At two Georgia rib joints, the boss is Uncle Sam

Published Feb. 2, 1992|Updated Oct. 10, 2005

The walls are adorned with posters of legendary film gangsters, but don't be fooled: This is no den for criminals.

At Jilly's restaurant in the Atlanta suburb of Marietta, the barbecue-ribs menu doesn't change unless Uncle Sam says so. What's more, the waitresses and cooks come recommended by the FBI.

The federal government has operated two Jilly's _ the other in suburban Sandy Springs _ since drug agents seized the assets of businessman Carl Coppola in 1986. The restaurants, each valued at about $1-million, were confiscated along with $3.3-million in drug profits.

The government would like to unload the rib joints, as it quickly does with most seized assets. But it can't sell them until Coppola exhausts his appeals. Prosecutors say Coppola ran a cocaine and marijuana smuggling enterprise between Fort Lauderdale and Atlanta. He is serving a 55-year sentence.

Though a metrowide Atlanta Ribs Challenge award displayed in the foyer predates the feds, Jilly's ribs in Marietta are still rated above average.

"A good, but somewhat sweet rib," said Lee Walburn, editor of Atlanta Magazine and a barbecue connoisseur.

"But just as a citizen, I'm opposed to government ownership of barbecue joints," he said. "It's one of the last pure things in this country."

A contractor was hired to run the eateries, which are part of a local franchise chain, and an employee, Michael Eilermann, was given the manager's job in Marietta. The unusual set-up has given him an unwanted education in bureaucracy.

Anyone he hires, from assistant managers to cooks to waitresses, must undergo an FBI criminal background check. If he wants to change a menu item or paint the bathroom, he needs U.S. Marshal Service approval.

When something is broken or new equipment needed, Jilly's must take bids and wait for the wheels of the bureaucracy to turn.

"We had to do a major roof repair and air conditioning several years ago," Eilermann said. "It took probably six to eight months to get final approval on the work. And it was work that needed to be done _ it was summer.

"That's working with the government," he said with a sigh. "There are a lot of people who have to say yes or no."

If the decor seems a little ironic, nobody's complaining. On the walls hang posters of movie stars, notably gangsters played by Humphrey Bogart and James Cagney.

Raymond Navarro, supervisor of seized assets in the U.S. marshal's Atlanta office, said the restaurants' day-to-day operations are left to the contractor. But he must approve expenditures and oversee other administrative matters.

"They can't change the menu unless they check with us," he said. "You change the menu and you might change the clientele.

"Because the owner of the business is the federal government, we have to ensure there is no criminal connection."

The restaurants are making a profit, Navarro said, but he wouldn't say how much. The money ends up in the government's asset forfeiture fund, which helps finance criminal investigations.

Bruce Winnick, a professor at the University of Miami law school who has written a book on government seizure of assets, said the manager's frustration demonstrates a central flaw in the asset-seizure system: bureaucrats don't do well in business.

"They're not used to looking at the bottom line and making the proprietary decisions that businessmen are good at," Winnick said.