Thirty-six uniquely crafted taps remained when the doors of the Plaid Turtle Draft House opened for the final time Tuesday.
Those spouts of barley and hops ranged from a holstered pistol, a blonde queen with a pink crown, a few doves and a lime green spiny dogfish, among others. Gone, though, were the regulars — such as the Railport crest, Guinness glass and Sonny Atkins.
Atkins, 74, hasn't passed or fallen ill. He's just had to find a new watering hole following a rental dispute that led to the shuttering of The Plaid Turtle almost nine months to the day after the draft house opened with 60 taps of craft beer, mead and wine.
When the Justin Hargrove, the owner of the Plaid Turtle, announced the plans to close, which initially would not be until Aug. 2, former patrons and supporters were quick to blame the landlord, Southform Capital, a branch of Acker Construction.
Sonny, however, was not one of them. And he knows a thing or two about the bar scene and small businesses in Waxahachie, too.
"I think they signed a bad deal," said Atkins, acknowledging that it took two parties to consummate the rental agreement that led to the Turtle's opening during the Texas Country Reporter Festival on Oct. 27, 2018. "[…] The food was great. Everything in there, they didn't have any kind of food that wasn't outstanding. I can't put all of the blame on Acker and I can't put all of the blame on Justin. It's just a bad deal."
Sonny added that he hates that the former employees of the Plaid Turtle are now out of work.
For anyone questioning Sonny's expertise on small businesses or beer, don't let his wiry smile and one-liners fool you — he's all business when it matters most.
A 1963 graduate of Waxahachie High School, Atkins has since seen two generations of Atkins family graduate from his alma mater and most follow in his footsteps to open small businesses.
After graduation, Sonny spent one semester at North Texas State University and then enlisted in the United States Marines in January 1964, where he served in the air wing reserves. While serving in the reserves, Sonny returned home carried on the family business began by his father, William Leslie Atkins, Sr., of producing and collecting honey at Atkins Apiaries. The beekeeping business at one time served as a production arm for Burleson's Honey in Waxahachie.
Sonny can also recall buying bootleg beer for $1 a quart from bootleggers "Lemon" and "Snake" on the eastside of Waxahachie in the late 1960s and early 1970s. In those days, he later explained, there weren't any bars in the area.
Sonny continued to help run the family bee business into the '70s, eventually taking over for his father in 1972. During that time, believe it or not, Sonny also co-owned a Volkswagen repair shop.
He eventually sold Atkins Apiaries to John Stroope in 1980.
At some point in the late 1980s, Sonny landed a gig with Coland Industries, which specialized in construction fiberglass drain pans for Tyler Refrigeration in Waxahachie.
"We knew that the fiberglass pans were going to go away," Sonny recalled. "I was already doing work for Tyler at the cabinet shop and Jim Barnes told me, 'You just go through this plant and if you see something that you can do, do it.' They thought the pans were going to go away quicker than they did. Bottom line, I ended up doing 968 parts for Tyler Refrigeration."
Sonny and Clark Langford eventually purchased Coland Industries around 1991 and changed the name to Son-Lan Industries, which is a combination of Sonny and Langford. He has since turned the business over to his son, Guy Atkins, who is the third in a line of four siblings — Shannon Almon, William "Tres" Atkins, III, and the youngest daughter, Honey Horn.
Shannon formerly owned and operated a boutique on the downtown square, while Tres owns Atkins Seafood just a few blocks away.
To this day, Sonny is still at Son-Lan by 7:20 a.m. to pick out a new project or assist in the planning of a larger endeavor.
So now that we have his credentials outline, it's time to get back to the beer: How many bars has Sonny seen shutter over his years?
The answer is, well, not many. But he hasn't seen all that many succeed, either.
"For the longest time, there wasn't any bars," he explained. "The College Street Pub was one of the first bars to open up. There used to not be any bars in Waxahachie. There may have been some private clubs, but there just weren't any bars.
"[…] Those ones that have been here, they failed because of poor management. This place ain't going to fail," he said while sitting at the fifth bar stool on the elbow of the bar at El Mexicano Grill in downtown Waxahachie. The Cantina, as it's more aptly known, opened in 2013 and added a second location in 2018. "You have to have reasonable prices and it's better when a family runs it. This place has it and they bust their ass."
Before running out of the door to meet his wife at Panza's Tapping Italy for dinner on the opposite side of the square, Sonny said he hopes that the shell of the Plaid Turtle is filled sooner not later and that Hargrove and family can find a new set of beer spouts in Waxahachie sooner than later.
"I think it was a mistake on both parts to not work something out," he added. "It's going to be hard to find someone to run 60 beer taps and a kitchen. I hope he (Chris Acker) finds someone. I hope the Plaid Turtle finds somewhere, too. I really liked it because it was laid back."
And, there may be no singular party to blame. After all, the U.S. Department of Labor reported in 2017 that one out of every six neighborhood bars had closed between 2004-2014. Those statistics also found that the number of privately opened "drinking places" had decreased by four percent between 2013-2016.
Those numbers are also largely applied to already established businesses that have surpassed three years of operation.
Depending on the economist asked, the number of bars that fail within the first year ranges from 17 percent (Forbes) to 59 percent (POS Sector). Those numbers increase in years two and three, too.
Regardless of the statistics, the loss of the Plaid Turtle, which truly helped to revitalize the nightlife on the downtown Waxahachie square is significant, at least for now.
"It's always sad to lose one of our downtown businesses," said Anita Simpson, Director of Downtown Development for the City of Waxahachie. "The Plaid Turtle was a great addition to downtown and they will be missed. I personally loved their Reuben sandwich on the jalapeno bun and I will really miss that. We wish them the best in the future and look forward to following their success."
The Plaid Turtle was also a driving distributor of sales for the local brewery, Railport Brewing Company, as owner and brewer Richard Womack noted his largest percentage of retail sales came from the Turtle's taps.
"We're definitely sad to see it go," Womack said Tuesday shortly after rolling in a pony keg of Honey Hush. He and his wife, Shannan, then stayed a while to help the wait staff run meals out to tables. "This was a great place for downtown."
As for the building itself, the restoration work completed by Acker Construction helped raise the property value from $137,630 in 2018 to $319,580 in 2019, according to information provided by the Ellis Appraisal District.
Those renovations included the installation of the tap systems, bar top and kitchen. Dalton Bradbury, with Southfork Capital, said the group will work to fill the space with a new bar-and-grill tenant.
Travis M. Smith, @Travis5mith