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Back in 1991, Michael Benoit was working as an artist in his hometown of Los Angeles when he realized it was time for a change. Taking a two-week driving tour of the Southeast, he visited Atlanta for the first time. In those days, Atlanta was a young, affordable city with a spectacularly thriving nightlife. “Last-Call” was made at 4:00 am, and just in case you still weren’t ready to go home, there were several 24-hour clubs operating around town. It also seemed like there was a strip club on every corner. Michael was sold. He went back to L.A., packed up all his belongings and hit the road for Georgia. He was soon followed by his brother, Hank, and sister, Suzanne, who were also ready to bid farewell to Southern California.

Since all three siblings wanted to create a little fun for themselves in their newly adopted city, they decided to pool their meager resources and open a bar. What could be more fun than hanging out in a bar every day? They couldn’t think of anything. So they found a little pub for rent on the corner of West Peachtree and 11th Street in Midtown. At that time, many locals advised them this area was somewhat “undesirable,” but the trio forged ahead anyway. Mostly because they didn’t know any better.

They opened the original Vortex location on April 20, 1992. The space was tiny, and they filled it to the brim with kooky, eclectic décor. They opened the doors and personally welcomed each and every customer. Since none of them had any experience in the bar business, they employed the “learn-as-you-burn” philosophy, working long hours from opening until close every day, performing every chore necessary to keep the bar running. This included waiting tables, bartending, and even cooking in a pinch. They also bussed tables, washed dishes and performed all the janitorial duties, including a fair amount of vomit remediation and toilet unclogging.


Since their ultimate goal was to have fun at work they declared The Vortex an “Official Idiot-Free Zone.” The siblings simply refused to tolerate bad behavior from rude or demanding customers. People who annoyed them were regularly tossed out of their bar, often physically. This garnered them a certain degree of notoriety for their unconventional approach to customer service. Their big personalities and offbeat sense of humor became hallmarks of the new bar. They had succeeded in creating a cool, secret hideout for themselves. They were having fun, and the business prospered.


In October 1995, the owner of a local vegetarian restaurant was enjoying his big, juicy Vortex burger when he asked the siblings if they would be interested in taking over his business in Little 5 Points. Since they had only secured a 5-year lease in their original space, they decided expansion to this eclectic neighborhood was a logical choice. After all, they were enjoying the bar business, so they negotiated a deal and set about the task of transforming a long neglected hippie restaurant into a second Vortex location. The final touch of the renovation was adding the 20-foot high “Laughing Skull” facade, which has since become an Atlanta landmark. They opened the doors to the Little 5 Points Vortex on July 21st, just three days before Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games began.


At the 5-year mark, the tiny original Vortex in Midtown was packed to capacity every day. In order to deal with the drastic increase in business, the partners realized that a move was absolutely necessary. They found a much larger space in a newly renovated loft building just a few blocks away. Many regular customers were sad to see the one-of-a-kind little gem relocate, even though they understood it had to be done. In a spectacular show of support, a group of their loyal friends and patrons showed up to help them make the move. It was an impromptu party that turned into a parade. All of the furniture, fixtures and décor was moved from its original location to its new home, in a rag-tag convoy of cars, pickup trucks, vans and even motorcycles. That’s how The Vortex-Midtown relocated to 878 Peachtree Street, over the course of a single weekend, back in November of 1997.


In case you didn’t know, The Vortex has been honored with “Best Burger” awards by a multitude of local and national publications from the day it opened for business. Additional accolades followed, including awards for “Best Beer Selection,” “Best Neighborhood Bar,” “Best Overall Liquor Selection in Atlanta,” “Best Bar Food,” and “One of the Top 50 Restaurants in Atlanta.” In the past several years, Atlanta has seen an explosion of new burger restaurants, and existing restaurants featuring their own glorified interpretations of the humble sandwich. Local celebrity chefs have been predictably fawned over by the press for their ingenuity and vision. But “reader polls” continue to prove The Vortex has won over the hearts, minds and stomachs of Atlanta residents. People aren’t fooled by all the flash and PR. The Vortex is the Godfather of all Atlanta burger joints, and continues to be an Atlanta favorite.


It’s been a long time since the siblings quietly opened their tiny corner bar to the public. Since that day, the two existing Vortex locations have gone on to become Atlanta institutions, each with a diverse, friendly staff and an exceptionally loyal clientele. And as long as their loyal clientele is happy, the siblings are happy. The Vortex’s award-winning food, extensive selection of booze and lively, non-conformist atmosphere keep their loyal fans coming back for more. The authentic, anti-corporate, “No-Bull” attitude of this little family business seems to be what a lot of folks are looking for.


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