Fat Man's lives on

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He's the thin man behind Fat Man's.

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Brad Usry stands outside Fat Man's Cafe, on Laney-Walker Boulevard. Mr. Usry is considering Broad Street and Walton Way as places to move the business.  Kendrick Brinson/Staff
Kendrick Brinson/Staff
Brad Usry stands outside Fat Man's Cafe, on Laney-Walker Boulevard. Mr. Usry is considering Broad Street and Walton Way as places to move the business.

Although he has acted in a few of his son's short films, Brad Usry's most notable role may be that of the son of the Fat Man. Along with his sister Jan Stuntz, they reign over a realm that is nearly gone.

One icon of Laney-Walker Boulevard is already gone -- Fat Man's Forest was demolished in June. Before the end of August, Fat Man's Cafe will be moving.

And next to the 60-year-old restaurant is the grocery store that started it all, still emblazoned with smiling caricature of Horace "Fat Man" Usry Sr., who has been dead since 1976.

"He was a character," Brad said of his father. "He was an entrepreneur and marketer before those words meant anything."

Jan said there is a lot of the father in the son.

"He's creative. He can whip out a poem ... he's an innovator, he likes to try new things," she said.

And the youngest of the Fat Man's four children has built his own mini-empire of downtown Augusta eateries.

"Brad's always looking for a deal," said friend Will McKnight. "They were going to tear down Fat Chow, he said, 'Naw, turn it into something better' and got into the restaurant business."

Fat Chow is not the only nickname for the Laney-Walker restaurant. Older residents remember it as The Pit from the days Horace Usry ran it as a barbecue.

"He's so competitive he takes on the challenge to make it happen. Brad is going to figure out a way to do it," Mr. McKnight said.

Brad adapts to whatever the customer needs, even in the smallest catered group.

"A lot of that comes from him being in the service-retail business all his life," Mr. McKnight said. "He realizes if you don't do a good job, they won't call you back."

Insurance agent Preston Moss said his friend has a similar problem: "He has a lot of difficulty, as I do, saying no to people ... any nonprofit event if he's asked to help, the answer is always yes."

Much of the 49-year-old Augusta native's civic-mindedness revolves around the riverwalk, whether it be the Arts in the Heart of Augusta festival or July Fourth fireworks.

"So many things that we started are the staples of riverwalk," Brad said. "Arts in the Heart used to be in a parking lot of the municipal building. They needed a major sponsor, so we anteed up and wrote them a check each year."

The business helped fund fireworks and parades.

It didn't stop there. Mr. Moss said Brad was involved in the Augusta Golf and Garden funding by heading a group to raise money to keep it going when state funding dried up.

"They're just good people," Mr. Moss said.

Fat corner

The Fat Man's corner built itself up over the years. Horace Usry took over his father Darnell's grocery store, changing the name from Sanitary Curb Market to Fat Man's Corner in reflection of his nickname. In the late 1940s, the restaurant appeared as a natural extension into food service.

"He was a big man, they called him Fat Man, but I don't ever remember him being fat fat," Jan said.

Fat Man's Forest was the brainchild of Horace Usry and a New York business that told him he needed to sell Christmas trees.

What followed was a domino effect, Brad said. Christmas decorations were added to the merchandise. Then came Halloween decorations, then costume rentals, flowers, party supplies, holiday lighting.

Each new line of products demanded its own space, resulting in extensions to the building. The larger holiday merchandise store would eventually spread into the nearby residential neighborhood. Five houses were removed to make space.

Today, what is left of the store is in a large blue shipping container on the site.

"You can never duplicate that. You can duplicate square footage, but that feel that you had on Laney-Walker, you can't duplicate," Brad said.

What spelled the demise of the business wasn't the death of mother Carolyn Usry last year. The sale of the business had been in the works for seven years.

As was the case of Fat Man's West in Martinez, which closed in 2005, the land became more valuable than the business, he explained. Part of the cleared land is already being rented off as parking space for the Medical College of Georgia, which will buy the Fat Man's corner through an affiliated real estate corporation.

To the surviving Usry children, it means the loss of their childhood home. They grew up only two blocks from the corner, but the grocery store was as much "home base" as the house, Brad said.

