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Produce-stand-turned-restaurant cooks up success

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Joel Guldenschuh, owner of Always Fresh in Lilburn, puts a pork tenderloin back in the oven after checking its temperature earlier this week. Guldenschuh originally opened a produce market, but converted it to a restaurant shortly after.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Joel Guldenschuh, owner of Always Fresh in Lilburn, puts a pork tenderloin back in the oven after checking its temperature earlier this week. Guldenschuh originally opened a produce market, but converted it to a restaurant shortly after.

LILBURN -- Typically people wait for a specific day to buy fresh produce from their local farmers markets.

It's even more work to use it to make a day's meal. But what if there was a way to get both produce and meal in the same place during any day of the week?

Always Fresh Neighborhood Market is that place. Located in Mountain Park Plaza, directly across from Citgo, it may look like your average restaurant. But it did not start like one.

When co-owner Joel Guldenschuh opened Always Fresh, his plan was to sell fresh produce. For six months he did just that, but after getting compliments on his homemade vegetable soup he decided to double it as a restaurant.

"The idea for the restaurant came on accident," Guldenschuh said. "Six months into the produce business I started cooking homemade vegetable soup because I was hungry. But then I started giving away what was left over and people became very interested with the soup, and that's how the idea for the restaurant got started."

Guldenschuh said opening a produce market was never in his plans, let alone a restaurant. But the home cooking, Southern-style establishment has been open seven years and is going strong.

Much of the produce Guldenschuh uses is from farmers markets as well as local vendors.

"I try to use fresh products from the restaurant and the market," he said. "I get my produce from the farmers markets twice, sometimes three times a week."

Friends Vicki Wallace and Carol Streng said they have been eating at Always Fresh since it opened, and the biggest attraction for them is the fresh vegetables.

"You cannot get fresh vegetables just anywhere; they're so reasonably priced and they help the local community," Streng said. "A lady asked me where I could get good vegetables and I had a ready answer for her, to come (to Always Fresh)."

Many items on the menu are made from fresh produce, like the broccoli casserole. The dishes are Guldenschuh's own recipes or recipes he tweaked to his liking. He said the most popular dish is the chicken salad.

Wallace and Streng agree the chicken salad is a big draw.

"Have you tried the chicken salad?" they asked.

"If you like chicken salad -- oh my God," Wallace said. "Not everybody makes good chicken salad, but the one here is great."

The menu offers other varieties of home-style meals, like baked chicken, pot roast, summer squash, collard greens, potato salad and Brunswick stew.

Guldenschuh said the restaurant has come a long way and gives thanks to his parents -- now deceased -- because he learned a lot from helping with their produce stand.

That produce stand is how everything originated for him. After graduating from Georgia State University with a business major he worked as a manufacturing manager at a battery company. After years of working there he was laid off. He then decided to help his parents with their stand.

He said working outside at his parents' stand wasn't easy, and moving his produce stand indoors has been an improvement. Guldenschuh said a typical day at his parents' stand would start with setting up the produce around 9 a.m. and packing up at 6 p.m., a process repeated day after day.

"At the stands I had a lot of time on my hands," he said. "Sometimes you would just sit there and read because there was nothing to do but wait on customers to show up."

Like his parents did with him, Guldenschuh works with his daughter -- Michelle Weimer -- and hopes to keep the business in the family.

The restaurant is family friendly and gets a good mix of the Lilburn community, but a majority of the customers are middle-aged and seniors.

Sixty-year-old waitress, Beverly Smith has been working there for two years and enjoys it because she connects with the customers, many her age.

"It's like a family here. People sometimes come in by themselves and they sit and chat with people at another table as if they were family and they enjoy the food."

Wallace spent about three hours during a recent visit, and said she continues coming to the Always Fresh because of the atmosphere.

"We've been coming to lunch here for years," Wallace said. "Always Fresh is the best place, most friendly atmosphere, they treat you like family here and the food can't be beat. We feel like this is home, we can sit here as long as we want over a glass of tea."

Guldenschuh said Always Fresh is the place where customers can meet their neighbors.

"We try to make this place as comfortable as possible for the customers," said Guldenschuh. "Like our shirts say, 'You come in a customer, you leave a friend.' We care about our customers and they care about us."