Photos Andy Calvert
The dining room at Character’s Famous BBQ, Adairsville, Georgia, looks peaceful enough: customers sitting at tables, chatting over their lunches of steaming, aromatic BBQ or eating while watching sports on TV. Most of the clientele is of the salt-of-the-earth variety, lots of baseball caps and work clothes. Everything feels laid-back. Behind those kitchen doors, however, it’s another matter. Restaurant owner Michael Character is a whirl of frenetic energy.
He knows that good things don’t come to those who wait but to those who work. And this man knows how to put in the work. Except for his good friend who takes the orders and handles the money (cash only, please), Character is a one-man operation. He cooks the meals, makes the plates, and serves the tables. And all of this comes after he has done all the prep-work, cooking the BBQ. He says, “When you hire employees you add another whole layer of trouble, so I just do it myself.”
Character was drawn to cooking from an early age, growing up watching and helping his mother and grandmother in the kitchen. By late elementary school, he could cook for himself, and by the time he was a teenager, he was cooking meat on the grill. Spending summers in New Orleans with his father gave him a new appreciation for a wider variety of foods. Character says, “This restaurant helps me keep a tradition that reminds me of home.”
Before becoming a restaurateur, Michael Character was in the Marine Corps, and later, a truck driver. Traveling around in his truck, he saw that everywhere he went BBQ places were doing well. “BBQ is a universal favorite,” he says. “Everyone loves it.” In 2007 Character decided to become part of that world and opened Character’s Famous BBQ. “Thanks to word-of-mouth, the business started growing. It was slow but sure.”
SIMPLE OFFERINGS, SIMPLY GOOD
One thing a customer will not find at Character’s Famous BBQ is a pretentious, confusing menu. The offerings are basic, the whole menu fitting neatly on one side of a sheet of typing paper. “I do it my way,” Character says. His way means four meats: pork, chicken, beef, and ribs. The sides are traditional fare: baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, and chips. Plate meals come with a drink, two slices of bread, and a wedge of frosted pound cake.
Character uses only one BBQ sauce, his own recipe, believing that many restaurants compensate for the inferior quality of their meat by smothering it with a wide selection of sauces. To emphasize his point, he insists: “If you’re doing it good, you don’t even need BBQ sauce.”
He works hard to please his customers, to keep them coming back, but he knows people are very particular about their BBQ and tastes vary. He says, “Pleasing ten out of ten is like finding a unicorn.” Still, he has his fans, both customers and competitors. He has gotten calls from as far away as Fiji and Australia. Character is generous about helping other cooks with tips about the restaurant business, but he becomes cagey when asked about his recipe. He explains, “A lot of cats know me and call for advice. I help them all I can, but I don’t give out my recipe.”
The restaurant hours are simple too. Wednesday through Friday, 11 AM to 2 PM; Saturday, 11 AM to 4 PM. However, regular customers know better than to wait too close to closing time to show up, lest what they want to eat is sold out.
A FOCUS ON FOOD, NOT ON DÉCOR
Like the proverbial book that should not be judged by its cover, Character’s Famous BBQ’s food should not be judged by its building, inside or out. With its unassuming facade, this long, low-slung structure might easily be missed by a first-time customer (as it was by this writer, twice). Tables sit in a row beneath a porch roof.
The gravel parking lot is full of pickups and work trucks (always a good sign for a restaurant). As for the indoor dining room, it is comfortable, clean, and roomy, but is by no means fancy. The posters on the walls are a catalogue of some of the proprietor’s personal interests: boxing (Holyfield and Tyson), the movie Pulp Fiction, the Atlanta Falcons, Muhammad Ali, BBQ Pit Wars, BBQ Kings, Jimmy Hendrix, Tiger Woods, and Major League Baseball.
The tables are a sort of picnic-style, with wooden benches, and the TV plays ESPN2. Highlighting the owner’s frugality, a sign beside the bathroom door asks patrons to turn the light off when finished.
