Published Tuesday, January 22, 2013
By Alex McRae
Trendy is fine if you’re in the fashion business, but Sprayberry’s Barbecue hasn’t served everyone from presidents to princes to peach pickers for over 86 years by following the latest fad.
“I think what people like is, we’re consistent,” says Donald Sprayberry Sr., head of Newnan’s renowned barbecue clan. “We’ve had people coming back for 40 or even 50 years because they know it’s going to be just like they remembered. They appreciate that.”
To call Sprayberry’s a local icon is an understatement. But when Houston Sprayberry opened a gas station and grocery store north of downtown Newnan in 1926, he had no idea the mom and pop shop he operated with his wife Mattie Lou would gain worldwide acclaim. Houston was just trying to make a living.
To supplement the gas and grocery business, Houston started offering barbecue sandwiches. His secret sales technique was a winner.
“When somebody ordered something he’d holler ‘Give me a sandwich’ toward the back of the store,” says Donald Sr. “Then he’d run back there and fix it. He didn’t want anybody to know he was doing it all by himself.”
Pretty soon, Houston couldn’t have done it by himself if he had wanted to. Houston’s barbecue and sauce, along with Mattie Lou’s Brunswick stew, were soon being snapped up by everyone in Newnan and a steady stream of travelers that motored past back when Highway 29 was the main route headed north into Atlanta.
The business thrived during the Great Depression and even President Franklin D. Roosevelt sampled some swine after leaving the train in Newnan to travel by automobile to his Little White House in Warm Springs.
World War II put the business into overdrive as taxicabs packed with soldiers heading from Ft. Benning in Columbus to weekend leave in Atlanta clogged the parking lot.
“Those soldiers went all over the place and really spread the word,” says Donald Sprayberry Jr., who, along with his brother Stephen and their wives, Terri and Colleen, are on hand to run the family business every day.
“People who ate here 40 or 50 years ago still come by with their children or grandchildren and say it tastes the same,” says Stephen. “It’s really nice to keep in touch with everyone.”
Donald Jr. says people are sometimes amazed to be served by the same person they saw years ago.
“We’ve got second and third generation employees working as servers and in the kitchen,” he says. “We’re very fortunate with that.”
Just about everybody who grew up in Newnan or nearby has eaten at Sprayberry’s and half of those seem to have worked there, too.
In addition to upstanding business and professional people, former servers also include country music megastar Alan Jackson, who still stops by when he and his family come home for a visit.
Another hometown legend, bestselling author and columnist Lewis Grizzard, was a huge fan and often wrote of his affection for what he called “merely the best barbecue joint on earth.” When working in Atlanta, Grizzard tried to visit at least twice a month and wasn’t shy about sending an assistant to fetch what is now called the Lewis Grizzard Special, a barbecue sandwich with a side of stew and onion rings.
“Customers always ask about him,” says Terri Sprayberry. “Whenever Lewis mentioned us in his column there was a direct positive influence on sales.”
Other celebrity visitors include football hero Bart Starr, Hollywood heartthrob Susan Hayward, former President Jimmy Carter, governors, congressmen, assorted politicians too numerous to count and even opera star Beverly Sills, who was introduced to Sprayberry’s by Charles Wadsworth, who got his early musical training in Newnan before moving to New York to become a star in the chamber music world.
Sprayberry’s has catered everything from weddings to wakes to tailgate parties and even laid out a spread that loosened the stiff upper lip of Queen Elizabeth’s husband, Prince Philip, when he visited Newnan.
Local artist and cartoonist David Boyd has been a regular since before cable TV was invented. He says that decades ago he was stunned to learn that Sprayberry’s was even tops down under.
He was visiting Australia in 1969 when an Aussie approached and said, “Where you from, Yank?”
Boyd said, “I’m no Yank. I’m from Newnan, Ga.”
The Aussie immediately asked, “Have you eaten at Sprayberry’s, mate?”
Turns out the Aussie’s dad remembered Sprayberry’s from his time at Ft. Benning during World War II.
Boyd’s drawing of a smiling hog appears on Sprayberry signage and souvenirs, including the Sprayberry’s t-shirts that have been spotted across the U.S. and as far away as the Great Wall of China and the Vatican.
“We can’t believe the places people say they’ve seen our shirts,” says Donald Jr.
Barbecue made the restaurant’s reputation, but the menu goes far beyond pork and stew. “You can eat here every day of the week and not get the same thing twice,” says Terri. “We’ve got chicken tenders, the best catfish you ever ate, plate lunches, Aristocratic hamburgers and great desserts.”
A best-selling dessert is Boots’ Chocolate Pie, named in honor of its creator, Frances “Boots” Sprayberry, Donald Sr.’s wife. Boots passed away in 2011, but her influence is still felt by everyone associated with the place.
“We’ve had so many employees and customers come in and tell us how she helped them,” Colleen says. “We never knew how she had touched so many people.”
A new Sprayberry’s location was opened in 1995 along I-85 to make it easier to serve travelers and customers in the eastern part of the county. But the family made sure to stick to their time-tested formula.
“We’re glad to change, but only if it suits our customers and works for us,” says Colleen. “People know what to expect when they come here and we sure don’t plan to change that.”
David Boyd says the only thing as good as Sprayberry’s food is the restaurant’s atmosphere.
“These people make you feel like family,” he says. “Once you come in, they don’t want to let you go.”
To view more stories from the January-February issue of The Newnan-Coweta Magazine, please visit http://newnancowetamag.com .