Mr. George Barber of Fresh Air Barbecue
John Buckner: How old is Fresh Air BBQ?
George Barber: Actually not 100% sure, 1929? They think it started in 1928, but the original establishment date is 1928.
John Buckner: Who was the original owner?
George Barber: An old veterinarian named Dr. Watkins in Jackson, and he basically BBQ’d many items including goat & whatever they could find because times were difficult back in the Depression.
Jenna Jackson: Is this the original location?
George Barber: Original location, two buildings.
Jenna Jackson: What exactly is the lineage of the owner?
George Barber: My grandfather…George Caston bought it from the estate of Dr. Watkins in the early ‘40s. Dr. Watkins was here until he passed. He was there until 1996 and worked everyday until he was 90 years old.
Jeanette Crawford: Why was he interested in getting into the BBQ business?
George Barber: Interesting question—that I don’t know the answer to. He had already had a BBQ location, and it was something he was interested in doing and that he liked doing, and he had a gas station and BBQ place in Jenkinsburg, which is about fifteen miles north of Jackson.
Jeanette Crawford: Where are you from originally?
George Barber: From Jackson.
Jeanette Crawford: Is this where your grandfather from?
George Barber: He was, and his father was from here, too. So it dates back to the 1800’s.
John Buckner: Did you grow up knowing you were going to run the family business?
George Barber: Well, not necessarily, and as a matter of fact, he didn’t want me to do this. He would’ve preferred for me to do something else. I worked here when I was growing up. I started when I was ten working summers and then up until I was eighteen. And then went I off to school for a few years and came back working full time.
John Buckner: As far as the food, what is unique about Fresh Air BBQ? Are you vinegar based or mustard based, that sort of thing?
George Barber: Well, it’s vinegar ketchup, and it’s the exact same sauce that’s been used since the ‘40s. The way it’s been cooked has also been the same. Actually, in the ‘40s they used an open pit on the floor and used coals to burn down the wood down outside in a 55 gallon barrel. They cut a hole in the bottom and put a grate in it and put wood on the top and let the coals burn down and put the coals underneath the meat. If you’re familiar with the way people do it at home, now they build a little rack and elevate it with cement blocks and put coals down and put the meat on the rack. That’s the way it started out here, but then the health department dictated a change with that in the early’ 40s, so he came up with an enclosed cooking area which is what we use today.
Jeanette Crawford: What kind of wood do you use, cedar or …?
George Barber: We use hickory and oak. Sometimes we might use pecan but basically hickory. And the different woods give different flavors, and you know the “Texas” type BBQ is mesquite, which gives it a distinct flavor, too. But we have no mesquite wood in this area, but if we do, it would give it a distinct flavor too, which we have. Wood is very important, and how long you cook it and what you cook tends to dictate what flavor you have.
John Buckner: Is this something y’all do in house, that you collect the wood off your own property?
George Barber: No, that’s something we purchase. It’s getting to be a difficult thing to do. I don’t know if you see the woodpile out there, but we use full size pulp wood, four foot lengths in the pit we have here, which is somewhat different than what everyone else here does. It takes a lot of wood, which is a constant process to obtain wood.
John Buckner: As far as your sauce and what you do, every BBQ restaurant has something secret passed down through the family, that’s hush hush. What is it about your BBQ that makes it unique, that you can tell us or will tell us?
George Barber: Well, I think sauces certainly are unique to certain areas. Mustard based is kind of a South Carolina thing, and I think sauce is kind of localized to that extent. What we have here is what we’ve used for 70+ years, and it’s something that’s universally liked. We do survey’s and not one sauce will satisfy everyone’s taste, but this seems to be universally liked, and so therefore we have kept our sauce the same.
But as far as BBQ in general, I guess you can say what we use is different than what most people use now. People use cookers and gas to cook with and use some wood to smoke with. We strictly do all of ours with the wood, and it’s a process that takes a good bit of time. It’s a process that takes 18-24 hours to cook our meat. It retains more moisture, and the type of meat a lot of BBQ businesses use is a product of a shoulder of a pig or a Boston butt. Shoulder has a lot higher fat content than a ham would have, which is what we use and always have used. We use high in the shoulder and it also takes longer to cook them. A shoulder or Boston butt would be in the neighborhood of 5-6 pounds and a ham is 15-20 pounds so it takes a good bit more time. The yield is better from a ham and has less fat content, and therefore it is a healthier product, too. But you have to be carful of the moisture content of a ham because you don’t want to dry it out, so to speak.
