What is Soul Food? I thought I knew a thing or two about it. Soul food, to me, has always been the very essence of comfort food – even if you didn’t grow up eating it. After my interview with Havird Usry, a third-generation in a family-owned business that is Fat Man’s Mill Cafe & Catering, I realized that soul food is much deeper than just its menu, it’s “the spirit in which the food is prepared”.
When I walked into Fat Man’s Cafe, I didn’t know what to expect. Great reviews about the restaurant preceded my visit and I was excited and curious to know if it would live up to the hype. I had come around 2pm, presumably, after the lunch traffic had come and gone, so there were just a few people finishing up their meals. The feel of the restaurant was warm and inviting. The lighting accentuated the beautifully patterned rustic walls and the artwork gave light to its vast history. The employees were hard at work with their daily duties but the energy they exuded seemed to be that of genuine content. Havird saw me and greeted me with a handshake and a warm smile. I could tell he was kind man and I then understood why I felt the way I did about his staff. We found a seat in the dining area and chatted for a bit before the interview began.
A: Tell us a little bit about Fat Man’s Cafe and how it got started?
H: It was started by my grandfather. That’s actually where the name came from, his nickname was Fat Man, and that was in 1943. It started as kinda of a half grocery store, half restaurant. They had a side of the cafe that was cooked food and the other half was uncooked food. Folks could come in and grab their neighborhood groceries. We have not had a day with out doors closed since 1943. I guess this our third location here (Enterprise Mill). We’ve kind of bounced around. We sold our property to whats now called Augusta University (formerly Georgia Regents University), probably six years back, but we’ve never gone a day with our doors closed, which is something we take a lot of pride in. Over how ever many years that is, about 68 or 69 years. But we’ve had everybody from my grandfather, and when he passed, my grandmother kinda came into his place and then my dad and now I’ve came in with my dad, so its been a family tradition.
A: Since you’ve been around so long, what changes have you seen in the types of customers you have, or do you have a loyal customer base that’s been with you from the beginning?
H: I feel like each location brings a different customer base, but we definitely have a loyal customer base that’s been with us that I saw it over at Laney Walker when I was in, you know, elementary and middle school, bagging up orders, to when we were on the river, to here. We do cycle through some new ones. You see a lot of folks from inside Enterprise Mill. A lot of folks that are downtown right now in the medical community. This is probably been the most diverse group of customers we’ve had since we’ve been in this location. So we’ve really enjoyed being here at the Mill, a lot.
FOOD & SERVICE
A: What types of food and services do you offer?
H: As far as Fat Man’s Cafe goes, we are a Southern Soul Food base, we also have some healthier options that also have a southern spin on them as far as wraps and sandwiches.
A: Eat yo Veggies, right?
H: Right, lol.
We’ve got a blackened salmon salad. We’ve got a lot of different options.
As far as our catering services, as of last year, it was about 85 percent of our business. We offer anything and everything. We do it off of the food truck. We have an event facility here and we probably average about two weddings a weekend and then we cater offsite a lot as well. That’s breakfast, lunch, dinner, Southern food to you know name it, we’ve done it in the past.
A: What is Fat Man’s Mobile Kitchen?
H: Are you familiar with the Rooster’s Beak downtown? Vaguely familiar. Well it’s where The Hive is now. They had a food truck and when they closed down we bought their food truck. We got it re-wrapped, re-branded into our cool stuff and now we have a schedule that it goes out on weekly. I feel like we’re the only food truck ever that’s happened in Augusta that has a daily operation and daily schedule and we’ve tried to cut a path that I feel like hadn’t been as accepted as quick as it should’ve. There are some regulations that kinda hold us back in Augusta, but it’s still been a successful venture and I think we’ll still keep trying to pave that way and keep grinding it out until it becomes a part of the culture because I think Augusta is missing out on how a lot of other cities are. You speak of LA. If you go out there, They’re everywhere. You can find any genre of food on any street corner so I think that that’s something we would like to bring here, serving our food. and be a part of the culture and help it get to where it can be. Right now we go to Jackson Square in North Augusta. We feed a lot of folks from Medac that just moved into that building. The old Fort Discovery Building, which is now Unisys, we go there once a week and then we go to University of Phoenix. We see some Troy University students and a lot of financial companies that have businesses around there that come visit us. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, I keep completely open. We use it mostly for big events, concerts, catering and whatever I can find use for it.
A: Are the services that you offer based on the natural expansion of your business or from a community need for the services?
H: It’s kind of a loaded question I think. I think where we’re located here in the heart of the medical community. Us branching out and being more of a catering business, was just an organic thing that happened being in location that we’re in. Also, we had a retail store along with the restaurant on Laney Walker and when my dad and I decided to just do the food service part and I went to culinary school, he was kinda here, both working full time, but our process of business, going from food service and retail to just into food, that process just drew us to be pro catering and also have the restaurant running full time.
