When news broke that Bites was closing, it seemed like it was just the latest in a long line of businesses to fail in the Statesboro area. Around here, only the longstanding staples of the town stick around long enough to make a lasting impression. But when word started getting passed down the local grapevine about what the real story behind the seemingly abrupt closing was, the community’s indifference turned to overwhelming support as they rallied behind the fan-favorite burger joint.
Carmen Masry came to Statesboro in 2003 to attend Georgia Southern and through the restaurant industry she would meet and eventually marry her husband Ramy. After graduating with a degree in criminal justice in 2008, she continued working for a company called Sahara Smoke which her husband was also involved in. Through the connections they made there, the couple opened up a smoke shop called A Smokin’ Place just a few doors down from where they would eventually open up Bites.
After a restaurant named Big Shows closed down in their business complex, the duo decided to venture into the restaurant industry with the conception of Bites on Brampton in March of 2015. Then in March of 2016, almost exactly one year after they opened, an employee of a local bank walked in. Another year after his visit, Bites would be forced to close their doors.
“He [the bank employee] basically tossed us his business card and said that if we want to stay in business we needed to call him now. We had no idea what was going on,” Carmen explained. “So I call the guy and he informs me that the previous owner, who we had purchased all our equipment from, had a lien on the bank and he had not paid his lien off. We were shocked.”
When they made the deal with then-owner Heath Robinson he presented a signed paper stating that there were no liens on the equipment and it was his to sell. By taking the money and not paying off the loan, Robinson committed a federal crime.
Heath Robinson is a name well-known in business circles in the Statesboro area. It is alleged that he has done similar shady dealings with other businesses and he has not been able to be located for some time. Both Robinson and other businesses he’s supposedly been involved with did not respond to inquiries about the subject or denied requests to be interviewed.
After the misdealings were discovered it was then legally the bank’s right to come to the store and repossess all of the equipment in lieu of repayment for the loan if they chose to do so. The Masrys lawyered up.
In the end, the owners basically had two options: pay off the debts of another man or allow the bank to repossess the items they needed to run the restaurant. They made their decision knowing that they didn’t feel right paying for something they weren’t responsible for and knew exactly what the consequence would be. The bank reclaimed their assets and Bites closed down on March 26, 2017.
“We had the option to pursue criminal charges [against Robinson], but we just kind of decided we don’t want to waste any more good energy or good time or good money on a person like that,” Carmen said. “He’ll get his karma one day. We found out that this has happened to three other total businesses here by the same owner.”
Not to be struck down, the owners inventoried their store and found out it would actually be cheaper to buy all brand-new items and machinery than it would have been to pay off the loan for the 6-year-old appliances. The only problem was finding a way to raise the money.
“A friend of ours started the GoFundMe page and after sharing our story on Facebook it took off. We are not the kind of people to post about our problems online, but this situation touched us in such a way that we felt we owed it to the community to share our story,” Carmen explained. “It was the support that followed that made us feel like it was worth it to reopen the store.”
In a matter of days, the GoFundMe page received $1400 in donations and widespread support was felt at every level of the restaurant. Even employees like Paul Baskin, one of the restaurant’s two cooks, were being approached by patrons who shared their sentiment with the business’s plight.
“I know all the blood, sweat and tears that have been poured into this place to get it running so to watch it go it was a mix between anguish and sadness,” Baskin said. “I had a lot of job offers when it closed, but I was pouring my hope into this place because we are like a family. People that I didn’t even know recognized me from Bites and would come up to me and tell me how sorry they were and asked how they could help.”
With the help of the money raised online and the savings they had left, Carmen and Ramy were able to buy all-new equipment for the restaurant and have their grand reopening on April 17. Ramy describes the whole ordeal as a humbling experience and after being taken aback by the overwhelming positive outreach from the community, he said it has given them the passion they needed to get the restaurant back up and running.
Coming back to the job that he had taken from him unwillingly, Baskin is happy to be back working at Bites.
“After this first week of being back open I’m going to be honest I’m pretty tired, but I also feel really good. It’s almost like a music festival you know?” Baskin said with a smile. “You’re really tired, but you saw everyone that you wanted to see and it was a great time.”
With plans to reveal a revitalized menu in the upcoming months, it doesn’t seem like Bites will be going anywhere anytime soon. Their business hours are Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. and you can call them at 912-623-2030.
Casey Rohlen is a contributor and the current online editor for Reflector Magazine. As a senior journalism major and writing minor at Georgia Southern, he spends his days having fun on Microsoft Word and his nights reading about the strange and macabre. When he’s not writing, he spends his free time playing a good round of sports or doing stand-up comedy whenever and wherever he can to little critical acclaim.