Jeanette Crawford: I was wondering if you used slaw on your sandwich. I know that in Columbus they do.
George Barber: We don’t do that. We seldom put stuff on our sandwiches. But we would sell them a slaw on the side, and they can certainly do whatever they wish with it. It’s nothing that I think, I like it on my sandwich. I guess one reason we don’t do that is because when we are busy it slows down moving your customers through. So therefore it means more time in line for everybody. We try to keep it simple here. Our Macon location does some things there that we don’t do here. Ribs, chicken and beans but our setup there is a little bit different. This is kind of limited here because we never really wanted to remodel. What we have here, we wanted to keep it original, and we don’t have the room to remodel. In essence, we’re trying to keep our customers moving in a timely manner, so therefore things like pickles—we don’t do any of that. Basically, you do it on your own if that’s what you want to do. We try to keep it simple so we can move volumes of people through.
John Buckner: So you said you do things different in Macon than you do here because you are wanting to keep things original. What us the typical plate at the Fresh Air in Jackson? What do you get on the plate.
George Barber: Everything you get there, you get here: the meat, the stew, crackers and slaw. That’s the basic plate we have. Chicken, ribs and beans is what we don’t do here, but we do there. We have a pit there that’s identical in size and structure as the one here. So we cook there too.
John Buckner: How long has the one in Macon been open?
George Barber: We got our twentieth year this year
Jenna Jackson: As the owner what is your typical day usually like?
George Barber: Well, depending on what day it is. Obviously our weekends are our busiest days in both locations. Mostly, I work here on weekends and on weekdays in Macon. My day starts at 6:30. It takes time to get things going: meat, things like that are already prepped for the day. Our employees come in around 8, doing those items. My day starts at 6:30 and ends at closing time around 8 or 9, depending on which day it is. My duties would be: putting meat on, checking meat, and doing those types of things. And then I would do managerial duties as far as checking up on things and making sure you have everything you ordered.
Clara Densmore: I know you said that there was a building over there. Are they originals? Is this an extension?
George Barber: It is! This was built in 1984. We just needed an extra room. It's worked our well, we use it for meetings on weekdays, but it stays pretty busy on weekends.
Jenna Jackson: What got you interested in BBQ, why did you take over the business?
George Barber: Well, I guess like I said I grew up with it, and I went to school. I went to Gordon over in Barnesville, and then I went to UGA for 2 years and majored in economics. And I really didn’t have anything that interested me anymore than this. Basically, I came in, my grandfather was 70, and I guess he was ready to retire. So it kind of worked out in that aspect.
John Buckner: So your grandfather ran the business. What did your dad do?
George Barber: Well, my dad--this was my granddad on my mother’s side--my father was in the wood business. He mainly cut and purchased timber and owned some land, building supplies, well drillin’, and a number of other things. He passed away when he was 40, and I was 10. He had a heart problem from rheumatic fever when he was young. He was born in 1929, and he was 5 years old and had strep throat. Back then you didn’t have antibiotics to cure the strep which turned into rheumatic fever, which affects the heart muscles. He had heart surgery when he was 40 and didn’t make it through that.
Jeanette Crawford: So what year did you take over?
George Barber: 1981.
Jeanette Crawford: When did y’all spread to Macon?
George Barber: It was in ’89.
Jeanette Crawford: So you were a part of that?
George Barber: Right.
Jeanette Crawford: What made you want to spread your wings out?
