Charlie Copeland was selling furniture at the Modern Living store in Atlanta in the 1960s just before it closed. Looking around for a new job, his wife Stephanie suggested that he try something completely different.
“I [asked] him, ‘Why don’t you go into the restaurant business on Buford Highway?’ And that’s before so many Jewish people really moved there and Corporate Square was first being built. He listened to me and he did.”
Copeland grew up in an Atlanta Sephardic family where the deli food of Eastern Europe was largely unknown. He made a quick trip to New York with his father-in-law, Larry Nager, who had been president of Congregation Beth Jacob. Copeland needed to get a feel for the menu of traditional soups and sandwiches that he would be serving.
The new place was named Ess’n Fress, Yiddish for eat and enjoy, even though he didn’t speak Yiddish and couldn’t understand the customer who came in one day asking for a pound of gehakte leber, one of prized specialties of his new, suddenly successful restaurant. Fortunately, his wife and her mother, who were Orthodox, were in the restaurant that day.
“He was coming in for chopped liver,” Stephanie said. “People would come from all over to buy it. Every Friday morning I’d have to go down to Gilner’s kosher meat market to buy the chicken livers. When this customer came in, my mother and I had to translate for him.”
It didn’t take long for Charlie Copeland to learn the ins and outs of the deli world that he had so suddenly begun to inhabit. A three-page menu was crowded with the traditional Jewish comfort foods for the growing community of young Jewish singles and couples who lived along Buford Highway and had made the deli a neighborhood hang out, particularly on weekends.
It even got a prominent write up in Cosmopolitan magazine as a better place in Atlanta to meet a mate than the singles bars that were just taking off. Ess’n Fress became the place to be if you were Jewish and single, according to Stephanie Copeland. “We made many marriages at that place. They’d be standing out the door waiting for a table.”
Jewish singles flocked to Atlanta from all over the country for the opportunities that were quickly developing in the city. Ess‘n Fress opened a few years after Atlanta gained a new international airport, a major league baseball franchise and a reputation as a Southern city “too busy to hate.”
Marcia Caller Jaffe, a frequent AJT contributor, came to the city from Knoxville, Tenn. She remembers the Buford Highway neighborhood, with apartments such as the Seville and Bryton Hill, being referred to as “The Jewford Highway” or “The Gaza Strip.”
Jaffe elaborated, “Sunday morning was THE gathering place to see ‘who was with whom’ or meet a new ‘whom.’ My roommate and I begged Charlie to let us waitress. This was a compact five hours starting at 8:30 on Sunday morning with back-to-back table turnovers. We each took in $45 cash tips, and we got a first look of who was new to Atlanta.”
But success came with its own problems. Stephanie Copeland remembers several of the waitresses taking their $45, which is over $300 in today’s money, to spend a weekend in Florida rather than waiting tables. And she recalls the cook, who got fed up with the pressure on Sunday morning, and left through the back door during the height of the Sunday rush. Or there was that kitchen worker, who was always using the restaurant’s phone for her other job, running numbers in an illegal gambling operation.
It was the kind of stress that came with running such a successful operation, Stephanie Copeland said, that caused her husband to give up the business.
“Charlie realized, my gosh, Debbie, our daughter, is 13 years old and I don’t even know her because I am always at work, six days a week. So we bought a sandwich shop downtown, across the street from the old Macy’s store that was a big success, too, for almost 20 years, but only five days a week.”
The Copelands sold Ess‘n Fress in 1977 and it lived on under several owners. But the neighborhood was changing. The new arrivals were not Jews from New York or South Florida but were from Vietnam, Mexico and South Korea. Yet, there is still a restaurant at 3066 Buford Highway, where Ess‘n Fress was located.
Appropriately enough it’s called the International Café. They even have Reubens and pastrami sandwiches on the menu, although its not likely that the cold cuts come from New York like in the old days.
Charlie Copeland died in April at the age of 86, fondly remembered by those who, for so many years, had enjoyed his sandwiches and his matzah ball soup. Just before he was buried, his wife Stephanie, to whom he was married for 60 years and who worked side by side with him during all that time, dropped an old Ess‘n Fress menu into the grave.