Furniture makes way for food

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On any given afternoon, you can find George Harrison wandering around Ninth and Broad streets between his two restaurants, The Boll Weevil Cafe and Beamie's at the River.

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George Harrison, owner of The Boll Weevil.
George Harrison, owner of The Boll Weevil.

The 61-year-old Augusta native has spent his whole life working downtown, with a good part of it as a restaurateur.

"The restaurant business is incredibly addictive," he said.

It wasn't always this way for Mr. Harrison. He ran his family's furniture store business -- a business he never really wanted -- until his early 40s.

By then, the business was sold, he was recently divorced and looking for a new opportunity. He decided to get some use out of his family's once-thriving cotton warehouse on Ninth Street.

Mr. Harrison and his business partner, Laurie Hudson, never really had a business plan, a theme or a clear vision of what The Boll Weevil Cafe would be.

Almost two decades later, though, the eclectic little eatery has a following and Mr. Harrison spends his days running a place he loves.

"If you hate it, you wouldn't stay in it three weeks," he said.

Family business

George Harrison was born into the furniture business in 1946. His father, Fred, had just returned from service in World War II and had taken over the T.R. Maxwell furniture store on Broad Street that was partly owned by his grandmother.

The elder Mr. Harrison had been a lawyer but ended up owning the business after all the other stakeholders died.

Fred Harrison worked long hours. George Harrison said he usually saw his father only on weekends. (The family furniture business would later go on to consume him, too, according to his son, William.) George's parents were divorced by the time he turned 6, causing a lot of pent-up anger over feeling "abnormal" in an era in which divorce was less common.

"Like a lot of children in divorced families, I had a lot of anger and I didn't know why," he said.

By age 12, he was spending his summers and weekends with his father, learning the ropes at Maxwell's in the 1100 block of Broad Street.

At work, he would unload the delivery truck, a task he enjoyed because it allowed him to meet people from all walks of life and exposed him to all areas of town.

Over time, he said, he started to realize that his family wasn't abnormal.

"Every family has all kinds of problems," he said. "I am not more abnormal than anyone else."

At 18, he headed off to the University of Georgia, where he was a business major focusing on insurance.

"Funny, I never ended up working in that business at all," he said.

After spending much of college in ROTC (which helped him stay in school during the Vietnam War and meant a higher rank when he left), he headed to Europe as an officer in the Army.

He spent the next 30 months in Germany, he said, managing half of the Army's telephone system in Europe. It was a wonderful experience, he said, because he got to live in Europe and perform the kind of job most 22-year-olds don't get in the civilian world.

He knew it wasn't what he wanted in the long run.

"I'd never thought of being in the military as a career," he said. "I never imagined myself as being an Army officer."

Learning the ropes

Fresh out of the service in 1972, Mr. Harrison came back to Augusta, but he wasn't exactly allowed to sit around and contemplate his future.

Within days, he said, his family was pestering him to get to work, giving him no time to sort out his plans. Within a week, he found himself back at his father's store as the manager.

"I came out ... with no real plan," he said. "So there it was."

The father-son team wasn't always harmonious, he said. He didn't always see eye-to-eye with his father, who he said was demanding and who rarely doled out praise.

Mr. Harrison always felt shy and non-confrontational, and knew his father expected more of him than from other employees. Though he admired that his dad always tried to help his employees -- a loan to fix a broken-down car, for example -- "if you were healthy and fine, you better be working," he said.

Augusta changed considerably when Augusta and Regency malls opened in 1978, draining downtown of its department stores and shoppers.

Even so, Mr. Harrison said, loyal customers kept T.R. Maxwell's open and even growing into the early 1980s. Though it was a solid family business, one he learned from, he found himself itching to get out.

"I kept telling myself I was going to leave," he said, but it was the family business, and day after day, he found himself at Maxwell's.

In the late 1980s, Heilig-Meyer Furniture bought the chain of stores Maxwell's was part of, and Mr. Harrison and his father began selling it off to the company. It was a good time, as his father was ready to step down and Mr. Harrison was ready to move on.

It took four or five years to finish the sale, he said jokingly, because his father was happy to take his time selling the last pieces of furniture in a business he'd worked in for much of his life.