A: It does sound like it was a need?
H: Definitely. It’s our bread and butter as far as catering goes, especially the wedding business. At GRU (now Augusta University) we fed 1600 people this weekend, so its a necessity.
A: What was the event for GRU?
H: We did their White Coat ceremony. That one was about 900 people, so that was the majority of what we did.
A: Who is Ms. Pearl, and how famous is Ms. Pearls Famous Fried Chicken and Squash Casserole?
H: We’ll background real quick, I think Ms. Pearl started with my grandfather in 1951 and she was 14 or 15 years old. She still comes to work today, five days a week, from 11am to 2pm. She’s the first person that people see when they walk in at her Hot Bar. She oversees most of what goes on now. She’s not back in the kitchen a ton, but if something’s not the way its supposed to look, she’ll let people know about it. She’s our Quality Control and the face of the business and she has been for a long time. As far as her Squash Casserole, its by far the number #1 vegetable we serve. For lunch we do, on average a day, probably 60 to 70 servings, that folks want during lunchtime. The Fried Chicken’s been number #1 seller, for a meat, for decades, so if you ask me, yes I would say it’s famous. If you ask anybody in Augusta, they really know who Ms. Pearl is. I think that’s pretty cool.
A: Yeah, I read when people think of Fat Man’s Cafe, they think of Ms. Pearl. I think its really awesome to have someone around that really knows your business.
H: Yeah, its neat. She is a huge asset to us today. Even now, I’ll go home and lay in bed and be like “God, if something happens to Ms. Pearl, what are we gonna do? Who’s gonna be in that place and watch that food come out and know exactly how it’s supposed to look and how it’s supposed to taste”.
You can train somebody all you want, but there’s no way to replace 70 years of working at the same business (laughs aloud). You’re hear like 20 or 30 years and you’re like “Man, those people have been working a long time at that place,” but 70 years, that is a feat.
A: She’s gonna have a plaque when its all said and done.
H: A Statue!
(we’re both laughing aloud)
A: What’s you’re favorite food?
H: You know, I have a lot of favorite foods here. By far I take a lot of pride in being in a culinary assembler. What I enjoy most is long process cooking like smoking, curing meat, so what we serve everyday, I would say by far, our pulled pork is the process that I take the most pride in and enjoy eating personally.
A: I know you mentioned culinary school, have you had a hand in any of the recipes?
H: Oh yeah. Me and another guy who has become my sous chef here does all of our recipes and documenting too. So we, on a daily basis, are adjusting things or coming up with new recipes. We run different specials weekly, sometimes monthly and those are all documented. We are always messing around with recipes and catering is a never-ending documenting of recipes because the items are so endless, so we’ve got a pretty big dictionary full of stuff.
A: What are some of the recipes you haven’t made any changes to?
H: The first would be the fried chicken. We do a very different way. Its almost like a liquid batter, so the fried chicken recipe has never changed. The macaroni and cheese has never changed at all and the squash casserole has never changed. Those three are what come to mind. Most of the other things, as far as sides, I would say we’ve tinkered with it at some point in time.
A: As a long standing pillar in Augusta, what community programs do you participate in or are you affiliated with?
H: Oh gosh, a lot of them. We try to help out where we can. Both of our churches, my dad’s church and my church which is True North and Trinity on the Hill where we try to give back as much as we can. Just this week, after the 900 people we fed, I had 11 full pans of chicken, potatoes and green beans left over so we went straight over to Garden City Rescue Mission and we froze a bunch of that food and they feed a bunch of people. So we take a lot of leftovers there. We try to only participate with them and we make the most use of the food working with one homeless shelter that can help get that food to folks that really need it. Augusta University, whenever they ask, we try to do our best to really give back to them. Its really endless the amount of programs we’ve been associated with and the nonprofits we try to help.
A: Yeah, I was wondering if you working with any other nonprofits in particular?
H: You name it, we’ve probably done something with them. Ronald McDonald House comes to mind. There’s so many in Augusta, Georgia and they’re all unique in their own way and if it’s financial feasible, we do our best to help out.
A: How can people reach you?
H: Fat Man’s Mill Cafe and Catering: 1450 Greene Street Ste. 600 Augusta, GA 30901 (Mon-Fri 8:30am to 3pm)
Facebook: Fat Man’s Mill Cafe & Catering and Enterprise Mill Events & Catering
Instagram: @fatmanscafe & @enterprisemillevents
Twitter: @fat_mans_cafe & @enterprisemillevents