When we sat down outside of his family's now-closed restaurant at the corner of 22 Avenue S and Dr. MLK Jr. Street S, our conversation was politely interrupted by several neighborhood residents as they said hello to Eric—whether they were driving, biking, or walking by.
“What's up bro, how have you been? It’s good to see you!” the St. Pete native asked a passerby, greeting every single person by name. Whether they were regular customers at his restaurant or just neighbors, everyone addresses Eric by name as well.
In February, the 47 year-old chef and entrepreneur faced a dire situation, and made a decision to step away from the family business for the first time in his life. Moreso, his doctors made the tough decision for him. He’s been battling congestive heart failure, and has been in and out of the hospital a few times in recent years. With a new pacemaker, a healthier diet, and more time to relax, things are looking up.
Eric’s seemingly-endless days used to be filled with hours of standing over the grill or smoker, but now spends most of his time with his three children who range from middle-school age to mid-20s.
Although he’s technically retired and following doctor’s orders by relaxing at home, Eric doesn’t plan on being completely hands-off.
He is actively looking for someone to open their own restaurant out of his family’s historic 4,000 square-foot building at 895 22nd Ave. S.
Eric and his daughter will continue to run their apparel business out of the back of his former eatery (there’s a separate entrance), while a new restaurateur rents the larger, street-facing portion of the building.
The space—just half a mile from the Chattaway—has been empty since January 2021 and will have to undergo a few small renovations before it's ready for its next tenant who will be the first Atwater in the space since 1977.
“Our building is an Atwater’s building and it’s gonna stay that way—that’s the legacy of my parents and grandparents,” Eric told CL. “We’re looking for someone who already has a good business. It’s already an established place, so if I open the doors, folks are gonna eat regardless,” he continues. “I'm not tryin’ to teach nothing. Imma do my part as a landlord and be here, but they’re gonna be up front doing their own thing.”
Atwater’s Cafeteria’s beloved soul food offerings aren’t the only reason why the family name has triumphed throughout the past four decades. Charity and community giving are also a bedrock of the Atwater business model.
“Kids Eat for Free” is painted on the side of their bright blue building—alongside portraits of Eric’s late parents and other family members. A box with free kids books resides next to its shuttered door.
“My biggest investment has always been with the people, and that’s why I have so much support ‘til this day,” Eric says. “My parents gave more than me—they were more generous than me.”
Eric’s giving spirit ramped up during 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic, as he made headlines for continuously giving away free food to surrounding friends and families in southside St. Pete.
Although the Atwater’s Cafeteria has been closed for a few months now, it’s still the headquarters for Eric’s charitable actions. In the past few months, he’s hosted both a “back to school” and an Easter giveaway—with more planned for the future. ABC Action News even covered a recent event where he and his team distributed food and supplies to honor the pandemic’s two year anniversary.
“God is good, he’s always blessin’ me. I pray and try to help as many people as I can. I’m never gonna stop giving, it’s in my blood,” Atwater tells CL.
Eric and his kids were also present at Rod Wave’s recent $25,000 gas giveaway, as he’s known the St. Pete-based rapper since he was a child. He remembers Wave and his family eating at his family’s restaurant when the 22 year-old artist was just a child.
Eric’s parents purchased the south St. Pete building in 1977, as he and his siblings spent their childhoods working in the family restaurant. By the time he was in kindergarten, he knew he wanted to be a chef and business owner just like his parents Elzo "Deac" Atwater Sr., who died in 2005 and Mattie Atwater who passed two years later.
which recently closed and will be replaced with new development.
Atwater’s Best BBQ and Soul Food, his Skyway Marina location, was open from 2015-2017.
Anyone interested in opening their own business out of the historic Atwater’s space in St. Petersburg should contact Eric directly via phone or email [(727) 520-3030, [email protected]].
He told CL that rent would be roughly $10-$12 per square foot, and that the ideal lease would be for about three years—with the option to extend (by comparison restaurant space on the 600 Block of St. Pete goes for about $45 square foot). Eric says that the first, and maybe most important, step is to sit down with him—perhaps at the two plastic chairs and table outside of the currently-shuttered restaurant—and discuss your hopes, expectations and business plans.
But if enough time passes by and no interested parties contact him about the space, he’s got a plan.
“If we can’t find any business to come in here, I’ve been thinking really hard about maybe doing my own culinary arts school or something,” he said. The school would be a throwback to a time when Eric’s older brother Elzo Jr. once ran a culinary training program called Atwater Hospitality Academy. “Once the renovations are complete, we could start teaching people how to cook for themselves,” Eric added.
And as Eric waits for a tenant, he could use one thing from the community he’s been a part of for 47 years.
"Prayers," Eric said, whether they are for his health or for the continuation of his family legacy. "Prayers are always welcomed."