By the late 1980’s, the little town of Juliette was all but deserted. After the textile mill that supported the town burned and later closed down, most all of the residents moved away, leaving a few crumbling old buildings and the thundering of trains on the railroad for the few old timers who remained.
In 1991, all of that changed. Juliette was discovered by a location scout, and the lonely mill town became the home of the Whistle Stop Café, the restaurant central to Fried Green Tomatoes which was the movie adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
The building chosen for the Whistle Stop Café had formerly been a general merchandise store, and it was a cornerstone of the community for many years. After the store closed in 1972, the space was used for a real estate company and later an antiques shop. Eventually, it lay empty. Film crews repurposed the building as a restaurant, with a horseshoe-shaped counter to make it easier to film shots from a variety of angles. Other buildings were refurbished, and false-fronts were built to add into the scenery all of the vestiges of a small town in the early 20th century, like the town bank.
When Fried Green Tomatoes premiered, it was a huge success. The movie starred Kathy Bates, Jessica Tandy, Mary-Louise Parker, and Mary Stuart Masterson. Like Bates’s middle-aged housewife, audiences fell in love with the heroines of Tandy’s story. The story of loyalty and lasting friendship between two women who shared the joys and sorrows of their lives captivated audiences.
After the movie crews left Juliette, the town could have been abandoned once more. But instead, owner Robert Williams and his friend, Jerie Lynn Williams, opened the restaurant as the Original Whistle Stop Café. Fried Green Tomatoes – the movie and the dish – featured prominently in the theming of the restaurant. Fans flocked to the restaurant from all across the globe, and the Whistle Stop Café, as it is popularly known, was back in business.
Outside of the Whistle Stop Café, a painted decal marks the Georgia Film Selfie Spot celebrating Fried Green Tomatoes. Standing on the selfie spot, the movie’s influence can be seen all along McCracken Street, where businesses opened to capitalize on the success of the movie and the restaurant that carried on its legacy.
At Ruth and Idgie’s Place Gift Shop, business owners Jennifer and Shelley George offer beautiful, natural soy candles and home décor for sale. Jennifer says that she absolutely adores being part of the Fried Green Tomatoes phenomenon in Juliette. “This truly is my happy place,” she says.
“Honestly, it’s amazing to see people that come here from so far away,” Jennifer says, “we’ve had people from India, from Venezuela, from so far away, with this being on their bucket list of places to visit in their lives. Coming from Australia and England, to be here, and for me to be a part of this, it’s amazing to me.”
Running Ruth and Idgie’s Place is Jennifer’s passion because she feels like she is part of something bigger than herself: “One of the things I always wanted in my life was not to be forgotten, and all of these people that I meet, many of them come back, and we have made these connections that are still there, even if it’s a year or a few years later when we see them again. That’s very powerful.”
One of the benefits of owning a business in Juliette is that the close-knit community brings a level of safety to locals and visitors: “I’ve sat out here and watched the sun rise, and I’ve sat out here and watched the sun set, and we’ve even sat out on the porch at 2 o’clock in the morning, and I’ve always felt so safe down here.”
In the Whistle Stop Antiques Shop, Beth Blackmon and Craig Askew are taking their shift managing the front desk. The shop is run as a co-op, where members pay a smaller fee to display their goods in exchange for time spent working the front desk. The co-op is an interesting business model. Potential customers have a broad selection of items to choose from, and vendors can rely on each other to provide merchandise that will create interest and draw in shoppers.
Beth travels from South Atlanta to work in Juliette. “Everyone down here is really nice, and I guess that’s what took us to begin with,” she says. “We came down here to visit because I loved the movie, and we found that it is very charming.” Beth and Craig already had a vendor stall elsewhere, but they decided to move to Juliette so that they could be part of the energy surrounding the Whistle Stop Café. It’s impressive that a movie almost 30 years old has managed to stay so relevant.
Farther up McCracken Street is the Honey Comb, a store in the modern style. Owners JoAnne and Tommy Moon specialize in products ranging from raw honey produced by bees in Tommy’s own beehives, to Burt’s Bee products, to honey-filled jewels.
“We’ve been here 11 years, and people from everywhere come in here,” says Tommy, “We’ve had visitors from all over the United States, and it’s fun to come to work and meet the people who come here.”
“The majority of the people that come through here come because they are fascinated by the movie. Generally, the movie has been around 26 years or so now, and you’d think that the interest would have fallen off, but it hasn’t,” Tommy says. “I get a lot of local business because of my honey, and the restaurant gets a lot of locals, but they also get a tremendous traffic of visitors who are not local.”
One secret to the movie’s lasting popularity is that it is frequently played on international airline flights. “We’ve had tourists who saw the film on their international flight, got off the plane in Atlanta, and headed down here early the next day. Of course, there’s a few signs out to draw people off the interstate,” Tommy says. As a Monroe County native, Tommy remembers Juliette before the grist mill and textile mill closed down, and visitors often stop to hear his stories of the times long before Juliette was a movie town.
Macon can learn a lot from the rebirth of Juliette. Many films are shot here in Macon, and while they may not have the lasting popularity of Fried Green Tomatoes, each one offers the opportunity for Macon-Bibb County to develop its own entertainment tourism. Juliette has thrived because a movie restaurant became a real-life restaurant—and the food at the Whistle Stop Café is delicious and true to the theme of Southern comfort. But they’ve also expanded on the theme, with shops like Ruth and Idgie’s, and brought in locally produced goods, like Tommy Moon’s honey.
Entertainment tourism brings in visitors who are willing to spend money to live their movie dreams, and you don’t have to build something the size of Walt Disney World to benefit from the popularity of film. Juliette is proof that with dedicated business people, a supportive community, and the right film, movie magic can translate into local commerce.