Deep down, Zaza Pachulia has always been a people pleaser. His greatest joy has always come from making you feel good.
"Zaza's been the way from the first day I met him," said Fatmir "Frank" Cuka, Pachulia's first Basketball coach who has grown to become a father figure. "He does what's in his heart and in his gut. He works hard at it for himself and his family. That's just Zaza."
That desire to please, to entertain and to celebrate the special moments in life is what led the Hawks' center to his latest venture in his adopted hometown.
Pachulia bought Eno restaurant and its adjoining wine shop, Barrelman, Aug. 5 and renamed the Midtown eatery Eno by Zaza. It's a risky move by the 25-year-old Pachulia, who is making his first foray into a field that has brought down many more experienced restaurateurs. But it's one Pachulia said he simply could not pass up after learning that one of his favorite spots was on the market.
"Some of my good friends told me not to do it," Pachulia said recently, trying to discreetly tuck his nearly 7-foot, 270-pound frame into a cozy corner of his restaurant. "This came from inside of me. This is something I had a passion for, something that I'd been thinking about for a long time. If you want to go out with your friends to a classy, nice place like this and just enjoy good food, good wine and enjoy yourself and enjoy life, you do it.
"I've been to a lot of good restaurants in Atlanta and all around the world, places that make people happy just to be there. I was thinking, 'Why not own something like this that makes people happy? Why not go out and have a nice dinner at a place that makes you feel welcome?' "
Pachulia did his homework. But he didn't act until after re-signing with the Hawks earlier in the summer. An unrestricted free agent after four years in Atlanta, he signed a new four-year, $19 million deal.
Once that was taken care of, he began studying Eno in person, even bringing his wife, Tina, along on daily visits to observe the staff, sample everything on the menu and gauge the viability of owning the place, which is on Peachtree Street just two blocks from the Fox Theatre. The fare: European Mediterranean.
"They tried to keep sitting me at the same table," Pachulia said and then chuckled, "but I kept asking them to put me in different spots so I could study the entire place. I was checking things out for myself and enjoying the food and the atmosphere."
Already an admirer of Eno, those daily trips sold Pachulia. He's enlisted the services of his closest friends and family to help run the restaurant while he focuses his attention on his job as the Hawks' backup center.
Cuka's wife, Miranda, is the restaurant's general manager, having worked for over decade in the business in Miami. Cuka remains a Basketball coach by trade but is also assisting his wife with the transition.
"Frank is Basketball. I'm Basketball. Miranda is in restaurant business. So we definitely didn't want to open a clothing shop," Pachulia, a noted clotheshorse, deadpanned. "It's great to have them here running things, because my No. 1 job is on the court with my teammates trying to do great things for the Hawks , our fans and the city."
The bond between the two families, Pachulia said, is what makes it possible for him to maintain his devotion to his Basketball career while also diving into the entrepreneurial waters he plans to explore for years to come.
"This is my home," Pachulia said. "I've been here four years now and I've built a bond with the city, the fans and just the beautiful people of Atlanta. Even if I was to go somewhere else [to play], this is my home."
The ability to adapt in a foreign land is a skill he picked up from Cuka years ago. They were both foreigners in Turkey. Pachulia arrived from Tbilisi, Georgia's capital city, as a 13-year-old prospect with pro potential while the Albanian-born Cuka was there coaching a developmental team for a pro club.
Three years later, after grinding through Cuka's relentless workouts, Pachulia was playing for the pro team in Istanbul. He was the youngest professional in Eurasia at the time.
When Pachulia's father, Davit, died of a heart attack at 41, just as his son was making the leap from teenage prospect to full-fledged pro, Cuka was there to help keep Pachulia focused on his dream of playing in the NBA.
"He's the one that prepared me from the very first day," Pachulia said. "It was a different relationship. I can never forget what he's done for me. Over the years we became like family. My mom and his wife are like sisters. I can't understand what can be closer than to be with someone like this. On and off the court, we have a bond. He's like a father to me."
When Pachulia talked about owning his own restaurant, Cuka wasn't sure if he was serious or not. Once it became clear that he was, Cuka's paternal instincts kicked in. He became the go-to-man for encouragement and support.
"Zaza has always helped people," Cuka said, "especially in his country. He's doing a lot of good things. And he's just starting to create his life, with wife and children. He's the kind of person that doesn't like to make a big appearance, like 'Hey, look at me. This is what I'm doing.' He just believes in working hard. He does that in Basketball and he'll do that here."
Eno's profile was well established before Pachulia's pursuit. Former owner Doug Strickland operated the restaurant for 10 years in a competitive stretch of midtown. The national exposure has picked up recently, with Pachulia taking over and Chef Eli Kirshtein's status as a contestant on Top Chef Season 6.
Still, Pachulia's desire is for the restaurant to remain the "quiet and classy" spot that he admired for so long. The staff remained and Strickland even stayed on as a beverage consultant.
There will be changes. New lunch hours are in the works. The doors will stay open a bit later most nights, as well, to accommodate the crowd after events at the Fox and Hawks' games.
"I had a great steak last week, after our [first preseason] game," Pachulia said. Logos and menus are being tweaked for a grand re-opening next month. And there's a wine label that bears the Eno name that will be imported from Pachulia's native Georgia.
"You have to be impressed in this day and age, with a guy that will take this kind of risk with his own money," said Hawks coach Mike Woodson, who has had his own real estate company since 1986, when he was still playing in the league. "We had to take those risks in my day because we weren't making the kind of money these guys make now. I was always scared to get in the restaurant business just because you knew you could lose money.
"But I've already told Zaza: They better have a big table for me and the group I'm bringing with me, a few bottles of great wine and a place where I can smoke a cigar."