Nick and Meg Sellers are the owners and operators of Chairs Upstairs, the “Southside’s favorite waterin’ hole.” Serving smoked meats, tacos, sandwiches and beyond, Nick and Meg enjoy being part of the East Point community, where they serve locals and travelers alike. Like a twisted version of ‘cheers,’ Chairs is a place to unwind, get comfortable and let loose, every Tuesday to Sunday.
Q: Can you tell us more about yourselves and what led you to open Chairs Upstairs?
Nick: My dad worked in local news, so we moved pretty often when I was younger - Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, Ohio, Maryland and Georgia. I’ve worked in restaurants since I was a teenager, but I worked at Corner Tavern for about 7 years in almost every position at each location. I graduated from school during the 2008 financial crisis, and working in the restaurant industry full-time began as a placeholder job since it was so impossible to find other positions at the time. It turned into so much more, though. Corner Tavern’s owner, Mike, was selling the East Point location, and I had thought about opening a restaurant for a couple years. It began as a casual conversation, honestly. Someone who was lined up to purchase the East Point location backed out, and after talking casually with Mike about it, I just decided to buy it. From all the struggles that came from working in the restaurant industry, it actually turned out to be the easiest deal because I worked for him at that point.
Meg: I’m originally from Roanoke, Virginia, and began my professional career in visual merchandising, creating designs and visual displays for H&M, Victoria’s Secret and more. After awhile, though, I just felt it wasn’t a good fit and decided to move to Nashville, where my brother lived. He’s a musician, and I’m a musician, so it turned out pretty well. After moving, I began freelancing and began working with various businesses on their brand development, retail, events, you name it. I was best friends with Nick’s sister, and we used to joke that Nick and I would get married… then I did! Now, I get to work with Nick at Chairs doing all the things I love.
Q: Can you tell us more about opening Chairs Upstairs and what that process looked like?
Nick: I honestly lived off next to nothing and saved every penny. I probably spent 75 cents on a new shirt each year and never went grocery shopping, because I’d go into work at 5 p.m. and eat with other staff members, then do it again the next day. The restaurant industry is a safe haven in that way; even if you’re not trying to save, you’ll still get fed, and there’s plenty of drinks to go around.
I’d been working at Corner Tavern for so long and was managing for a couple months, but on the day we closed on the sale, we continued to stay open. We actually never closed to “officially” introduce Chairs. We just kept going and bought the ‘Chairs’ sign about a week later. It was a gradual change because we didn’t have the funds to shut down. We opened with a couple hundred dollars in the bank account, so we didn’t have a choice to stop - we had to keep going - and it was a bit of a whirlwind. We asked the kitchen manager to make a new menu for the next day, and we just did it. The hardest thing was figuring out how to do it… there’s no parachute. It’s sink or swim, so figuring out how to keep going was the hardest part.
It also took awhile for the community to get used to Chairs, since we didn’t shut down and reopen as a new restaurant. There’s a really tight knit group of regulars who didn’t want it to go away, so there was a good core group, and we really wanted it to continue as the neighborhood watering hole. The community was our number one priority since they’d been with us for so long - some of them for more than 20 years - and if it wasn’t for them, Chairs could have ended up not as successful as it is. We really evolved with the community, and tried to be what they needed us to be, so we can serve them in any way they need us.
Meg: When opening Chairs, Nick always approached things so curiously and was so entrepreneurial. He found a way to do it without a loan or rich parents. It wasn’t something that was just handed over to him, and it really shows you can go from a server to owner if you have the right mentors and drive.
Q: What was the inspiration behind Chairs?
Nick: Initially, our mission was constantly evolving because we were previously known as Corner Tavern. We wanted Chairs to be community-oriented and comfortable, and we expanded the menu to include smoked meats with a small smoker on the back patio. It took us between six months and a year to get it all right - serving wings, brisket and chicken - because the smoker ran all night long. It was constant.
A friend was actually the inspiration behind the name Chairs - like a twisted version of ‘cheers.’ It became, “Chairs, where everyone knows your shame,” - and it stuck. There are plenty of fancy spots around, but we wanted Chairs to be a place where you don’t have to take yourself too seriously. You can feel comfortable being yourself, no frills involved.
Meg: I really think Chairs Upstairs reflects Nick’s personality in a lot of ways - laid back, open. We really just want our guests to have fun, and coincidentally, we only have booths and high-tops for guests… no chairs!
Since Chairs started as a joke, like cheers, the decor kind of started as a joke. We started putting chairs on the wall, outside and above the door as the sign. It was honestly all kind of an inside joke and gave the restaurant a whimsical vibe.
