Photography by Derek Bell
As the birds start to chirp, the trees begin to bud and fields of brown gather steam and green-up, we are reminded that Old Man Winter is relinquishing his cold grip on the South, returning us to the warm and inviting arms of spring. And when we pack away our winter wears, we roll out all the things associated with being outdoors and sharing family time together beneath a canopy of blue skies and cotton ball clouds.
For many in Northwest Georgia, the only proper thing to do is grab a bag of charcoal, put a flame to our favorite meats, line the table with trimmings and start the season off right. Well, if old-fashioned barbeque is what defines the beginning of summer for you, grab your shorts and shades when you visit Uncle John’s Barbeque because it’s sunny there all year long.
Harold Morgan, owner of Uncle John’s Barbeque (1901 Maple Ave., Rome) and lifetime Roman, spent much of his professional career learning to serve the public in a restaurant setting. However, it was his time growing up in East Rome that shaped his approach to running a successful business that is 14 years old this month.
Being a part of a large family often meant everyone had to chip in to prepare the meals at the Morgan home.
“I have 14 brothers and sisters. I was the tenth child born. So, I would always help my mama and daddy cook. And I remember my daddy, Alfred Morgan, would always make his own barbeque sauce,” Morgan recalls. “My brother, Jewell Morgan, was the kind of person who could take a recipe and enhance it. He is just thatgood, you know. He always had a talent for taking things that were bland and making them taste really good. Weather it was chili, sauces or anything else; he knew how to use seasonings. He really has a gift. I found out later it was his use of seasonings that could really sell food.”
Feeding such a large family was a challenge for the Morgans, and nearly all of his meals as a child were cooked at the family stove. He learned how to not only make food that was tasty, but also how to create food that brought families together and create memories.
“Back then, cooking was our No. 1 pastime,” he says. “If we wanted beans, we had to cook them. There was no pre-sweetened cereal, we had to add the flavor. Back then, I thought it was bad but now I understand it was all things that were good, and good for you, because we prepared the meals ourselves; we prepared them together.
“Jennel, my mother, she could cook,” he continues. “Fannie Lee, her sister, could cook as well. My grandmother was a great cook and the recipes you would gather from one, you gathered from them all because it was handed down.”
Being armed with a plethora of methods to prepare home-cooked meals would later come into play after Morgan attended Mary T. Banks primary school, graduated from West Rome High in 1972, and later finished his studies at Shorter College with a bachelor’s degree business and economics in 1978. Being a family man with a strong work ethic drove him to seek a paycheck before pursuing his passions.
“When I got out of school, I just started looking for ways to make money. I needed a check,” he laughs when speaking about his early career moves. “I did some substitute teaching for a while, and I did well. I also worked as a manager at Del Taco, but that store didn’t last long in Rome. One day, I saw a posting for a job at McDonalds. They were hiring managers. So, I went down to the labor board – which was right next to the federal building downtown – and filled out an application. Soon they gave me a call for a job.”
Morgan worked for McDonalds for nearly 20 years and he studied the reasons why the food industry giant was so successful.
“They were always consistent,” he explains. “They really focused on three areas. Those areas were quality, service and cleanliness. I would love to have a person come back to my store and say how much they loved the food they had the last time they were here.
“I would tell my employees, ‘Make sure you make that sandwich the same way you did last time.’ I would tell them to hold the ketchup the same way, stand in the same place as the last time they made the burger, and even to turn their hat just as they had the last time they made the burger,” he jokingly recalls.
He knew the business was making money, since he was responsible for making deposits, but he never paid much attention to his own 401k until one day he pealed back an envelope containing a statement claiming he had saved $21,000 through the company. “I said to myself, ‘Whoa, I need to pay more attention to this thing!’ When you didn’t specify where you wanted to put your money, the company would automatically put you into a program that had a low interest rate, but the money was secure. That was my incentive to just hang in there with the company for a while because this was alright.”
Some years after opening that envelope, Morgan would eventually be able to put away $91,000 and his entrepreneurial wheels started to spin.
“I started to think about what it would be like to own my own business. I would look at other independent places, like ol’ Bubba down at Bubba’s Barbeque or other places I would visit out of town, and I saw I had all the things to start a good restaurant. I had my brother Jewell, who could make all the sauces and recipes, and I knew how to make customers happy and run a business,” says Morgan. “So, I took that $91,000 and decided to start a barbeque place. That was back in 2001.”
Morgan gives a huge amount of credit to the Greater Rome Chamber of Commerce, where he would later become a part of the Board of Directors. “They really do a lot to enhance your business,” he says. “They gave me a lot of recognition; they would give me help if I needed it and I was able to network with a lot of really good people.”
In 2004, Morgan was awarded a Rome Leadership Award; however, the community started to really take notice of the food being served out of his doors.
“I catered for St. Peter’s Episcopal Church, Sherwin Williams Paint Store and I even catered the ropes course event for Leadership Rome for a few years,” he recalls. “I also have catered lunches for the employees at F&P. It was just amazing the way the Chamber helped me to build my business.”
And speaking of the food, Morgan keeps it simple, with his focus on the three things he learned from McDonalds during his years under their leadership.
“It is important that the food looks good and tastes good. If you come to my restaurant and get a sandwich this month, you can come back a year from now and get the same sandwich, just as you remember having it the first time,” he explains. “You know what, good food kind of makes people a little mentally unstable. They can get a hotdog at a hot dog stand miles from their home, and if it’s good, they will drive past 20 other hotdog stands to get that same hotdog again. I have noticed that people may not drive to save a few bucks, but they will go out of their way to get good food.”
Concentrating on providing top-quality ingredients has made Uncle John’s one of the best places to get barbeque all year long, according to Morgan. And if he has to bump up his prices – which is rare – to meet the rising costs of goods, he never hears complaints. His rib sandwich, Brunswick stew and jumbo pork sandwiches are among his most requested items, not to mention his homemade desserts that often are carried off before the day is done. But he does have one dish that figuratively takes the cake.
The half-a-cow-burger is eight pounds of ground beef, slow cooked for two hours on his smoker. If it sounds like enough to feed an army, you may be not be that far off base.
“The baseball team from Shorter sometimes comes by with their coach and they will order two or three of them,” Morgan says. “I’m pretty sure they cut them up and ate them together.”
And when he dresses the burger, his explanation of what is looks like is rather comical.
“Let me tell you what I do. I take a five-inch bun with a little lettuce and I put it in the middle,” he laughs. “They always look at it and laugh. I think it looks like a man with a little hat and a great big head! Everyone thinks it is very unique, so they pull out their cell phones and start snapping pictures.”
Plans for the future of Uncle John’s include finding a spot with a bigger dining area, and maybe opening at another location. Morgan does, however, hope to pass the business on to his family along with the recipe to his signature 13-ingredient sauce. He wants to continue to build the family legacy that has been so instrumental in his life thus far and one day bottle the backbone of his barbeque, the sauce.
“I just enjoy doing something for the community that they enjoy. I see people in the line at Walmart who are upset with me because I had to close for a doctor’s appointment. It kind of makes me feel good to do something for my community that they appreciate so much,” Morgan says. “If you can make a little money, while doing what you love to do, you really can’t ask for much more.”