While memories are a hodgepodge of good times, Brad recalls his father's passion in supporting athletic teams. If a team won a big game, the Fat Man would bring the players down to the grocery in celebration, slicing watermelons and handing then half dollar coins -- a big deal in the 1960s.

Brad was 17 when his father died. Older brother Horace Jr., took over the grocery and briefly ran another whole foods concept grocery on Monte Sano -- delivering food and putting it in the pantry for the customer. He's now a wholesale broker in Baltimore.

The Forest became a mother-daughter business until Brad graduated from Augusta College.

He was supposed to get his business degree in 1981, but his mother told him to drop out for the fall quarter to help at the store during the busy holiday season. "You can go in the spring and finish up when we don't need you down here," she told him.

Fat Man's Forest did 68 percent of its business from October to December. Summertime work was preparing the store for the holiday. Buying merchandise, stacking it, displaying it, those are the parts of the business that won't be missed, Brad said. The customers were what they loved.

"It took a lot of management because the biz had so many fingers," Brad said.

Brad said his entrance into the family business allowed his mother the time to get into politics. Carolyn Usry was in city service for more than 14 years. She was instrumental in the creation of Riverwalk Augusta.

Business needs

Pieces of the old Forest have been sold off. The lighting sideline business now belongs to a business-forms salesman.

There's always a chance that the holiday and party merchandise store can return.

"Right now we want the dust to settle," Brad said. "We've had a great run at that location. A great 60 years."

There is a sentimentality about selling the land and demolishing the buildings.

"It was a tug of war with my sister and I about it," he said. "We knew it was the right thing to do ... We grew up here. All my working days have been here."

Jan is handling the last of the accounting paperwork from the shutdown. She said she will remain loosely involved as Brad's business partner.

It was a business that demanded hands-on owners and a lot of time.

Brad said he loved solving problems. "And a small business like that is nothing but a series of small problems. If you enjoy what you're doing, it isn't hard work. When the day was done, it was done. It isn't when the hours are done, it is when the job is done."

The athlete-poet

Brad met his wife, Paige, while they were attending college in the early 1980s.

"I was playing basketball at Augusta college and she was a cheerleader. Athlete-cheerleader story," he said.

There were married 26 years ago, in the same week he got his degree.

She is a fitness and yoga instructor, and they share a love for physical fitness. Brad said his daily workouts are one of his hobbies.

Jan said her brother has always been an athletic person. He had a basketball scholarship at Augusta College.

"He was the leader, at least in my eyes," she said. "He was the one that kept the team pumped up, which he does in his businesses, too."

Given his physique, people not aware of his family connections may find his America Online identity of Fatguy9090 confusing.

"When his children were babies, he used to run with a double stroller, running wide open," Mr. Moss recalled.

Those children are now in their 20s. Havird, the oldest, is recovering from an injury suffered in his quest to become a professional soccer player. Hodges is in school in Savannah, studying to become a filmmaker.

Brad has starred in a few of his son's short films.

"His boys are his passion," Mr. McKnight said. "Whenever Hodges does a competition on YouTube or elsewhere, Brad will send e-mails to all his friends to go vote."

It helps that he's well connected, Mr. Moss said. Most everyone who comes into the restaurant is greeted by name.

"Never been out of Augusta more than a week at a time. This is my little world," Brad said.

Even so, traveling is one of his passions. When his eldest son was in college in Clemson, the traveling was to see him play soccer.

"Even though he went to Augusta State, his blood runs orange. He's a true Clemson fan," Mr. McKnight said.

Mr. McKnight has been on trips with the Usry family, most notably to the British Virgin Islands. They learned to scuba dive together.

Every year a mutual friend in Tortola conducted a treasure hunt, following the clues on boats.

"And of course, Brad won," Mr. McKnight said. "He always wants to win, he's so competitive."

Poetry comes easily for the restaurateur. He draws out his pen for special occasions. It has become more prominent over the last 10 years.

"When my kids were in Richmond Academy, I got involved with sports. Instead of sending notes, I wrote them a poem," Brad said. "It is sort of like a country song, nothing real deep."

Some of them have been moving. He wrote one that went out with the thank you cards after his mother's funeral last April. Some of the recipients have asked permission to use the poem in their owns cards.

Chow down

Fat Man's Cafe's walls are covered in brick and paneling, painted canary yellow, with mirrors and green blinds on the windows. There is space for only 10 tables. The menu boards are as much a decoration as a necessity.

