Bill Mays, owner of Papa Jack’s Country Kitchen in South Hall, said he can almost tell the time by watching who walks through the door.
Since opening his Southern cuisine restaurant 16 years ago, the business has quickly transformed into not only a place to grab comfort food, but a community hub for Bible study groups, local organizations and those wanting to chat among friends.
Many who frequent the country kitchen weren’t surprised when the Greater Hall Chamber of Commerce named Papa Jack’s Small Business of the Year during its annual gala on May 13.
When told of the news, Jennie and Rod Sibley said they’d been coming to the restaurant since it opened in 2005 at its old location on Duncan’s Corner. The couple said they’ve continued to come back because of the good service, consistent food and most of all, Mays.
“He (Mays) has a big heart,” Rod said while seated for breakfast. “He’s a good corporate citizen. His staff is great. It’s (the restaurant) an extension of who he is.”
Before customers grab a tray and order their food, they pass by a photograph of Mays’ late mother and father, Millie and Jack. Mays said when people enter the restaurant, he wants them to receive a warm welcome and feel as though they’re home.
“Your customers, they become your family,” Mays said with emotion. “If stuff happens in their life, it happens in ours. We try to do whatever we can to help them.”
Mays said he has enjoyed cooking since childhood, especially a home-style breakfast. He got his first taste of the industry when he was in his early 20s. Mays worked at a family country kitchen in Covington, where he learned how to make biscuits from scratch from an older lady named Lottie Taylor. At Papa Jack’s, Mays uses a tweaked version of her recipe, mixing lard, buttermilk and White Lily flour as the three main ingredients.
Years later, Mays said he opened up two sandwich shops, one in Brookhaven and the other in Atlanta. He ended up selling them, and eventually started up a seafood restaurant in Commerce called Stringer’s Fish Camp.
Mays said he kept up the business for 14 years, and didn’t consider switching gears until the late Frank Duncan told him about his plans for developing a corner of South Hall that included a four-way stop, gas station and liquor store.
Mays said Duncan wanted him to bring his seafood restaurant to the available space. However, he had other plans in mind.
“I said, ‘I’ve got an idea for a country cooking restaurant,’” Mays recounted. “Several of my friends said, ‘Bill, what are you doing? You’ll never get a restaurant going here. Long story short, it got going, and it was great.”
Mays named the restaurant after his dad, who died five years before he opened the eatery.
“When he was alive, everybody that knew him called him Papa Jack,” Mays said. “He'd be happy (if he saw the restaurant). I wished he was alive because he’d come hang out with me every day, and that would be fun.”
Papa Jack’s Country Kitchen
Where: 2200 Sparta Way, Buford
Hours: 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 7 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 4:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 7 a.m. to noon Saturday; 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. Sunday
For the first two years, Mays said the business ran smoothly, then the Great Recession hit.
The restaurant owner said he was forced to get creative and ended up starting the catering side of the country kitchen to help make ends meet. Back then, he offered this service to a group of 10. Today, he has fed up to 2,500 people with the catering business.
Mays said as time went on, his customer base continued to grow, surpassing the restaurant’s capacity. Four years ago, he relocated across the street, increasing his building’s size from 3,000 square feet to 8,000 square feet.
Mays said he remembers being “scared to death” when he made the big move, but knew it was a risk worth taking.
“A guy came up and said, ‘You know the worst thing a guy could do is take a successful business, walk across the street and build a bigger building,” he recounted. “It just rubbed me the wrong way, but I like it when somebody tells me I can’t do something.”
At Papa Jack’s, people can expect true Southern homestyle cooking, with biscuits the size of a cat’s head, fried chicken, grits, fried bologna, fluffy pancakes, eggs however you like them and a large selection of meats and vegetables. On Fridays the restaurant serves up a low-country boil for dinner with shrimp and catfish.
Mays’ cooks have a No. 1 rule that applies to everything they make.
“Nothing goes out of this kitchen that you wouldn’t take home to your mama,” Mays said.