After it was sold, he said, George Harrison was finished with the furniture business.

"When I got out of the furniture business, I said 'That's it for the suit and tie,' " he said.

One side effect of the sale was that he and his father grew closer. The family business that had been a source of stress between them was no longer there.

Father and son made their peace in the years leading up to Fred Harrison's death in 2004.

The tension that existed between them was mirrored in George's home life, culminating in the dissolution of his marriage in 1986, which left his young son and daughter to grow up in a divorced household, as he had as a child.

The difficult situation grew worse a few years later when his ex-wife remarried and moved the children to Beaufort, S.C.

"You can't just run over and see them," he said, and so he missed many of their sports events and other activities.

To help that, Mr. Harrison bought a beach house on Hilton Head Island, S.C., so that he and his children could meet for weekend and holiday visits.

These days, William Harrison, who helped out at The Boll Weevil as a child, has taken a few years off from school to help manage Beamie's, the restaurant that his father bought a few years ago. George's daughter, Anna, is in the real estate business in Tampa, Fla. He said he is proud of the adults they have become.

Looking for direction

After leaving the furniture business, Mr. Harrison spent much of his time managing his family's real estate holdings around town but itched for more challenging work.

He earned a master's degree in education at Augusta College (adding to the master's degree in business administration that he had already earned there) and toyed with the idea of becoming a counselor.

For a man who spent his whole life working downtown, though, he couldn't resist the opportunity to participate in its revitalization.

"He's real interested in preservation," said Historic Augusta Executive Director Erick Montgomery, who worked with him when Mr. Harrison was chairman of the board. "He's one of those people I never had to explain it to ... that's a little unusual."

Mr. Harrison was also active with organizations including the Augusta Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Richmond County Coliseum Authority and the Greater Augusta Arts Council.

Downtown commerce wasn't exactly bustling when Mr. Harrison began considering the family's vacant warehouses on Ninth Street near the riverfront in the late 1980s.

"You could walk out on Broad in the middle of a Saturday afternoon, and not see a car parked or moving for blocks," he said.

Constructed as cotton warehouses, the buildings were used for inventory storage when the family operated the furniture business. The buildings, and a young entrepreneur, helped Mr. Harrison write the next chapter of his life.

The new venture

Laurie Hudson was a junior at the University of Georgia interested in owning a restaurant like the one her aunt ran in Saluda, S.C.

"I figured if she could do it, I could do it," she said.

Ms. Hudson's family knew Mr. Harrison from church. They soon began talking about opening a restaurant in the Harrison family's 150-year-old riverfront property, although neither had any real food-service experience except for Ms. Hudson's waitressing job at Dairy Queen.

"I call it a privilege of youth and not knowing any better," she said. "Not knowing enough to be scared."

Mr. Harrison acknowledges that he was just as naive.

"I was acting a little bit stupid," he said with a smile. "I was thinking my experience in the furniture business would help me in the restaurant business."

Their first business purchase, a crushed-ice machine, was made two years before The Boll Weevil opened. Ms. Hudson said her half was $200 -- a lot of money for a college kid.

"It was the first sign of going into the business," she said.

They hired a general contractor to get the warehouse in order, but Ms. Hudson put in many hours of sweat equity by painting and caulking. Mr. Harrison poured thousands of dollars into the fledgling cafe.

The Boll Weevil served only beer and popcorn when it opened in the summer of 1990. It occupied only one room (the room with the fireplace) and was limited by fire codes to a maximum occupancy of 25 people (the current seating capacity is 100).

"It was so small, I didn't know if it would even work," William Harrison said.

Construction workers building the nearby Radisson would come in to play pool after their shift ended.

"A good night was $80," Mr. Harrison said. "A bad night was $50."

The restaurant reopened in 1991 with an expanded menu that was created from employee and customer suggestions.

It was a bit of trial and error, of course. The first loaves of The Boll Weevil's bread had the consistency of shoe leather, George Harrison said.

The restaurant started off with a lasagna recipe courtesy of Ms. Hudson's mother, Ann Blalock, amd a vegetable soup that came from Ms. Blalock's sister-in-law. At other times, the staffers might concoct something and add it to the menu.