"I wish I could pick this old building up and put it on a corner somewhere," Brad said. But it is falling apart as it is.

He is looking at Broad Street and Walton Way as places to move the business. He wants an old feel for the new Fat Man's Cafe, using as much of the current interior as possible.

"I don't want new and shiny," he said.

He wants to move in August because it is the least busy time for the restaurant.

"People here say please don't close, this is the only place to walk to," Brad explained. "You don't give up a parking place at MCG, so walking distance is important."

The proximity to MCG has been a boon for the restaurant all these years. Brad said his mother was a "psychologist" for years, listening to the medical students vent anxieties.

Just as Fat Man's Forest grew in pieces, so has Brad's restaurant career.

A restaurant on Eighth Street near Reynolds Street called Cotton Road Cafe came and went, but it was the service and taste of the Laney-Walker cafe that led to the other four businesses.

Brad said Clay Boardman approached him while Enterprise Mill was being renovated into the business center it is now. He saw the chance of starting a deli there and took it. He also runs a catering business out of the mill.

The deli in Fort Discovery was next, begun after its director approached him because he liked the food.

"A family friend of ours came to me about trouble with food service at the student center at MCG. We put a bid in for it and won," Brad said. And Fat Man's Too was born.

The most recent expansion was into food service at Forest Hills golf course.

While considering where to relocate the original restaurant, Brad is also contemplating changes for the Fort Discovery deli -- the only restaurant directly on the riverwalk. He wants to make it more business-friendly by adding a wall to separate business customers from the groups of children visiting the science center.

"Nothing will send a business lunch back out the door faster than a room of 200 kids," he said.

As for where Fat Man's Cafe is going, Brad isn't saying yet.

He wanted to keep it within walking distance to MCG, "but property is hard to get at a decent price near the medical college," he said.

The restaurant has a lot of customers who don't set foot in the building, since Fat Man's delivers.

"We're keeping the phone number. Our phone number is as important as the location," Brad said.

The evolution into food service wasn't planned, he said, it just happened.

"My only regret, we've got to develop a brand. Whether menu or name," Brad said. Everything is tied to Fat Man's because of it reputation, but he wants the brand to reflect him, too.

When it comes to recognition factor, there's the cartoon Fat Man. The original silhouette was drawn by Horace Usry and then redone by a local sign maker.

The original logo had the signature pocket watch and cigar.

"He always had a stogie," Brad said. "Later in life, he quit smoking and despised it. He didn't just quit. He hated smoking."

Brad believes that sudden dislike of smoking led to the nation's first smoke-free businesses. There weren't any no-smoking signs to buy back then; he had to make his own.

The common denominator of Brad's success is quality food and friendly service. And the low employee turnover helps, too.

Reach Tim Rausch at (706) 823-3352 or timothy.rausch@augustachronicle.com.

BRAD USRY

BORN: Jan 25, 1959, in Augusta

EDUCATION: Bachelor of business, Augusta State University

FAMILY: Wife, Paige; sons, Havird, Hodges

HOBBIES: Traveling, poetry

'MOM'

(A poem by Brad Usry for his mother Carolyn, who died in 2007)

She lived life with her smile,

Always ready to go the extra mile

She touched so many,

Took so little, gave plenty.

Loved with ease,

Pride, in the ability to please!

She did it "her way"

We wish we had one more day.

She would have been proud of the "Good bye"

Thinking it's just me? "WHY?"

She cherished work, family and friends,

Be comforted now, her new life begins.

Comments (15) Add comment
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im a namechanger 2day
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im a namechanger 2day 07/28/08 - 06:35 am
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Awesome article Paige and

Awesome article Paige and Brad.

nerthus
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nerthus 07/28/08 - 06:57 am
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I wonder if he will open Fat

I wonder if he will open Fat Man's Forest again, I sure miss it during the last Christmas

CKB
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CKB 07/28/08 - 07:05 am
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Beautiful! I have known Jan,

Beautiful! I have known Jan, Brad and Mrs. Carolyn for many years and truly admire them. They always treated people the way you would want to be treated- rare in many businesses today. I am so excited that Fat Man's will be back on some levcel soon. Wish many more businesses would do this as well.... Augusta is just not the same without some of it's history visable. Glad it is going to happen for Fat Man's!