Q: How does your partnership look as a couple, running a business together?
Nick: Now that we’re a few years into owning Chairs, I handle all operations, communications and writing, and Meg handles social media, visual displays and any marketing.
Meg: I really get to do everything I love, without all the reserves and red tape. What works for us is to honestly stay in our own lane. We’ve seen a ton of partnerships go wrong, but what we’ve found to be successful is each of us sticking to our specific roles. We really work to keep each other grounded.
Q: What goals did you have in mind for Chairs Upstairs before opening? How have your goals changed over the years?
Nick: Honestly, our goals are constantly evolving. Initially, we just wanted to keep everyone comfortable, keep it neighborhood-focused and make sure there’s good food… really just figuring out what worked and what didn’t. Now it’s more so rolling with the punches - and things are constantly changing - so our core goals are still the same, but it does shift a little as you go.
Meg: Right - and Nick made a great shift from manager to owner. Many of the original Corner Tavern staff have stayed with us, and we’ve seen tons of talent come through the restaurant. I could cry thinking about how lucky we are to have the most beautiful people in Atlanta, who are so ridiculously skilled at what they do, working with us. Our goals especially changed during COVID-19, because people in the service industry don’t have a fallback in times like this. It’s been a strong priority of ours to take care of our staff. We made sure they got paid before we did, and we treat everyone with respect because there’s a ton of understanding between us and our employees - we know we’re doing our best.
Q: Have you faced any challenges as a business owner? If so, how did you overcome them?
Nick: Throughout COVID, it’s been difficult to make ends meet, but our priority is taking care of our staff. They have to care for their families, too, so we’re really doing as much as we possibly can for them.
Q: What is your favorite aspect of being a member of the East Point community?
Nick: Definitely the people. It’s a strong, centralized community with really, really good people - and tons of folks moving here, too. East Point’s energy is coming up, and good people are gravitating toward the city because it’s affordable. I had the same feeling when I worked at Edgewood’s Corner Tavern a while ago, and the same as Old Fourth Ward, where it feels like there’s a solid community believing in the neighborhood - a certain excitement behind it.
Meg: As someone who’s not from Atlanta, my favorite aspect is simply seeing the people who have been in the community for 20 years. It’s like they’re a little family, and you can tell who has lived in East Point for a while. It honestly reminds me of Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and all the people who moved from Manhattan to this up-and-coming neighborhood. We want to embrace the families who have been here for so long and make sure they’re comfortable as change happens - and stays true to the people who have always been there.
Q: What about the restaurant industry?
Nick: Well, it takes a minute in the restaurant industry to get used to walking up to strangers, getting to know them… but once it clicks, it becomes really fun. Most people who are successful in this industry are literally serving people to make them feel good. That’s definitely a goal for folks who are passionate about the industry like I am. If a guest doesn’t like something, it really hits hard because you’re genuinely just trying to make them feel good, and it’s one of the few industries where you receive immediate feedback. Whether it’s food or drink, you know how the product is going to go after one taste.
Meg: I feel like so many people in the restaurant industry are cut from the same cloth, too. Most people really enjoy the pressure and high-stress work environments, and many of them have the same type of personalities. It’s important they all take time to support each other, blow off steam and take the weight off one another after being “on” all day.
Q: Can you tell us about a business accomplishment you’re proud of?
Nick: Opening and getting that part wrapped up is a huge accomplishment. It’s an ongoing, long process. In one sense it’s incredibly frustrating, and in another incredibly gratifying, to see everything come to fruition.
Meg: Of course, right before COVID-19, things were finally clicking and falling into place. We started a really fun karaoke and some other events for the community. It was honestly devastating and felt like getting punched in the gut, because so many local restaurants were in a great place before everything happened. Luckily, we were all able to stick together. There’s a lot of uncertainty - I don’t know what tomorrow, next month or next year will look like - but I think because of our community, we will be okay.
We’re also proud that Chairs is a place that supports total inclusion. We just want to make everyone feel this is a place where it’s okay and it’s safe.
Q: How has Chairs Upstairs adjusted throughout COVID?
Our bar is now counter service, so guests can order and come back to pick up food. There’s really no space in the restaurant where guests would be forced within six feet of others, so we’ve limited interaction as much as possible and require guests to wear masks in the restaurant. We’ve really tried to check everything off the list to make everyone comfortable, including opening the patio for outdoor dining, and we’re not hosting any events that would encourage folks to gather in crowds. We’re really just trying to lay low, space out and make sure our guests are comfortable.