Restaurant is family tradition

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Some of the most significant events in Jamie Dukes' life have happened at Wife Saver. It was his first job. It was where he met his wife. It was how he became a business owner.

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Patrons eat lunch at Wife Saver.  Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff
Patrons eat lunch at Wife Saver.

This month is his first anniversary in owning the Wife Saver franchise on Furys Ferry Road. He got his start at Wife Saver more than 30 years ago at 3316 Washington Road, a franchise first owned by his uncle, Henry Dukes.

Four generations of his family have worked at that location, including his grandmother, father, siblings and his own children, Mr. Dukes said.

In April 2007, a former employee at the Washington Road restaurant opened the Wife Saver at 1100 Furys Ferry Road.

"He decided the restaurant business wasn't for him," Mr. Dukes explained.

That's when he stepped in to take over. He had been working at his father's store and saw it as an opportunity.

"We had outgrown one store for everybody to survive, so we needed to branch out a little bit. The economy got really tough on the restaurant industry as a whole, and we had to take pay cuts just to try to survive," Mr. Dukes said.

"I've seen recessions before. We went through the one in '79 and another in '91, but our business has never been affected by a recession the way it has this time. I think that's been across the board -- the whole industry has just gotten plastered."

The business was founded in 1965. Today, there are eight Wife Saver restaurants in the Augusta area. Chris Cunningham, the president of Augusta-based Wife Saver Inc., granted Mr. Dukes his franchise. He's Mr. Dukes' third cousin.

Mr. Dukes jokes that working at Wife Saver seems to run in the family.

"It's in the blood, I guess," he said.

Work ethic

Mr. Cunningham said he thought it was a good idea for Mr. Dukes to take over the Furys Ferry Road store.

"Jamie's worked with his dad since he was a child, and he's a hard-working guy. What you see is what you get. He knows probably as much or more about the Wife Saver business as I do. I knew that it would be in good hands. It was doing fine before, but it's doing better since he's been there," Mr. Cunningham said.

Mr. Cunningham described Mr. Dukes as a taskmaster who wants things done right.

"I have a lot of respect for Jamie and his family. They've just been a tremendous asset to Wife Saver for a long, long time," he said. "I'm just glad that Jamie has chosen to continue the tradition."

On a typical day, Mr. Dukes arrives at his restaurant before 8 a.m. He doesn't leave until his tasks are done, anywhere from 4 to 9 p.m.

"It depends on employees or how much business we have for that day. I have to be very flexible. This business is a way of life. It's not something 9 to 5, where you go home and you're done. That's not the way it works, especially when you own it. You have to eat, sleep, live and breathe food," Mr. Dukes said.

Mr. Dukes' sister-in-law, Linda Dickey, confirms how hard he works.

"It's a real hard business for the owner. People don't realize the number of hours he puts in," Mrs. Dickey said.

During the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, he starts working at 2 a.m. to cook fried turkeys for customers. Usually, he works 20 hours a day, so when he finally comes home for a holiday meal, he falls fast asleep on the sofa, Mrs. Dickey said.

Despite his good work ethic, Mr. Dukes is not a workaholic, Mrs. Dickey said. He always finds time for his family and "to get the fun out of life," which she admires.

"He is one of the most honest people I've ever met in my life. He's very generous with customers, employees and the community," she said.

Gertrude Murray, a cook at the Wife Saver on Washington Road, has worked with Mr. Dukes since he was 13 years old. He has always been ambitious, she said.

"He's a very caring and compassionate person. He cares about his employees. That's what makes him a good manager," Mrs. Murray said.

In 1992, when Mrs. Murray was in the hospital in a coma and doctors said she was going to die, Mr. Dukes came to visit her almost every day, she said.

"He was always there. I've never had a need that I couldn't go to him and talk to him about. He'd do all he can. He's just a good person. You can always depend on him," Mrs. Murray said.

Now that Mr. Dukes works at a different location, she misses him.

"He was fun loving and made the day go by faster," she said.

Fuel source

Rather than let leftover grease from the restaurant go to waste, Mr. Dukes decided to put it in his gas tank.

In 2008, he began making biodiesel at his home from used grease at the Washington Road restaurant.

"I had a steady supply of oil, so that's one of the reasons I got started making it. I filtered the oil clean. It's a very involved process, but once you get all your equipment set up, it's really not too bad. It saved a bunch of money, too. Worst-case scenario, I could make fuel for $1.25 a gallon," Mr. Dukes said.

He hasn't had time to make biodiesel since he began running the store on Furys Ferry Road, but he might resume the process soon.

"I see fuel prices are heading back up, so I may have to open back up again," he said.

