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Burgers sell like crazy, but restaurant stays on the market

ATLANTA » As real estate deals go, the sale of Ann’s Snack Bar may be a true test of the value of cult food in a bad economy.

In other words, just how much is a Ghetto Burger worth?

After 38 years of serving her messy, hand-pressed burgers to an endless parade of restaurant critics, celebrities like Sean Combs and, lately, a horde of Twitter-driven food enthusiasts, Ann Price decided it was time to put down her spatula and get a little return on her investment.

She thought about all those years of work and her growing national reputation and set the price at $1.5 million in August 2009. After all, one national food critic even said she made the best burger in the country.

"People come here from all over the world, people from every race," said Price, 67, who personally makes every burger. "Everybody wants to know: what is a Ghetto Burger?"

Of course, a bad real estate market is a bad real estate market, even for a restaurant so popular that people will wait outside for hours to snag one of the eight stools. Now, she will let the shop go for $450,000.

The cheeseburger that put her on the map is constructed from two big patties of generic ground beef, fried with big pieces of onion and seasoned with something she won’t tell you about unless you buy the place. She lightens it up with bacon, a little chili sauce and lettuce and tomato. It costs $9.50 with fries, and she has lawyers working on trademarking the name.

Although one might argue many of the hundreds of hamburgers made by chefs in this burger-crazy nation are better, it is hard to argue that hers has less cachet.

Anna Monzon, 30, an Atlanta resident who works for a West Coast skateboard company, was the first in the door one recent day. She ordered five to take with her to Los Angeles. Her brother, such a food fanatic that he follows 20 food carts on Twitter, told her not to board the plane without them.

"I’m not a big burger person," Monzon said, "but this is the one burger I’d wait a couple hours in line for."

That does not translate into a big real estate deal, though — especially in a city where 14 percent of retail property is vacant.

"The way the real estate market is selling, there was no way we could make that sale in the next couple years," said Willie Burks, the agent who originally put the property up for $1.5 million.

Still, people who know Price and know what she has brought to the neighborhood believe she should not sell herself short.

"The brand alone and the nature of the culture here makes a million about right," said James McCauly, 25, who drove in with his uncle from a suburb north of Atlanta when they heard the place was going to be sold. "Anybody who is anybody in Atlanta knows about this place."

Now, why did she call it a Ghetto Burger? A customer first suggested it, as a kind of joke. But a fast food restaurant had just opened down the block, and the neighborhood was really in the economic dumps.

So Price doubled down on ingredients, creating a beefier patty and adding some extra toppings. She sold it for $4. For a little variety, she swapped coleslaw for lettuce and tomato and called that one the Hood Burger.

"I had to do something to get people’s attention," she said.

Much has changed in the Kirkwood neighborhood in east Atlanta since Price — known as "Miss Ann" to fans — bought the tiny shop in 1972. Upscale houses and a golf course opened up the street. And clients now include people like Atlanta politicians and actor Robert Duvall.

"This isn’t really the ghetto anymore," said John Byrd, 70, a retired repairman who has been getting to-go burgers there for years.

The shop remained a local secret until 1998, when The Atlanta Constitution featured her in an article. The next morning, she said, she had about 15 pounds of ground beef from the grocery down the street and a line waiting for her to open. Price was so panicked by the crowd that she almost did not open. A friend had to track down more ground beef, but even that was not enough. She was off to the races.

With success has come confidence. A little too much, maybe. Posted rules include no cursing. A patron may come in to eat only when one of the eight stools opens up. Couples who show up when only one stool is left are forced to split up and eat one at a time. And the smart customer knows not to ask questions when the little grill is filled with meat.

Price, the fourth child of a Georgia farm family, has never married. She cooks eight hours a day, six days a week. She has a list of health problems, although she hauls bags of ice and 50 pounds of burger into her shop every day.

She wants to retire so she can take a nap. She wants to remodel her house and garden and sit on one of the white rockers on her front porch.

"I just hope somebody gives me a good price," she said, "so I can get up out of here."


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