Kandi Burruss is a Grammy Award–winning songwriter. She’s starred on “The Real Housewives of Atlanta” for more than 13 years, won Fox’s “The Masked Singer,” and appeared on CBS’s ”Big Brother.” She’s the owner of Kandi Koated Entertainment, Bedroom Kandi, and Kandi Koated Cosmetics. She’s a producer in television, film, and on Broadway. But none of those ventures compare—at least in terms of difficulty—to what she and husband Todd Tucker have experienced while running Atlanta culinary staples, Old Lady Gang and Blaze Steak & Seafood.
“I always tell people that the restaurant industry is the hardest business that I’ve ever been a part of ever in my life,” Burruss says. “There are a lot of things that we had to learn and that we are still learning.”
The idea to enter the food and beverage space came from Tucker, who fondly remembers Sunday dinners with Burruss’s family at her aunt Bertha’s house. They would enjoy “amazing feasts of Southern cuisine,” hang out, and play Pokeno and Tonk. The gathering was routine for Burruss. But for Tucker, a Bronx, New York, native, it was an immersive, Southern experience of family and friends that he wasn’t used to in the Northeast.
“It felt like Thanksgiving, but every Sunday,” Tucker says. “So then I was like, ‘Man, we should recreate this and let other people have this same feeling.’”
Burruss was in love with the idea, and it was not as if she hadn’t heard it before. Everyone around her had spent years saying her family needs a restaurant. Her mother, Joyce Jones, is the youngest of 14 children, and a majority of them can “really throw down in the kitchen,” Burruss says.
Bertha and her aunt Nora both have professional kitchen backgrounds, having worked at Piccadilly, a cafeteria-style concept. They also worked with food in the school system. One of her uncles was a chef and the only person to truly operate a restaurant. After he passed, no one followed in his footsteps, but it was always talked about. So when Tucker brought it up once again, Burruss knew it was time to strike.
Old Lady Gang debuted in downtown Atlanta in 2016, less than a mile from Mercedes-Benz Stadium and State Farm Arena, the homes of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons and the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks, respectively. The name of the restaurant is dedicated to the three matriarchs in Burruss’s family—Joyce, Bertha, and Nora—who insert their special recipes. Other relatives work as employees, and some menu items are dedicated to family members, like Mama Joyce’s BBQ Rib Tips, Aunt Bertha’s Fried Chicken, Kandi’s Honey Glazed Blackened Salmon, and Todd’s Crispy Salmon Bites. Joyce, Bertha, and Nora don’t work in the kitchen, but they do often hang around the restaurant, greet customers, and find time to boss workers around, Burruss jokes.
The menu was a collaboration between the family and a professional chef, who tweaked the recipes to fit in a full-service kitchen.
“We told him the things that our family made that people loved, and then he tweaked those things,” Burruss says. “That’s the other thing—when you’re cooking at home you can take your time, but when you have to get the food out, it’s a different process. So he helped us streamline some of those things and also helped us find a couple of things that were just very specific to our restaurant that people could come to the Old Lady Gang for what they won’t get anywhere else.”
Moving the restaurant from theory to reality wasn’t easy. Burruss and Tucker wanted to own the building, so they dealt with the buildout and worked with the City of Atlanta to make sure everything was up to code. And not everyone believed in them. During this process, Tucker met with a restaurateur and asked if he wanted to become a partner in Old Lady Gang. Tucker was turned down, but that didn’t deter him. The operator allowed Tucker to shadow him while he opened a new location. Eventually, the restaurant owner served as a consultant for Tucker and Burruss as they rolled out Old Lady Gang, which opened to lines down the block and around the corner.
The restaurant has since debuted two more locations. One is located 10 minutes from Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, while the other is in State Farm Arena.
Burruss credits a lot of Old Lady Gang’s success to Tucker’s experience as a television producer and production manager. She approaches the restaurant with a more unrestrained attitude. But Tucker has always held firm, noting that Old Lady Gang must remain within its budget. It’s to the point where friends now ask for his advice on sustaining their businesses.
“If it wasn’t for Todd’s expertise and budget, we would’ve gone out of business a long time ago, and it’s not because we don’t make the money,” Burruss says. “A lot of restaurants out there are making lots of money, but it’s all in how you spend your money and food costs and labor.”
Tucker also doubled as the decorator. He describes Old Lady Gang as having a rustic, Southern, and homey feel. The restaurant features wood, exposed brick, subway tiles, and lights powered by Edison bulbs. The goal was to replicate what he felt at those Sunday gatherings. But Tucker says there’s a “cool little chic feel” inside the store as well. It’s visited by families and celebrities alike, such as Will Ferrell, Whoopi Goldberg, and Beyonce’s mother, Tina Knowles.
During the summer, when the weather permits, Old Lady Gang hosts Friday Night Live where the restaurant will have a live band and DJ outside on the patio. Customers even order from a separate outdoor menu.
“It’s like a party,” Burruss says. “People love it. They are disappointed when the weather is bad.”