Family business

Mr. Dukes grew up in south Augusta with his three brothers. Initially, his father, Bennie Dukes, worked at Continental Can Co., now called International Paper. His mother, Christine Dukes, was a registered nurse.

In the early 1970s, Bennie Dukes' brother, Henry, took over the Wife Saver restaurant on Washington Road. He convinced his brother to come work with him, so Bennie quit his job in 1972. That former Wife Saver location is now the site of White House Cleaners.

The brothers ran the restaurant together until Henry decided to take over the franchise in North Augusta in the mid-1970s. Jamie Dukes, the oldest of his siblings, started working at the restaurant in the seventh grade.

"I got into some trouble at school, so daddy put me to work. I kind of lived and breathed that for a while. I'd work on the weekends from Friday night until Sunday. I enjoyed being around my dad and uncle. I was in constant contact with my family. That was huge for me," he said.

Mr. Dukes continued working at the restaurant through high school and college. His brothers also worked there.

He graduated from Augusta College, now Augusta State University, in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in business administration.

"That's kind of how I made my commitment. I was out of college, and I was kind of teetering around. I had applied for a couple of jobs, but they didn't pan out, so I talked my dad into building a new facility. That's when I decided to be full time in the restaurant business," Mr. Dukes said.

In October 1989, the family built a new Wife Saver restaurant next door to its former location on Washington Road. Over the years, Mr. Dukes took on more and more responsibility, eventually becoming a manager.

"We're not big on giving each other titles, but it sort of evolved into that," he said.

Mr. Dukes met his wife, Cynthia, at the restaurant. She was an employee there while she was in high school and college. They started dating at 16.

"That's been my only love. You talk about a backbone to a family, there's no better. She's my organizer, keeps me straight. She makes it real easy for me to focus on what I need to focus on," Mr. Dukes said.

Today, his wife works part-time as a dental hygienist, but she also helps him design menus, fliers and business cards.

His children work at the business, too.

"They do a great job. They've been in it since they were little, and they enjoy working. They actually fuss at me when I don't work them as much as they would like to be worked," Mr. Dukes said.

He wants them to find their own career path, however.

"I've tried to steer them away from that. I want to make sure that they explore other opportunities," he said.

"If they ultimately decide this is what they want to do, I'm sure the opportunity is here. But I would like for them to explore some other things first."

Hunting

Mr. Dukes has been hunting since he was a teenager. He hunts once or twice a week on his brother-in-law's farm -- everything from deer to rabbit to turkey.

"We roll from one season to the next," Mr. Dukes said.

His hobby spills over into his business, with camouflage Wife Saver shirts available for his employees to wear.

Mr. Dukes owns seven beagles that accompany him on his rabbit hunting trips: Maris, Bull, Brownie, Dot, Allie, Daisy and Rocket.

"When we're rabbit hunting, and you have about seven dogs on a rabbit's trail all barking at the same time, that's fun," Mr. Dukes said.

"I love seeing the animals. I've been elk hunting once in my life, and there's nothing like it. I had an 800-pound animal within 30 yards of me. If you've never heard an elk bugle, there's nothing like it. There were elk bugling over the whole mountain. It's probably the most exciting hunting that I've ever done," he said.

>Chicken strips

Every day is an adventure at Wife Saver.

"You would be surprised at what people expect you to be able to do with their food. Part of Wife Saver's problem is we're trying to fill two voids at one time," he said.

The restaurant serves home-style and cooked-to-order food, such as Southern fried chicken, vegetables, desserts and seafood, but it's also trying to be a quick service restaurant because it offers a drive-through and telephone orders.

"It's a difficult challenge, and I guess people just don't understand what goes into the food that we prepare for them," he said.

Most food is made from scratch, from chicken to red velvet cake.

"All of our chicken is hand-breaded each day. Fresh is the word of the day, I guess," he said.

The most popular food item is chicken strips. A new batch is made every 10 to 15 minutes.

"As the popularity of chicken strips has risen, I've noticed that sales for our regular pieces of chicken have dropped. I'm convinced that in the next generation, most people won't even know what a piece of chicken is," he said.

All Wife Saver restaurants experiment with different foods, he said. Mr. Dukes now serves homemade Brunswick stew, cheesecakes and salads.

"I've got a couple of things that I'd like to try, but I don't know if they're going to fit," Mr. Dukes said.

For instance, he'd like to introduce deep fried hamburgers. A restaurant in Memphis, Tenn., sells 300 to 400 each day, he explained.

Mr. Dukes doesn't have any more restaurant locations in mind for the future. He is focused on the one he's got.

"My employees have not been rewarded for their work. My goal is to get us a little more volume where I can reward them for their hard work. All of us need rewarding for our hard work," Mr. Dukes said.