Captain Awesome
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Captain Awesome 07/28/08 - 08:13 am
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Fat Man's Forest was the

Fat Man's Forest was the best! There are lots of open store fronts all over Augusta... And I remember there being a hint that they might reopen.

I4PUTT
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I4PUTT 07/28/08 - 08:49 am
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I grew up going to the curb

I grew up going to the curb market, across the street to the small eatery with the radio station, eating at the Pit, shopping for Christmas trees at Fatmans, even worked there a coule of times, all of my kids rode the little train out back, loved to eat hot boiled p-nuts and watch them flocking trees. Mrs. Usry even did the flowers for my wedding. The Usrys are not only wonderful folks but helped each of us create some wonderful childhood memories that we will cherish for ever. Best of luck in all you do, guys....Thanks

mojo
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mojo 07/28/08 - 09:58 am
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I think all agree it would be

I think all agree it would be great if they reopenned.

newtothegame
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newtothegame 07/28/08 - 12:55 pm
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I remember being scared to

I remember being scared to death to walk through that little "haunted hallway" at halloween. Every year it was a game that me and my friends would discuss all week, flaunting our bravery all the while. Then, every Saturday we would all stand there at stare at it daring someone else to go in. I think I was 7 before I finally went through, at least without mommy holding my hand!

meowbaa
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meowbaa 07/28/08 - 03:29 pm
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I'm happy to read that Brad

I'm happy to read that Brad wants to open a new Fat Man's . There was norhing like it anywhere. It will be greatly missed if it is no mor. It was unique to Augusta. I went there every year for over forty years.

fair is fair
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fair is fair 07/29/08 - 07:35 am
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As I read this article, I

As I read this article, I could remember the smell of Fat Man's Forest. It was like the smell of the old school with the hardwood floors. No matter where it reopens that can never be duplicated. Even though I had not been in Fat Man's in years, I can still remember that from my childhood.

502.5
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502.5 07/29/08 - 10:32 am
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What an awesome family and

What an awesome family and Augusta is blessed for the way they continue to give back to this community!

AsItIs
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AsItIs 07/29/08 - 10:40 am
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Wonderful memories, family,

Wonderful memories, family, story. Please reopen soon! We need you, Son of Fat Man!! Keep tradition alive in Augusta!

John Carter
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John Carter 07/30/08 - 12:11 pm
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Going to Fat Mans on the

Going to Fat Mans on the first of Oct. for Halloween has been a tradition that started when I was very young. For the past 12 years, my two daughters have enjoyed the same excitement as my wife and I remember. All the costumes and the walk throe scary room, And most of all, Those fantastic peanuts. Fat Mans will be sadly missed. I only hope Fat Mans will return soon.

Former Augustan
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Former Augustan 08/02/08 - 11:45 am
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After I left Augusta in 1969

After I left Augusta in 1969 and married, my wife and I and children would return to Augusta for family visits, and my wife always wanted to go to the Fat Man's Forest. While I haven't visited Augusta in 13 years, the memories of the place are still dear, and this is a wonderful article. Living in Southern California, we've found many similar businesses, but they ain't the same!

Mason Barrett
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Mason Barrett 10/24/08 - 10:37 am
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My wife and I moved back to

My wife and I moved back to Augusta from Nashville in 2005 and got into Real Estate. I had told her about growing up in Augusta and how we went to Fat Man's every year to get our halloween costumes and eat boiled peanuts. I'm really glad she got to see it in all it's splendor before it closed....she even got to go thru the little haunted hallway! I still remember when I was too young to go in there! We're sad to see it go but are looking forward to the next chapter in Fat Man's history.

bmt229
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bmt229 12/20/08 - 12:26 am
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Some 30 years or so ago, our

Some 30 years or so ago, our bus stop was in front of the Ursy's home. I can remember Mrs. Ursy wave as she pulled out of her driveway or in the cold winter months, sending hot cocoa out to keep us warm. She knew not one of our names, whom we belonged to and possibly not the school we were catching that bus to. I do not go over to that area much anymore but when I do I find a smile on my face for a lady that was so nice. The Ursy family have always been "good people" and there are many that are still saddened about the closing of "the forest". Good luck on your ventures Brad and Jan.

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