The next invention was Blaze Steak & Seafood, named after their daughter. The brand was placed in Southwest Atlanta—a predominantly African-American community where the couple lives—to give the area the higher-class restaurant it sorely needed. Tucker says Blaze is “a little more sleek” than Old Lady Gang, with a “steakhouse dim feeling.” There are fire pits, artwork, and vibrant colors. In addition to the brick-and-mortar locations, Blaze serves as a co-brand with Old Lady Gang in State Farm Arena.
Tucker explains that it’s mid-level dining, similar to Houston’s, an upscale chain within the Hillstone Restaurant Group that specializes in New American fare.
“You can get your ‘grown man on’ in there,” Tucker says with a chuckle. “You throw your little outfit on, dress up, and have a good night out.”
Burruss and Tucker entered the plan with confidence, but the pandemic sobered them rather quickly. In this case, the duo didn’t purchase the building, and according to the lease, there were only so many months until they had to pay. So Blaze opened in November 2020, during a COVID acceleration.
The restaurant received support from the community, but it also felt the full brunt of the employee turnover that’s plagued the industry.
With customers facing inflation at all turns, Tucker has worked to add lower-cost items and deals around happy hour. Back in December, the restaurant promoted $7 appetizers, $10 burgers and sandwiches, $12 margaritas, and $6 beer and wine during its happy hour, which runs Monday through Friday from 4 to 6 p.m. Two-and-a-half years after Blaze came onto the scene, Tucker believes it has found its footing and the core staff to keep things going.
“The cool thing is, it’s helping the community,” Tucker says. “We employ so many people from the community and just give so much opportunity. That alone is rewarding.”
Restaurants became such a large part of their careers that Bravo—the same network broadcasting “The Real Housewives of Atlanta”—green-lit “Kandi & The Gang,” a new reality show focusing on Tucker and Burruss getting the original Old Lady Gang location back on track. Burruss says it’s “the commercial you can never afford.” Viewers were not only introduced to the brand, but they were also able to make lasting connections that any operator would dream of, she says.
The restaurant has become a city landmark because of it.
“When people come to ATL, they feel like they need to stop by the Old Lady Gang,” Burruss says. “People literally will fly straight into Atlanta and come straight from the airport with their luggage sometimes, which is pretty cool. I definitely would have to say that being a part of the show has been a blessing as far as business is concerned because it’s like a commercial. You can’t deny that type of advertisement. You can’t even pay for it.”
“Kandi & The Gang” highlighted drama between coworkers, but Burruss emphasizes that the whole point of the series was to show that Old Lady Gang was attempting to fix things that went wrong. There was a smooth flow before the pandemic, but afterward, turnover spiked. It gave employees a lot more control, but not necessarily in the best way. Tucker says operators are so desperate for workers that someone could have a history of negative performance and still get hired.
Burruss says, “people were just doing what they wanted to do.”
“It got kind of crazy because there was so much turnover,” she says. “People were just making up their own rules because they knew that you needed them because it’s hard to hire people in the foodservice industry. It’s really hard to keep people. Whenever you have good people, other restaurateurs come and try to steal your people.”
Although the TV series revealed many difficulties, Tucker says the transparency works in the restaurant’s favor. Neither he nor Burruss wants to project an image of perfection or that they have everything figured out. They’re learning alongside everyone else in the industry. And customers aren’t shying away because of what they see; if anything, they’re more eager to visit.
“I know it sounds crazy because obviously we showed a lot of the bad attitudes that some of the people at work have,” Burruss says. “We showed some of the stuff that they were doing when they were cleaning up—which I will say, those were one-time things. But it was certain things that I was like ‘Oh my God, I cannot believe that was on TV.’ But it didn’t affect it in a negative way. People still wanted to come even more so because they wanted to see the people who were on the show.”
More concepts are on the horizon. One of them will be a pizza place, named after their son, Ace, that will showcase New York–style pizza by the slice in addition to other traditional Italian dishes like pasta and spaghetti. Similar to Old Lady Gang, it will be an environment for families, but also house a bar for adults who want to enjoy cocktails or a game.
Another forthcoming concept is a classic taqueria serving variations of street tacos and other Mexican foods. Keeping the recession in mind, Tucker envisions the store allowing customers to buy a few tacos and drinks and walk out having spent $20 without truly feeling it. He says the pizza place will be fast casual, and the taqueria may be a concept where customers order from their phones and food is brought to them.
Tucker expresses interest in growing Old Lady Gang, but he’s wary of expanding too fast, especially in an unfavorable economic climate. For right now, he wants to fine-tune the concept and tighten the infrastructure before jumping to additional locations. Tucker has seen others in Atlanta zoom into four to five stores, only for two or three to shut down.
However, the restaurant will roll out its first food truck—equipped with four fryers—sometime in the future. Tucker plans to start slow, with the truck operating on the back patio during Friday Night Live, so it doesn’t take away from the indoor menu. That’s just to get their bearings together. After this beta test, he will take it on the road.
When Old Lady Gang decides to grow, franchising likely won’t be under consideration, Tucker says. He doesn’t want the brand to become diluted or for outsiders to give their input on recipes. Tucker and Burruss believe the restaurant belongs as an Atlanta favorite only.
“Instead of dealing with that craziness, I think we can tighten up what we have and just have a few great locations in Atlanta,” Tucker says. “I think we can last a long time with that.”