One of the most common questions I get is — how did you start Country’s Barbecue. Did your Dad already have it — did you have a lot of money — just what is the truth. In honor of Country’s 37th birthday this March, I thought it would be a good time to relate the story cause most of the time I don’t even believe it. This story will be just about how the doors opened. It’s not about how we made it through the first month or year or how we survived catastrophes. It’s not about all the incredible folks that got us through 37 years — it’s just about opening the door. We’ll talk about the first year some “nother” time.
To have your own business, no matter how big or small, you need that yearning deep down in your soul that says “I’m just too damn ornery to work for anyone else.” Boy did I ever have that! No matter what job I had all I did was think of having my own business and I did have a variety of jobs. I threw papers at eleven years old, worked in retail clothing at 14, worked in a canning plant, worked in a quality control lab, repaired and sold business machines, programmed computers, worked as a systems analyst, ran a computer service bureau and sold data processing services. All the time I worked at these other jobs I dreamed of having my own. I sat alone and thought about it, I drove the roads looking for an opportunity, I watched my friends that had their own and I read countless books. At one point I was a systems analyst for Lithonia Lighting in Atlanta — I told my VP that I wanted to experience the ups and downs of the business and not live in the grey area. He said “Well son the only way you’ll do that is to be president of the company or start your own dang business.” He was very right!
At the time that the opportunity came for Country’s I was working in Data Processing at CB&T. In my opinion and probably theirs as well, I was doing a less than great job. I just could not get comfortable working for a large company and couldn’t rid myself of the desire to have my own business. My BFF Jack Basset had just opened his advertising business and was working with a wealthy guy named Jerry Gandy (drove a Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow). Jerry owned a place called Jakes for Steaks and just didn’t think it made enough money so he tried to upgrade it to an upscale steak house — Trader Jakes. It didn’t work well enough and Jerry wanted to just quit having to worry about Columbus, Ga — he was from Tallahassee.
Jack knew I was miserable and wanted my own business more than anything in the world and so introduced me to Jerry. When I lived in Atlanta, I use to love eating at Old Hickory House. I couldn’t believe it — a barbecue place that sold beer, used real dishes and sold menu items other than barbecue. That was my dream. I knew Columbus had — and still does — lots of great barbecue but there was no full service barbecue joint — maybe I could make that work. I was a young guy 31 years old; Jerry was older with tons of business experience but somehow he took a liking to me. He knew I was on fire and thought my idea was decent. In fact, he liked me so much or wanted to get out of town so much, that he made me an offer that enabled me to get in business. I have forever been indebted to lots of folks for helping me but Jerry was certainly the most important at the time and the most meaningful since he barely knew me — a good thing since all the money I had in the world was $300 bucks.
Jerry said — I tell you what Jim, I’ll give you everything in the the restaurant; all the chairs, tables, dishes, cash register, kitchen equipment, everything. In addition, Jim, I’ll half the rent for the first year. At the end of the first year if it’s not working then just walk away. BUT, if you stay then you owe me for everything plus interest and the rent will double against 7% of sales. Jerry left this world around three years ago but he’ll never leave my heart.
Now the problem became how do I get any operating capital. I was a minor officer at the bank at that time and they very wisely would not lend me any money but were pretty happy to see me go. At the time I was fortunate enough to be President of the Columbus Jaycees — back then that was a big deal. I learned more and made more friends in the Jaycees than any time before. I could write a large blog just on what the Jaycees meant to me, how it truly changed my life and might tell that story later. There were so many folks there that helped me so much like Jack Basset, Louie Willett, Mort Harris, Mike Kennedy and countless others. I still count so many folks from that time as good friends. I knew I had to formulate a business plan and so called on another friend from Royal Crown Cola — Nolan Murrah — Nolan has also left this world and leaves many a friend behind. Nolan helped me put the plan together and make it such that I could sell it. From that point I began calling on folks one by one showing them the plan.
After some unsuccessful attempts I called another Jaycee acquaintance — Mike Kennedy. Mike was brave enough to help and without him I might not have had another chance. We didn’t use any of our own money — my $300 wouldn’t be much help — but the bank agreed to loan us $17,000 with Mike consigning and me putting up my house, car or anything else that could be attached.
With that investment and lots of help from friends and family Country’s was started.
Lots of things have changed over 37 years. Thousands of folks working with Country’s have come and gone — good friends have passed on. I’m indebted for life to so many that helped us after opening the doors — but that is essentially how we got started. It’s been an incredible adventure that I hope is going to continue way into the future.
THANK YOU COLUMBUS FOR 37 YEARS — THANK YOU FOR PUTTING UP WITH OUR MISTAKES AND FOR YOUR BUSINESS TODAY! THANK YOU ALL WHO HAVE HELPED TO MAKE COUNTRY’S BARBECUE WORK. And no, I wasn’t good looking 37 years ago either 🙂