Every day when Bill Norman goes out into the community to grocery shop, go golfing with friends or take his family out to dinner, someone is bound to recognize him.
“You’re Bill Norman, right?” he remembers one woman asking. “I just wanted to tell you that we hate you for closing our favorite restaurant.”
His restaurant, Norman’s Landing, was a staple in Forsyth County for more than two decades, finding success in the community from the moment it opened on July 21, 1995, until the day it closed on June 19, 2017.
Now, near what would have been the restaurant’s 27th anniversary, Norman said he can’t help but smile when people recognize him in the county and remember Norman’s Landing.
“I couldn’t have been prouder of my employees, the great food and the community that supported us,” Norman said.
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Moving to ‘the middle of nowhere’
An Atlanta native, Norman has worked in the restaurant industry for more than 50 years, starting as a busboy when he was only 14 years old and moving his way up through many restaurants before becoming one of the founders and CEO of LongHorn Steakhouse.
After finding success in his career, he kept thinking back to an idea he had since visiting Forsyth County as a child — to live and open a restaurant near Lake Lanier. By the early 1990s, he decided to make that dream a reality.
He moved into a lakefront home and decided to open the restaurant on Peachtree Parkway where he would serve the community and all his favorite foods just across the street from where The Collection at Forsyth sits today. But at the time, he said there were only two other businesses in the area, a Waffle House and a gas station.
“Everybody in the world told me, ‘Bill, you’re crazy. You’re going out into the middle of nowhere to open a restaurant,’” Norman said. “Because it’s all location, location, location. But what I told people was it’s the end of Peachtree [Parkway] and Ga. 400. It’s in the middle of everything.
“I knew it would be a success if we made it a success.”
He turned out to be right. He opened Norman’s Landing for the first time in 1995, and it became an instant hit in the community.
Located just off Ga. 400 at Exit 13, he said patrons would come from Dawson and Gwinnett counties and all over to try the food. And with each customer that came in, he was determined to make sure they left happy with their experience at Norman’s Landing.
Norman said they went from serving a few hundred people each week to around 3,000.
The success sparked a wave of new restaurants and businesses opening on Peachtree Parkway, turning the “middle of nowhere” rural area into the bustling development locals know today.
“All the people would come in and see how busy we were, and they would go, ‘We want some of that,’” Norman said. “I knew that would happen if we did it right, and that’s why we worked hard every day.”
But the success of Norman’s Landing lent him the opportunity to serve Forsyth County in many ways, and from the first day it opened, Norman began to focus on his main reason for building the restaurant in the first place — giving back to the community.
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‘The fun in fundraising’
In just the first day or two after opening, Norman’s Landing collected around $3,400 in tips to give to Forsyth County Family Haven, an organization that provides resources and crisis support to victims of domestic violence.
Since that fundraiser, Norman said the restaurant collected donations for nonprofits in the community every single day of the nearly 22 years it was open.
“We’re proud of that,” Norman said.
Not only did he collect donations through the restaurant, but he hosted a slew of fundraising events throughout the community. From ping pong tournaments to full-blown carnivals with games, dunk tanks and face painting, Norman did it all.
One of the restaurant’s first fundraising events was a golf tournament that he held to raise money for United Way of Forsyth County where he served as a member of the board of directors.
Over the years, it became one of his favorite nonprofits in the community, and he ended up raising close to half a million dollars for the organization in the span of 10 years.
“That all came as a result of his ping pong tournaments and his golf tournaments,” said Ruth Goode, executive director of United Way of Forsyth County. “The one thing Bill knew how to do was put the ‘fun’ in fundraising, so these tournaments were always great. They caught on and were very popular events.”
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Norman’s Landing soon became famous for its ping pong tournaments held inside the restaurant, raising money for a variety of local nonprofits.
Goode remembered visiting the restaurant one day and Norman telling her he could use the space where the ping pong table sat as extra seating to bring in more profits. But he simply couldn’t get rid of it, saying that ping pong table had become important for helping bring in donations for the community.
“That just says so much,” Goode said.
Over the years, Norman even hosted lotteries and giveaways at the restaurant while patrons could give a donation for a chance to stay at his home in Costa Rica.
Looking back at all the auctions, events and tournaments, he said the restaurant raised more than $2.5 million for the community before closing in 2017.
“He was so very good to us and to the community,” Goode said. “He was just a generous and a good-hearted guy. You always got the feeling he felt like he needed to give back to the community as much as the community supported him and the restaurant.”
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The giving nature of Bill Norman and the staff at Norman’s Landing was one of many reasons people in the community loved the eatery. It was a community-focused restaurant, and for many, Norman and his staff felt like family.
Most of the employees worked at Norman’s Landing the entire time it was open, some of them following Norman after working with him at other restaurants in Atlanta.
“The majority of employees there had been with me for 25, 35, up to 42 years,” Norman said. “At any given time, you had over a thousand years of restaurant experience in that restaurant. That’s why that always ensured great service and, hopefully, great food.”
Regulars always found someone they recognized coming through the doors of Norman’s Landing, and Goode said that Norman himself made sure that each guest felt welcome.
“Bill went around to everybody’s table when he could, said hi, greeted people and made you feel very much at home when you went into the restaurant,” Goode said. “That was the first restaurant I ever noticed the owner doing that. Some of them do it today, but back then, I don’t know, it was just something different.”
Norman said he, of course, made the food one of his other focuses, and the menu ended up featuring a culmination of his favorite food. From eggs Benedict to Reuben sandwiches to fresh seafood and lobster rolls, Norman’s Landing served a little bit of everything.
All these features of Norman’s Landing are why it eventually became one of the most well-known and successful restaurants in the county.
“He’s kind of legendary in our community,” Goode said. “To us, he was.”
Saying goodbye to a local icon
But after almost 22 years, Norman received a warning from his cardiologist.
“You can’t keep working like you’re 20 years old,” he remembers his doctor saying. “You’ll be dead in two years.”
It served as the wake-up call he needed to officially retire from the restaurant industry after 50 years. In the last 100 days at Norman’s Landing, he called an all-store meeting and told everyone that they would be closing.
At the time, he said it was a devastating decision to make. But with how tough working in a restaurant can be, he knew he needed to listen to his doctor.
“It tore me up,” Norman said. “But I said I am not going to die here. I love the business and I love the people, but I’m not going to die here. No thank you.”
And all of his employees stayed to work until the last day.
He said he ended up only telling a few people the real reason for why he needed to leave the industry. At the time, he told the community it was because the restaurant had racked up debt during the economic downturn a few years prior.
But after announcing that the restaurant would be closing, Norman said the response from the community was overwhelming.
“The last three months Norman’s Landing was open, we were up 108% in sales,” he said.
Norman remembers lines forming outside of the restaurant in the weeks before they closed, filled with people who wanted to have one last taste of Norman’s Landing before it was gone.
In those weeks, Norman and his staff worked around the clock to make sure the restaurant could serve the community all the way through to the end.
“We just wanted to make sure we finished up the right way,” Norman said. “It took a lot of hard work to do that, and a lot of us were pretty tired at the end of it. But we couldn’t have been prouder of it.”
On the last day Norman’s Landing was open, they donated 50% of the proceeds to local nonprofits. Later in the week, the restaurant held its final fundraiser, auctioning off Norman’s Landing memorabilia.
Looking back on his time running the restaurant, Norman said he sometimes misses his customers, his employees and serving the community. It will always be one of his proudest accomplishments.
Norman is reminded of that almost every day when he goes out into the community and someone recognizes him, bringing back memories of the restaurant.
“He deserves to be remembered,” Goode said. “He really does.”