BRITTNEY LOHMILLER/The Natchez Democrat — Gatorz employee Veronica Melancon, from left, brings out Mary Lou Cross and Corinne Randazzo’s lunches at Gatorz in Vidalia Friday afternoon. “They’ve got the same cook, same location and the same friendly service,” Cross said.
BRITTNEY LOHMILLER/The Natchez Democrat — Gatorz employee Veronica Melancon, from left, brings out Mary Lou Cross and Corinne Randazzo’s lunches at Gatorz in Vidalia Friday afternoon. “They’ve got the same cook, same location and the same friendly service,” Cross said.

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Long-time Vidalia restaurants undergoing changes

Published 12:07am Sunday, March 16, 2014

VIDALIA — Two long-time Vidalia restaurant institutions are undergoing major transformations.

For one — the former Sonny’s Pizza — the change is an opportunity to expand its offerings.

For the other, The Sandbar, the changeover to Johnnie Mae’s Seafood and Grill represents new owners and a new beginning for the restaurant standing at the terminus of Carter Street near the Mississippi River bridge.

Gatorz owner James Keating said after 18 years as Sonny’s Pizza, it was time for something new, and the restaurant dropped its franchise with the regional company.

“With all the competition coming into town, we decided it was time for a change, and we decided to get away from the (Sonny’s) franchise,” he said. “The franchise has been good for us over the years, but we wanted to add some new things to the menu and try to reinvent ourselves.”

The reinvention has certainly been noticed. Keating said Gatorz has gotten hundreds of calls about the name change.

But the food that Miss-Lou residents have come to love will still be offered, he said, though maybe under a new name.

For example, the “Italian burritos” Sonny’s was known for are still on the menu, but now under the name “Gator rolls.” The change is to avoid infringing on a Sonny’s trademark.

Likewise, Gatorz will have new items, including prime rib po’ boys, southwestern egg rolls, handmade chicken strips, slick wings, oysters and a grilled chicken club sandwich, among other offerings.

“We are going to add a bunch of other stuff, but we are doing this in a slow progression into what we want,” Keating said.

Gatorz has done some touch-ups to its interior as well, he said.

The name Gatorz was chosen as a tribute to local and regional culture, Keating said.

“We are in Louisiana, and we wanted to go with something more Louisiana-esque,” he said.

Johnnie Mae’s Seafood and Grill will be an expansion of the operations of Natchez-based Slick Rick’s Foods.

It won’t, however, be a second Slick Rick’s Café location, Slick Rick’s Chief Operating Officer Dee Boyte said.

Instead, it will be a separate restaurant that offers traditional American food and burgers, but also Cajun and Creole, Southern, steakhouse and seafood items.

Taking over The Sandbar location — and with it, resident’s expectations of quality food — isn’t something Slick Rick’s takes lightly, Boyte said.

“I remember when I was little, we would go over to eat at the Sandbar on Sundays,” she said. “It is a big part of life over here, and I think we are definitely going to keep some of the Sandbar’s attributes, a few of their signs and have a little area inside Johnnie Mae’s to pay homage. It was around for 36 years, and we are not trying to change history.

“We definitely don’t want anybody to forget. We want them to be as proud of what we bring as we are.”

But while Slick Rick’s isn’t out to change history, the company will bring its signature style of food to the dining experience, and one popular Slick Rick’s item will definitely make a transition to Johnnie Mae’s, Boyte said.

“We have had steak Fridays at Slick Ricks, and when we open we will continue the steaks at Johnny Mae’s instead of just once a month at Rick’s,” she said.

Slick Rick’s Café will remain open in Natchez.

The name for Johnnie Mae’s comes from Johnnie Mae Lindsey, who helped raise Slick Rick’s co-owner Mary Ann Simons, Boyte said.

“The woman was like (Mary Ann’s) second mom,” Boyte said. “She cooked for them, and Mary Ann played with Johnnie Mae’s kids,” Boyte said. “When Mary Ann had children of her own, she had Johnnie Mae come and do pretty much the same thing and rear her two boys. They called her ‘Mama Johnnie,’ and (Chef Rick Simons) was in the kitchen with her a lot, and that is where he saw a lot of what he learned.”

The restaurant will have a prominent photo of Johnnie Mae on display, Boyte said.

Slick Rick’s will also be taking possession of the Fish Fry building at the Sandbar location, though Boyte said what the building might be used for are unclear at this point.

The company likewise plans to build a bar area as an extension of the existing Sandbar building.

“We are not sure when we will break ground over there, but we want this to be a place where people want to come and sit back and hang out,” Boyte said.

The tentative opening for Johnnie Mae’s is the beginning of April.