Reach LaTina Emerson at (706) 823-3227 or latina.emerson@augustachronicle.com.

Jamie Dukes

BORN: Nov. 21, 1961, Augusta

EDUCATION: Augusta State University, bachelor's degree in business administration

FAMILY: Wife, Cynthia; and children, Ben, Alyson and Phillip

EXTRACURRICULAR/CIVIC: CSRA Beagle Club, Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation

HOBBIES: Spending time with family, working, hunting, former Little League baseball coach

Comments (17) Add comment
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LouLou
6
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LouLou 01/18/10 - 05:36 am
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0
Wish Thomson had a Wife

Wish Thomson had a Wife Saver!!!!!!!!

augustadog
93
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augustadog 01/18/10 - 07:50 am
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Good story about hard working

Good story about hard working folks that are focused on customer service at it's best. Great food. Cannot beat it for tailgating in Athens during football season.
Keep up the good work!

avidreader
3478
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avidreader 01/18/10 - 09:34 am
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My family moved to Augusta in

My family moved to Augusta in 1965. The Wife Saver on Milledgeville road was our favorite place for a Sunday family meal. I am now a regular at the Surrey Center store. Not to mention, it feels good to support a locally owned business. God bless Chris Cunningham and the Dukes.

LancelotLink
0
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LancelotLink 01/18/10 - 09:41 am
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0
Tsk, tsk, tsk, working on The

Tsk, tsk, tsk, working on The Sabbath.

AllenDukes
0
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AllenDukes 01/18/10 - 09:53 am
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Two thumbs up! Brother!

Two thumbs up! Brother!

story1
807
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story1 01/18/10 - 10:47 am
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Great article about a

Great article about a hardworking individual. Christine and Bennie Dukes raised all their boys with an emphasis on family values. Kudos to a hardworking, family guy and the parents that steered him in the right direction. Now, bring on the Nana Puddin!

corgimom
36796
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corgimom 01/18/10 - 10:49 am
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I came close this year trying

I came close this year trying to make Wife Saver macaroni and cheese. I haven't quite gotten it yet, but I won't give up, It is the.best. Nobody else comes close.

Jake
33414
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Jake 01/18/10 - 12:28 pm
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One of my favorite spots to

One of my favorite spots to return to when I visit Augusta. I love the gizzards and the cole slaw. Glad to see they still thrive in the big fried chicken franchise market.

justthefacts
24057
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justthefacts 01/18/10 - 02:57 pm
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Wife Saver and UGA

Wife Saver and UGA football.......classic.

4725
0
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4725 01/18/10 - 03:07 pm
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Great, great

Great, great people........eat there when I can......Jamie, put red velvet at the Fury's fury store. My nephew, who lives in Irvine, Ca.
( he grew up in Atlanta) said if this place was in Irvine, you'd have to have police control the crowds.

sweetiepi
0
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sweetiepi 01/18/10 - 03:35 pm
0
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Jamie was such a cutie back

Jamie was such a cutie back in the day. I had the biggest crush on him and his big backside in high school. I should have worked at the Wife Saver and maybe I could have been as lucky as Cynthia.

woodsman
6
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woodsman 01/18/10 - 03:58 pm
0
0
I love Wifesaver so much, I

I love Wifesaver so much, I had them cater my wedding. Yum-O!

Summerville
0
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Summerville 01/18/10 - 07:20 pm
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0
i love wife savers and

i love wife savers and always, always make a stop when i'm passing through. Great chicken, gizzards, mac and cheese. come to NC! I can't take any more Bojangles!

Just My Opinion
6086
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Just My Opinion 01/18/10 - 07:35 pm
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Yeah, I like the chicken and

Yeah, I like the chicken and other stuff, but I also really enjoy the good service. Don't know how they pick'em, but those folks will hire these young kids who are VERY polite and courteous! Hope those kids remember that being polite and offering good service can mean the difference in people coming back or not. I'll see Jamie sometimes catering at the hospital and he's always been friendly and hard-working. Type of guy that wouldn't ask his employees to do something that he wouldn't do himself.

DEVGRU
0
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DEVGRU 01/18/10 - 07:48 pm
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To LancelotLink on your Tsk,

To LancelotLink on your Tsk, tsk, tsk, working on The Sabbath comment. Sorry Lance, but you will probably be the first one to light the fire in hell when you get there. Hypocrite.

ReverseApacheMaster
0
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ReverseApacheMaster 01/19/10 - 01:45 pm
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good people

good people

sweetiepi
0
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sweetiepi 01/19/10 - 08:49 pm
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Oooohhh I didn't realize he

Oooohhh I didn't realize he had changed locations. That is right down the road from my house. Im going to have to stop in and see him very soon. All this nice talk about him is making me miss him.

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