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UPDATE: Woodstock restaurant, bank reach agreement to stay open

12:03 AM, Nov 19, 2011   |    comments
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Video: Bank May Force Woodstock's "Hot Dog Heaven" to Close

Becky Wentzel takes an order at Hot Dog Heaven in Woodstock, Nov. 15, 2011

UPDATE (Nov. 18, 2011) -- "We have come to an agreement," said Becky Wentzel, owner of Hot Dog Heaven in Woodstock Friday afternoon.

She and her husband, Barney, came to an agreement with their bank when, Becky said, the bank called unexpectedly Friday and extended the loan that the bank had wanted to call in.  If the Wentzels had had to pay it off, they said they would have had to close their business and turn it over to the bank.

Becky said the bank asked them not to disclose details of the agreement.

"I'm thrilled we were able to reach a resolution that makes our customers happy," Steve Melton, Executive Vice President of Ameris Bank said. "That's what we try to do."

Barney Wentzel credits the restaurant's customers with bringing attention to the restaurant's plight.

"It's great to know the voice of the people can make a difference," he said.

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UPDATE (Nov. 17, 2011) -- Barney Wentzel said Thursday that he and Ameris Bank continue to negotiate extending his business loan.  He said the bank earlier this week offered an 18-month extension, and is now talking about a 29-month extension.  The Wentzels are still seeking the full, 36-month renewal. 

Wentzel said his next meeting with the bank is on Nov. 29, when he hopes to reach a final agreement to stay open.  He credits his customers for rising up to fight for the business.

Steve Melton, Executive Vice President of Ameris Bank, told 11Alive's Jon Shirek Thursday that "There are two sides to every story." Melton said he will not discuss what the bank's side is, and will not discuss any customer's bank account, even though the Wentzels are willing to waive confidentiality policies and authorize Melton to discuss their loan.

"We're not a big bank," Melton said, speaking by phone from the bank's corporate offices in Moultrie, Ga. "We have $2 billion in loans. Our average business loan is $148,000. Small businesses are incredibly important to us. It hurts us to be portrayed otherwise. We want to work things out with them."

In an email later, Melton wrote, "We believe small businesses represent those qualities that keep our country strong -- sacrifice, hard work, family and community values. If a small business customer has problems, we will meet them more than halfway in an effort to find a solution. We are proud of our record of supporting small businesses and their communities. We stand by our record."

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WOODSTOCK, Ga. (Nov. 15, 2011) -- A couple is fighting to save their business in Woodstock, fighting forces far beyond their ability to control.

They may know their fate as soon as Wednesday.

But as they told 11Alive's Jon Shirek, it's why this is all happening that's really breaking their hearts:

We spoke with them in their restaurant at closing time, just after they had spoken with a man from their bank.  He did not have good news for them.  

Becky Wentzel was crying.  

"This is the American Dream," she said of their family business, "This is my life. I just can't imagine that it can go, just that easy. Just pulled out from underneath you."

For eight years, Becky and Barney Wentzel have worked to make Hot Dog Heaven in downtown Woodstock a success.

It sits at the intersection of Main Street, Town Lake Parkway and Arnold Mill Road.

"It's a prime location," Becky said, pointing out that it is just across Main Street from the park and the site of a new amphitheater.

But their business loan was with a bank that failed in November, 2009 -- the Bank of Woodstock, just down Main Street.

And the bank's successor, Ameris Bank of Moultrie, Ga., last week unexpectedly called in their loan, and told them to pay $250,000 or get out, despite their good payment history.

"Every three years it comes up for renewal," Becky said, "And you just go in every three years and re-up, no big deal."

But this month was the first time their loan had come up for renewal since Ameris took over the bank.

"If they can do it to us with good credit, what are they going to do to other people?" Barney Wentzel wondered.

They said someone from the bank called them on the telephone and told them they'd have to re-pay the loan in full; they demanded the reasons in writing.

"They told us we're not viable," Becky said. "They think that we're bleeding money," or will be, before the next three years are up.

"They're figuring that somewhere down the road that [since] we're not making a million a year, we're not going to be able to make our payments," Barney said.

But their track record is "perfect, perfect, never missed a day, never been late" with payments, Becky said.

The City of Woodstock is about to begin a one-year road widening and street-scape project at the intersection where Hot Dog Heaven is located.

"We're prime property," Becky said. "How would we not do well" in the future? "If I'm making it in this economy, what will I be doing three years from now, with an amphitheater and a new road in front of me?"

The Wentzels suspect the feds are behind it, making the bank call in even good loans, for the cash.

The bank refused to comment.

Customers are furious, contacting the bank and the FDIC to protest, rallying support on a "Save Hot Dog Heaven" Facebook page.

"We do not want this place to close," one woman said emphatically outside the restaurant.

Customers talk of the solid, small town business people who work hard, provide a good product with good service, pay salaries, and make money for the town and for themselves, even in the recession.

"It's not a chain," said a customer. "It's a family-owned business, and we need more family-owned businesses."

"It's the old-fashioned restaurant that you need to see," said another customer. "You just don't want that to leave Woodstock."

Their banker told them Tuesday afternoon he would try to resolve this, but told them it's not up to him.

The bank initially gave the Wentzels six months' notice.

On Wednesday, the Wentzels expect to hear, once and for all, whether the bank will, in fact, reconsider and extend the loan.

But for how long? The Wentzels are saying they're not sure it would be worth it if they'll have to go through all of this again, the next year or the next.

"Eight years, seven days a week, 12 hours a day," Barney Wentzel shaking his head. 

He tried to comfort Becky as she wept.

"God love it," she said. "This is just my life. I love it. How many people can say they get up in the morning, they can't wait to get to work, that they're here at 11, 12 at night making donuts or cupcakes?"

They know they are fighting forces that may be impossible for them to control and conquer, in Woodstock.

"The bank is blaming the FDIC regs," Barney said. "This bank was so bad with loans. I'm lumped in with all the bad loans the bank made."

They're coming to terms with the idea they may lose a business they've made a success -- losing it, as Barney said, through no fault of their own.

"It was going to be our retirement," he said. 

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