Ms. Blalock -- who handled the books, cooked, washed dishes and served customers until 1999 -- said she left her job at SunTrust to give her daughter a boost.

"I really wanted to try to help her get started, because she and George were just kind of flying by the seat of their pants," she said.

Business from the local hotels always helped. The Boll Weevil also got by on loyal customers and the medical district, which supplied the restaurant with lunchtime traffic, including longtime customer Bernard Davidson, a professor of psychiatry and health behavior professor at the Medical College of Georgia.

"Tiny and friendly with a big 'F,' " Dr. Davidson said. "Very inviting. Real down-home. The food was always excellent and very reasonable."

The restaurant was also smoke-free, something a bit unusual in the early 1990s.

"I remember people telling Laurie, 'You'll never make it. You've got to have a smoking area,' " Ms. Blalock said.

Despite the positive feedback and a small group of regular customers, operations were a struggle as there was no corporate manual on how to bargain with vendors or handle the hiring and firing of employees.

"I feel like it took us four years to figure out what we were really doing," Ms. Hudson said.

It was six years before The Boll Weevil turned a profit, said Mr. Harrison, who put about $350,000 into the restaurant during that time.

Becoming a fixture

Over time, the one-room cafe expanded into adjacent rooms, and an outdoor deck that permitted smoking was added. The deck was rebuilt and made part of the interior space after a 1996 fire -- caused by a smoldering cigarette left in a plant -- dealt $25,000 in damage and left burn marks that are still visible today.

Around that time, Ms. Hudson decided she wanted to try running the restaurant on her own.

Mr. Harrison, who said there was barely enough profit to split, took a step back as Ms. Hudson and her husband operated The Boll Weevil until 2000.

The menu, decorum and atmosphere evolved with the customers and took on a life of its own. Regular customers began to turn into friends.

"You got to feel like they were family," Ms. Blalock said. "They were so faithful. You got to know them and their personal things that were going on in their lives."

The four-year ownership left Ms. Hudson exhausted and looking for a new career.

"It does get stressful," she said. "You can only do it for so long. I was probably working 60-hour weeks."

Except for college in Athens, Ms. Hudson had lived her whole life in Augusta.

She decided it was time for a change of scenery and, after handing the keys back over to Mr. Harrison in 2000, she moved to Charlotte, N.C., and went into the real estate business.

Mr. Harrison said he was ready.

"I wanted back in," he said.

At the helm

With the restaurant his sole responsibility, Mr. Harrison took on another expansion project that included plumbing and electrical system upgrades. He even attended refrigeration classes at Aiken Technical College to learn how to make repairs to the restaurant's appliances.

In 2003, he turned part of the building into a bakery. The cafe is now well-known in the area for its desserts, such as the 7th Heaven Cake or the Turtle Crunch Cheesecake.

After almost two decades, The Boll Weevil has become something of a fixture. Donna Thompson, the owner of Ninth Street Wine Market (which she started as a dress shop within the same building around the time the restaurant opened), said she often gives people directions to her store by telling them she's next to The Boll Weevil.

Mr. Harrison can be found on most days on Ninth Street, at The Boll Weevil or Beamie's, which is where he seems to have the most luck. The sandwich and wrap restaurant that he opened in the Martinez area in 2003, Skyline Cafe, closed after two years of flat sales.

Mr. Harrison said he didn't understand the suburban market as well as the downtown market. He is sitting on 2.2 acres on Owens Road in Columbia County, near the Target and Kohl's-anchored Mullins Crossing shopping center, where he contemplated building a second Boll Weevil business.

The Skyline experience worried him, however, and for now, he isn't sure what that property will become.

Mr. Harrison isn't too worried about heavy expansion or development of a high-end, fine-dining restaurant.

He seems to revel in the quirkiness and eclectic nature of the riverside cafe, where Jack Johnson is on the radio and hot coffee is always in the pot.

Mr. Harrison and Ms. Hudson never really had a theme or idea in mind when they first opened The Boll Weevil, and really, it's about the customers who have been so loyal to the cafe.

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