BIG DREAMS ON THE SMALL SCREEN
Michael Character has become quite well-known among those familiar with America’s BBQ culture. That all started in 2008, when he entered the Atlanta BBQ Classic. After placing in that competition for two consecutive years and coming in first for the People’s Choice Award, he became interested in what other kinds of BBQ contests were out there. As it turned out, it was a burgeoning industry. Later, he auditioned (via video) for the BBQ Pit Masters TV show. That first year he did not make it onto the show, but in 2014 he was accepted and wound up making it all the way through the semifinals. After that, he did four episodes of BBQ Pit Wars.
As much as Character enjoyed the exposure TV gave him, he had to admit it was tiring, with its own brand of stress, not to mention it took him away from running his restaurant (remember, a one-man operation). Besides all that, he points out that the things he learned on the BBQ contest shows were not necessarily helpful in making better food. “Competition BBQ is fool’s gold,” Character says. “It’s sweet as candy, not something you could ever sell in a restaurant. Here, I do it Character’s way!”
His personality seems tailor-made for television. This high-energy chef is charming, friendly, quick-witted, and outrageously funny. He is one of those imminently quotable people who makes his listeners want to write down what he says so they can repeat it later. But just because his name is Character does not mean that he was playing a character on television. His clever, chatty banter may sound like it was churned out by a conference table full of comedy writers, but it’s all genuine. His celebrity persona is the real him. He’s not acting. Michael says, “What you see on TV is what you get.”
WELL WORTH THE DRIVE
If the test of a restaurant’s quality is how far customers will travel to eat there, then Dwayne and Amy Ragland prove without a doubt that Character’s Famous BBQ is worth the drive. Once a year they drive six hours from their home in Elizabethtown, Kentucky, just to eat here. This is the third year in a row they have made the trip, and they have no plans to stop coming.
Dwayne is a consummate fan of BBQ and BBQ TV shows. He records and keeps all the programs he can find. A few years ago, watching BBQ Pit Masters, he decided that Michael Character was his favorite cooking personality. Dwayne says, “Like the slogan says, he’s the baddest man in BBQ!”
Amy, inspired by her husband’s enthusiasm, planned a surprise trip to Adairsville so Dwayne could meet his new hero. She contacted Michael on Facebook, and before they knew it the Raglands were sitting in the dining room at Character’s Famous BBQ, sampling the food for themselves; they were not disappointed. The food exceeded their expectations.
On their drive from Kentucky this year the Raglands stopped at several famous BBQ places to eat, but those restaurants did not compare. Dwayne says, “A lot of places are fancier, they have lots of glitz and glamor, but their food is nothing special. It’s just marginal. Michael’s is the best, hands down!” Amy nods with enthusiasm and adds: “And Michael makes you feel so welcome here, like you’re part of his own family.”
The Raglands should know what they are talking about; as owners of Primetime’s Rub-O’licious, they make and sell seasoning rubs for cooking. Their work has given them a keen sense of what is good and not so good in the food industry. Dwayne says, “Georgia has lots of BBQ places, but he (Michael) is the real deal. He’s real and the food’s real.”
FOCUSING ON THE FUNDAMENTALS OF FRESHNESS
In these days of expanding copycat franchises, with their harried habit of impersonal service, it is refreshing to find a restaurant that still focuses its attention on excellent food and treating customers like friends instead of like numbers.
Here, every customer meets the owner; after all, he is serving their tables. Even when in a hurry, he always has a friendly word of greeting and a winning smile for each diner. Also, Character’s customers are in no danger of being served yesterday’s warmed-up leftovers. “I keep it fresh,” he says. “I make a new batch every day.”
The restaurant is sometimes sold out a half an hour (or earlier) before closing time. Popularity has its price. Character recommends coming sooner than later. “Come early,” he says. “If you come late and it’s gone, don’t get mad. Come back tomorrow!”
Sounds like good advice.