left, chats with a customer Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023. The popular Oakwood restaurant has now been open for 20 years. - photo by Scott Rogers

Nichols Diner was opened by Craig Nichols in 2003 and taken over by his brother, Alan Nichols, in 2020. The family has owned and operated restaurants for decades, and the transition would have been a normal one if not for the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“We opened on Jan. 10, 2020, and it wasn’t even a month in before our lobby was shut down and everything changed,” said Alan. 

The restaurant moved to a drive-thru only format like many in Hall County and the nation at large. 

“Everything I worked for was hanging on by a thread,” Alan remembered. “We’re doing well now because I was blessed with the staff I have.”

There are 12 full-time employees at Nichols Diner, and all managed to keep their jobs despite pandemic-induced changes to the workflow and the current rise in costs of food and supplies.

“We have some real loyal people,” he said. “We have all come back and I think we’ve caught our groove again.”

Back to the future

On the wall of the diner hangs a framed black-and-white photo of the long-closed Dairy Mart circa 1963. Alan and Craig took over the business, a burger and fries joint similar to what Nichols Diner is today, in 1988. 

“That’s where everything started,” Alan said, a smile creeping across his face. 

How everything will continue may have a lot to do with the future of Nichols Diner’s ownership. 

Grant Nichols, 22, is the next generation of his family’s restaurant legacy. Fresh out of college, Grant is managing Loretta’s Country Kitchen, Alan’s other restaurant. There’s hope that Grant takes over Nichols Diner one day, according to Alan.

“I’m hoping to make it to 40 years; I’m at 39 right now,” said Alan of his time in the business. “If my son is going to take it over, we’ll know soon, but there will be some sweat equity where he becomes owner over time.” 

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Nichols Diner customers line up for lunch Wednesday, Feb. 22, 2023, at the popular restaurant. Nichols Diner, which has its roots as the Dairy Mart in Oakwood, has been in business for 20 years. - photo by Scott Rogers

As he talked, customers and even an area vendor stopped by his table to say hello. The years of relationships are what it’s all about, he said.

“You develop friendships with people over time,” Alan said.

He added the diner almost closed before the brothers exchanged ownership, but he advised Craig against selling the land and closing the restaurant.

“I said, ‘No, no, no, we have been doing this too long. Let’s let it run,’” he remembered. “And we’re still doing it.”

Through many changes, tough times, ups and downs, Nichols Diner is still churning out plates of comfort food one diner at a time. 

When asked what 20 means of business means to him, Alan said it means they have done business the right way.

“In this business, it’s rare. Not too many places make it,” he said of the two-decade milestone. “You’re only as good as your word.”

The words above the register say it all.

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Nichols Diner has been in business for 20 years. The restaurant has its roots as the Dairy Mart in Oakwood. - photo by Scott Rogers