The Fat Man’s Cafe of today, located at Enterprise Mill, is famous for its fried chicken, pork chops, collard greens and homemade cakes and pies; however, many may not know that this downtown treasure is actually part of a 68 year-old family legacy that began when the patriarch of the Usry family dubbed himself as the “Fat Man” and built a local business empire.
In 1954, Horace Usry purchased a small grocery from his parents on Laney Walker Boulevard. In those days, much of the upper Walton Way area was residential, and the store was really not much more than a convenience store.
However, Horace Usry was a big man with big ideas.
Usry immediately ditched the store’s name of “The Sanitary Curb Market” and the Fat Man’s brand was born.
The store soon expanded to be more like a modern-day grocery store offering fresh vegetables and a meat market with a butcher on duty. Over the coming years, Usry would add the Fat Man’s Cafe which served the growing medical district with true “Southern Soul Food.”
Never, to miss an opportunity, Usry would create one of Augusta’s first strip malls by adding a barber shop, animal clinic and vacuum cleaner showroom.
Usry’s son, Brad Usry, who is currently the co-owner Fat Man’s and partner with his son in the business, has fond memories of both his father Horace and his mother, “Miss Carolyn,” building the business together and making it a true family operation.
“My dad was a marketing genius; he was a true promoter at heart,” Brad Usry said. “He was always looking for something new — some way to expand — and my mother was right there helping him do it.”
His father once pulled a publicity stunt by burying a man alive in a glass box.
“I guess they had a tube or something for him to breathe. It was crazy, but it worked, people came out to see it,” he said.
No injuries were reported in the stunt, and soon Horace Usry would find a way to transform Fat Man’s from a strip mall with publicity stunts into an Augusta institution.
Brad Usry recalls a traveling salesman by the name of Hockley, convinced Horace Usry to add Christmas decorations to his store. However, the Fat Man had an even better idea and purchased what Brad Usry called little more than a shack that was then dedicated to selling seasonal items.
At Christmas, Fat Man’s Forest would spring up with Christmas trees taking over at least an acre of land. It instantly became a hit with the public and that, in turn, made Horace Usry think even bigger.
As the popularity of his “shack” grew, Usry bought several houses nearby and converted them into seasonal showrooms. Visitors to the main Fat Man’s building could walk through plastic lined “tunnels” from each curiosity shop to the next without really knowing they were actually moving between buildings.
“He could never have gotten away with that today, code enforcement would not allow any set up like that to happen today,” Brad Usry said.
Horace Usry did try to protect his customers by insisting on a no-smoking policy, according to his son Brad, and when people complained, he would remind them his buildings were made of wood. and his wares were largely made of paper. Then, he’d politely ask them to follow the policy.
According to Brad Usry, his father was not afraid to bury a man alive and was smart enough not to allow his entire little empire built with “shanty” houses and flammable Christmas trees to go down in flames from one discarded cigarette.
Horace Usry knew the key was drawing entire families to come out and make a visit to Fatsville a holiday tradition. Animatronic Santas and other moving displays with reindeer and snowmen wowed the kids while moms shopped for wrapping paper and ornaments, leaving dads with the task of weathering the cold and picking out the perfect family Christmas tree.
Mark Bowen grew up in Augusta, and the Richmond County Coroner remembers his family trips to Fat Man’s when he was a boy as being magical.
“There was the train out front we all got to ride, and the boiled peanuts and the smell of the Christmas trees. It was a big part of Christmas; it was a real family experience,” Bowen said.
Bowen isn’t the only person who found Christmas at Fat Man’s magical.
Legendary local artist Leonard “Porkchop” Zimmerman echoed those sentiments.
“The look, the packaging of everything and the glitter, that has translated into what I appreciate and what I think of as Christmas these days,” Porkchop said.
Those elements made a lasting impression on Porkchop who says that his famous “Happy” robots might not be directly inspired by his childhood experiences at Fat Man’s, but his overall art is rooted in that fantastical nature of Fat Man’s.
“For Christmas, the tackier, the better, and Fat Man’s had tackiness down, but not in a bad way,”
Porkchop said. “The animatronics I saw at Fat Man’s just fueled and fired my imagination.”
When Horace Usry died in 1976, Brad Usry and his sister Jan Stuntz took on more of an ownership role and worked alongside Miss Carolyn, their mother, in managing the business. In the 1980s, the shanty village was replaced with what was called the “log cabin,” and the Fat Man’s brand also launched a store in Evans.
Michele Hattman was one of the people who helped make the magic happen. Hattman worked for Fat Man’s for 25 years as a costume designer and says that from early November all the way through Christmas Eve she was making bows and designing wreathes for the crowds that would sometimes line up outside the building.
“We were helping people make their dreams for Christmas come to life. It was such a creative fantasy land that we all felt like elves. It was just a joyous place to work and Fat Man’s will always be in my heart,” Hattman said.
Along with being the matriarch of family business, Carolyn Usry would also serve on the Augusta City Council for 14 years.
However, the Usrys would face a dilemma in that the land they owned became more and more valuable as the then Medical College Of Georgia continued to grow and needed space.
Brad Usry says he decided to focus on what made the Fat Man’s brand famous in the first place, and that was the food.
“We needed to pick one thing, because we did so much. You know we made costumes, and for Christmas the floral displays and the Christmas trees…I needed one part that I could wrap my hands and arms around, and it was the restaurant. The restaurant was doing great. For a little hole in the wall, it was killing it,” Brad Usry said.
While the animatronic Santas and haunted houses created by mazes constructed out of plastic sheets no longer remain, the Fat Man’s brand remains an enduring legacy in Augusta. The costumes found a new home at Vintage Ooollee’s, and many are still in use today at costume parties and with local theater groups.
Brad Usry not only inherited his father’s business acumen, but also his mother’s interest in civic affairs. Usry has, for over a decade, sat on the Coliseum Authority, and his name routinely comes up as a potential mayoral candidate for the city of Augusta.
However, Usry says that enjoys keeping busy in the kitchen and a run for full-time political office would take him away from what he loves doing.
According to Brad Usry, his son Havird Usry is now a partner with him in the family business, currently acting as executive chef for Fat Man’s Cafe and Catering and Hav Usry intends to follow in his grandfather’s and father’s entrepreneurial footsteps.
“We continue to look for opportunities. Currently, we have the Mill Cafe, Enterprise Mill Events, The Southern Salad, the Sno-Cap in North Augusta and The Fourth at the Plaza, so we’re still kicking it,” Hav Usry said.
The Fat Man’s Hospitality Group’s next move is to create “The Hudson, A Venue” which is planned to host weddings and receptions.
…And that is something you might not have known.