James Batteh's roots in family's restaurant business

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James Batteh double-majored at Florida State University in multinational business and marketing.

With his degree, the Jacksonville native and Bishop Kenny High School graduate worked in the insurance world for less than a year.

When Batteh headed out to college, he hadn’t expected to return to the family business, but he did. His roots were in Jacksonville and in food.

He followed those roots into running the Atrium Café & Grill at the Wells Fargo Center Downtown.

His dad is Jamal “Jimmy” Batteh, who retired in 2012 at the age of 79 and sold the Bay Street Café Downtown after almost 40 years in the grocery and restaurant business around Jacksonville.

James had worked with him for as long as he can remember.

“It was the hands-on experience from growing up in the family business that prepared me the most,” Batteh said.

Jimmy Batteh immigrated from Ramallah, Palestine, as a teenager, as did Mariam, who became his wife in 1956. They had three children — Joy Batteh-Freiha, Jerry and James.

Jimmy Batteh, along with family members and associates, ran a grocery store and then several restaurants, including a Loop Pizza Grill franchise at Beach Boulevard and San Pablo Road they later sold.

James Batteh worked at most of them. Starting in 1991, he joined the businesses full-time and began driving his father to work each morning before heading to the other locations.

His mom had been driving his dad, but he wanted to relieve her of the early schedule.

The elder Batteh has visual limitations, but those didn’t keep him from memorizing his customers by voice, the specifics of their regular orders and the names of their children.

Nor, said his son, did it keep him from providing for his family and sending his three children through Catholic school. “And for that, I’m forever grateful,” James said.

The elder Batteh owned the Bay Street Cafe for 20 years, selling it in 2012 and retiring. Mariam, his wife of 55 years — his “everything” — became seriously ill in 2010 and died in 2011.

All of their children have worked in the business. Batteh-Freiha’s two sons, Nicholas and Christopher Freiha, also have put in time during summer breaks.

“My dad passed on the hard work ethic to his family,” James Batteh said.

In 2002, with the support of his dad, Batteh launched the Atrium Café & Grill in the Wells Fargo Center, a landmark Downtown tower at 1 Independent Drive.

The space had been a Morrison’s Cafeteria for 25 years followed by a few years as McAlister’s Deli and then a few months as Jonathan’s.

Batteh, 49, can be found working the grill, delivering orders through the service window, calling out numbers at the counter for pickup, or whatever it takes to keep the 13-year-old business humming. It seats 174 patrons, including 35 on the covered patio.

He and his staff of seven run the first-floor restaurant from 6:45 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday-Friday. It serves breakfast and lunch, provides takeout and also caters.

He estimates he designed 95 percent of the menu items, incorporating customer suggestions if they sell well as a special.

As for his favorites, Batteh likes a panini. He’s a fan of the grilled chicken pita, too. He’s also a big salad eater, especially the walnut gorgonzola.

The lunch menu is organized into deli sandwiches, grill favorites, hot panini choices, wraps and salads. There also are daily specials and soups.

He credits his staff for making the business run smoothly.

Batteh estimates 70 percent of his customers are repeat patrons. He said about 60 percent of his clientele comes from within the 37-story tower and 40 percent from within a block or two.

His favorite time of the day is the lunch rush and he also likes preparing orders in the kitchen.

Batteh has witnessed and worked through the highs and lows of Downtown, from the opportunities springing up after the 2005 Super Bowl to the recession of 2007-09. In 2008, much came to halt, he said.

While Downtown still lags in growth, “I’m seeing a resurgence to revitalize it,” he said.

Batteh works about 65-70 hours a week. After operating hours and on weekends, he does the ordering, paperwork, stocking and handling the other details required of an entrepreneur.

He said the business program at FSU prepared him for ownership through the management and marketing classes. He said he always knew he eventually would run his own business.

Batteh learned from his dad and on the job what makes a successful business: Presence, quality and service.

“In this type of business, you really need to have a presence. That’s why I’m here the majority of my time,” Batteh said.

His dad stressed the importance of good food and good service.

“The guests of the business are the most important thing for they are the lifeblood of our business,” he said.

In addition to work ethic, he said his dad taught him about the struggles of business but there always is a light at the end of the tunnel, to enjoy what you do and to stay positive.

Batteh said thanks to his dad, his Catholic faith and hard work, “everything fell into place.”

“He always instilled in me that I can do it. He believed in me,” he said.

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