Restaurateur Brings Atlantans to His Grandma’s Kitchen

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When Matt Ruppert opened his restaurant in Atlanta, his Italian grandmother or “Noni” was his muse. She’s 92, sips a blended whiskey cocktail every evening and smokes long, skinny Capris. She lives in Maine, but she’s an icon at the Old Fourth Ward restaurant that honors her legacy.

“She’s this little old lady who still cooks to this day,” said Ruppert. “She’s feisty and opinionated, sometimes hard to be around. But she’s always the life of the party.”

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Ruppert opened this trattoria on Edgewood Avenue in 2008 after working many years in Atlanta’s restaurant business. “I wanted my own place,” he said. “I’d been in the industry as a server and bartender, but I was tired of working for other people.”

He named his new restaurant “Noni’s” after his grandmother.

“She’s the matriarch,” said Ruppert. “She and her cooking inspired me, my mom and my aunts. She’s also good at throwing dinner parties.”

Noni’s offers Italian comfort food like fries tossed in garlic, parmesan and parsley, homemade noodles, and meatballs and mozzarella cheese made from scratch. His Noni taught him how to make fresh, flavorful meals, but starting a business was something he had to figure out on his own.

“I was inexperienced as a business owner,” he said. “The fact that I could come in the game and start something like this says something good about this city.”

His restaurant sits just blocks from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s historic Ebenezer Baptist Church in the Sweet Auburn area of the city. Ruppert started the Old Fourth Ward Business Association to help other entrepreneurs who want to open businesses on Edgewood Avenue.

“This is a very diverse and energetic place,” he said. “We get imaginative, creative people on this street who want to be here.”

And when they eat at Noni’s, they can indulge in nostalgia, reflecting on memories created around the dinner table with their own nonis.

Atlanta’s LottaFrutta combatting a food desert, gaining national attention

You’re probably familiar with first lady Michelle Obama’s initiative to get America’s youth moving. With childhood obesity on the rise, national attention has been given to food deserts, areas that lack fresh and healthy food options.

Steps have been taken across the nation to combat this issue. Last year, Michelle Obama announced the California FreshWorks fund, a $272 million loan to support grocery stores in low-income California communities. The Baltimore City Health Department joined the United Way of Central Maryland and corporate sponsors on the Baltimarket initiative to bring healthy foods to those in need.

And, in Atlanta’s Old Fourth Ward, there is one small business bringing fresh fruit to a food desert. LottaFrutta, the Pan Latin-inspired restaurant, is an Atlanta startup success story, offering fruit cups, smoothies and sandwiches to the historic neighborhood. For seven years, LottaFrutta has combatted chicken wings and fast food with healthy, delicious choices.

For its effort to provide nutritious meal and snack options to an area that lacks easily-accessible, affordable health food, LottaFrutta has been featured on CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360. The “home-grown success” story featured Myrna Perez-Cifuentes, owner of LottaFrutta.

“I am a self-accredited, self-appointed fruitologist only because I have a love and passion for fruit all my life,” said Perez-Cifuentes, owner of LottaFrutta.

The fruit stand is now expanding after receiving the first $50,000 small business loan from the Atlanta Catalyst Fund in February. Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc. (AEMI), a subsidiary of Invest Atlanta, created the small business loan from New Market Tax Credit (NMTC) revenue. The funds are to directly benefit low-income communities.

In the segment, Brian P. McGowan, president and CEO of Invest Atlanta, spoke about the importance of spurring economic development and neighborhood revitalization: “This is an up-and-coming neighborhood being revitalized,” he said. “We’re always looking to incentivize and assist investments that help attract and keep residents in neighborhoods like this.”

Entrepreneur receives first Atlanta Catalyst Fund loan

Like many restaurant owners, entrepreneur Myrna Perez-Cifuentes faced hurdles when seeking a business loan so she could upgrade the wiring, invest in equipment and grow her Latin-inspired, Old Fourth Ward restaurant, LottaFrutta.

In March, she was the first recipient of a loan from the Atlanta Catalyst Fund, a product of Atlanta Emerging Markets, Inc., a subsidiary of Invest Atlanta, the City of Atlanta’s economic development arm. AEMI utilizes the federal New Markets Tax Credit Program to attract private sector investment to underserved communities. The goal is to spur job creation, economic development and neighborhood revitalization.

Because of the complexities of the transactions associated with AEMI, fees are generated. Some of the fees collected by AEMI are placed in the Atlanta Catalyst Fund, which has a mission of bringing fresh, healthy food options to food deserts. This fund was formed in late 2012 and offers revolving loans of $50,000 to $100,000 for businesses like LottaFrutta.

When Myrna opened in 2006, the restaurant scene in the Old Fourth Ward was more about wings and hot dogs than fresh fruit. Myrna wanted to offer the large servings of cut fruit she grew up on as a child in Texas.

LottaFrutta proved a perfect fit for the neighborhood, which has undergone a gentrification in recent years but is still considered a food desert, meaning residents have to travel farther for healthy food than residents in more affluent communities.

Do you think most entrepreneurs understand how to take advantage of the specialized loans, incentives and tax credits that are available?