George Barber: We had a good customer base in Macon. We did purchase a property in Athens prior to that, and we do now have a location in Athens that my cousin runs. For us to operate two businesses--Athens is 70 miles away and Macon is 35--so it made a lot more sense to go that direction to start off with. So that’s the reason we went to Macon. And we had looked and are still looking for other locations. But it’s more difficult to do franchises with BBQ than it is with hamburgers, because burgers you put it on bread and cook it three minutes on one side and three minutes on the other. But this takes more planning to do. It doesn’t take six minutes and you’re ready to go. It’s more difficult to manage and takes someone with experience to do that. That’s one of the reasons we really haven’t branched out more.
John Buckner: Where do the customers for this facility come from? Do you find a lot of people from Macon coming here because it is the original?
George Barber: We get people from Macon that come here. We draw from a 75 mile radius for the most part. But then again we get people coming from all across the U.S., and I think what facilitated was back in the 60s they were constructing I-75, and as it progressed South, all the I-75 traffic was driving through Jackson for a number of years. So when you got down 75, you had to get off and get on a two lane road--which this is the main road right here for years--so we got a lot of people compared to the other restaurants in Jackson. A large number of people came through here and ate here during the ‘60s, and they continue to come back. And also there’s two state parks here, and people come here in the spring, and they just tend to come back. It’s not uncommon to have someone come in and say, “the last time I was here was 10, 20, 30, years ago.” So you need to have them back more quickly, but it’s nice to have them back.
Clara Densmore: What other cities are you looking into?
George Barber: Mainly in the Henry county part--like McDonough, Stockbridge--and looked in South GA. Probably would be somewhere within 100 miles.
Jenna Jackson: What awards have you received for your BBQ?
George Barber: I guess our biggest award was in the mid 80’s when the AJC and WSB Channel 2 in Atlanta had a contest, and we were fortunate enough to win that. They actually featured all of the old BBQ restaurants in GA. At that time we were the oldest, but we are probably the oldest: us, and then Fincher’s in Macon, and Sprayberry’s over in Newnan. You send your vote in for your favorite restaurants, and we won that. That was a big boost because we were featured in the AJC and that was probably our biggest award. In Southern Living Magazine we’ve been written up and in the New York Times. Most recently was the best BBQ in Macon last year. But we’ve had numerous publications and writings. We have been fortunate to have good public relations.
Clara Densmore: Who came up with the original technique for the BBQ?
George Barber: My grandfather. Our Brunswick stew is unique. Nobody else really has it like we do. We use his dad’s recipe. The stew, the meat, and the sauce have been the same recipe for 70 years.
John Buckner: When does the food come from now--for the pork to become BBQ?
George Barber: All ours come from the Midwest, Indiana. We’ve looked in every direction from big suppliers up in North Carolina and Virginia--a lot of big hogs raised there. We find that the best as far as the content, leanness, and quality of the meat come from Indiana. Up to five, six, seven years ago, we bought locally from Fitzgerald, Ga. We had a packer in Hound, Ga. So they got all their meat in Central Georgia. There out of business now--things have changed. Go to the store and see a vacuum packed bag that extends the shelf life. That was something the small packers couldn’t do, a product that won’t last as long without it being frozen.
John Buckner: I grew up in rural Georgia, and every year we would kill a hog, and it was a big deal. That was one of the things we’ve talked about in class. The weekend events for sharecroppers and slaves was killing a hog in the winter, and you would stretch it as long as you could. You would kill only 1 or 2 hogs or about 300 lbs. As a restaurant, how much do you go though?
George Barber: We probably go through somewhere in the neighborhood of 2225 lbs. per week. It would be two hundred plus hams. In some ways, its amazing how all these things work out: get a piece of meat, a ham or what ever it might be. They are obligated to use the whole pig. Ham is something they don’t sell a lot of, but places like us, we are the ham market. Whether it’s the loins or the bacon, and it can be sold too. What I’m trying to say is, how we can take a whole pig and use all of it efficiently without wasting one piece or another.
John Buckner: Have there been up and downs in the consumption of BBQ that you’ve seen? Southern culture is fading out. Do you think BBQ is a southern identifier, and do you see it fading out?
George Barber: I think it is a southern thing, and I think it’s more popular than it ever been. You certainly see more chains that are doing it now. Like one in Macon, several newer ones that are doing BBQ. Even your mid-level places, like Longhorn, are smoking things now, too. More people than it’s ever been. As far as demand, we haven’t ever had a lack of demand. It’s always been a steady growth, and the market has expanded in the last ten years.
As far as in ways of doing it, I think they are going away with the use of commercial cookers. Nobody builds pits anymore. The main reason is people don’t know how to operate it if they had it, and the second reason being with a commercial cooker they can throw the product in the oven and turn it on 200˚ or 250˚ or whatever, and they put it on the thermostat and come back in five hours. It doesn’t take any skill.
Jeanette Crawford: Some people see the evolution of food being a good thing, and others as a negative. You spoke of BBQ evolving our time. Do you see this as a positive thing, or is it a negative?
George Barber: I would say it would be a negative. I would guess a large number of people like to come here and view our pit. Last summer, Dan Cathy, Truett Cathy’s son [Cathy is the founder of Chic-fil-A], came over here and ate, and he was very interested in touring what we did and how we did it. A lot of people want to see what you do and how you do it. It’s totally different from what 90% of other places do now. I would say were getting away from that aspect of it. I think that foods still good. But it’s very rare that you’ll go somewhere and see food cooked in a traditional manner.
Jeanette Crawford: Do you think that not cooking BBQ in a traditional manner is losing the essence of BBQ?
George Barber: I would say it would seem that you can certainly duplicate a product, but it does taste different from what someone else would do. But I think you would be losing that aspect of what it was to begin with. Quite frankly, even now most people that eat any food don’t know what they’re eating and probably don’t want to what there eating. It’s just so convenient. It’s really a miracle that you can go to any grocery store in any town of the U.S. and get anything you want. That is sort of along the lines of electricity and water when things 100 years ago weren’t that way. A typical grocery store would have sugar, flour, coffee and a few staples like those and the rest you were on your own. My grandparents on my father’s side were in the grocery business for 75 years. They ate what they raised, and I remember my grandmother would have the preacher over for Sunday dinner. They’d go out and grab a chicken and ring the neck and have it for lunch, I assume. People don’t realize what they’re eating.
John Buckner: Do you eat BBQ everyday?
George Barber: I probably eat it once a week, maybe more and that’s another thing. It probably wouldn’t be eaten as frequently as other foods. Our average customer eats it every ten days or two weeks as opposed to everyday. Some people do, a guy that sold furniture would come in here everyday and eat sandwiches and stew for years and years. So you can, but I don’t think people eat it everyday.
Jenna Jackson: We’ve talked about Jim Crowe a lot in our class. How did you deal with African American clientele? Was it segregated or not?
George Barber: It actually was. It kind of evolved in that way. We had an entrance in the back to where the African American people came in. What was ironic is that they got faster service than the other people. People still come in the back door, even though most of the older people have passed. I only saw the tail end of that in the’ 70s, but up until the ‘60s it was prevalent.
Jeanette Crawford: When you walk into work, what is the best thing you look forward to?
George Barber: Having a college student at Mercer…that’s an interesting question, I don’t know. I’ve always been motivated. I’m an early morning person, and I’m geared to get up and go and that’s what I do. Sometimes you would rather be doin’ something else. But, all-in-all, I’ve been doin’ this full time for 27-28 years, so it’s the same thing but different things are going on. What you want to accomplish at the end of the day is a good product and satisfied customers. Gotta start there, and that’s what we strive to do. I do other things, too…real estate. It’s not all BBQ all the time.
Jeanette Crawford: Touching on the commercial aspect, do you have certain people that come in, and do you recognize them?
George Barber: Well, I don’t think I would say that. We do have regular people that come in, and the thing that’s unique about this restaurant is you would see people of all economic and socioeconomic backgrounds in here at one time. It’s been more of a blending thing: blue collar, white collar workers, doctors, lawyers. It’s always been that way, and in other restaurants you might not see that.
John Buckner: Can anyone learn to BBQ?
George Barber: Anybody can learn anything. It takes time obviously and to have some “on the job” training. Just blend a lot of different skills and wear a lot of different hats, but it’s something that anyone can do.
John Buckner: We appreciate you talking time out of your day to talk with us today.