published Sunday, September 25th, 2011

Kennedy: Calhoun landmark lives on in cookbook

Sundays have always been important to 49-year-old Aletia DuPree of Calhoun, Ga. It was the day her family of restaurateurs dubbed "profit day."

For a generation, people in Calhoun lined up on Sundays after church at her family's restaurant, BJ's, to fill up on the house specials such as Southern fried chicken, Sweet Potato Crunch casserole and Angel biscuits. Some Sundays, as many as 800 people would shuffle through the buffet line. It was the day each week when the little enterprise became a cash machine.

BJ's was known for its signature biscuits, served hot-from-the-oven by a waiter who sang gospel music and dispensed whipped honey butter. Before he retired, Ms. DuPree's stepfather, Jimi Hall, would further entertain the restaurant customers by singing old-time hymns and playing piano.

Ms. DuPree and her husband, Jim, purchased the white-tablecloth restaurant from her parents when they retired in 2006. It just seemed to be the natural progression of things. Ms. DuPree had worked in the family business for most of her adult life, and she had reached middle-age thinking BJ's was her legacy. Some day, she hoped, it might even be her ticket to retirement.

"I'm a big planner," said Ms. DuPree, who has a son, Zachary, in college and a daughter, Ashley, in high school.

If you aren't from Calhoun, it's hard to understand how attached the town was to BJ's, which had begun as a 30-seat ice cream and sandwich shop called the Cream Cellar in the late 1980s. It progressively outgrew several locations. At its peak, the restaurant had 35 full- and part-time employees at a location near the Redbud exit on I-75.

The nearby carpet factories were big catering customers. Around the holidays, the restaurant's catering business was nearly a full-time enterprise. Ms. DuPree worked about 70 hours a week just to keep all her customers served. She didn't decorate her own house for the holidays each year until Christmas Eve.

During the mid-2000s though, Ms. DuPree began to have a nagging thought. Although the Sunday-dinner crowd was her restaurant's bread-and-butter, she lamented that the business made it nearly impossible for her family to attend worship services.

So Ms. DuPree hatched a plan to double down on her catering business. She even began selling BJ's dishes from big freezers so customers could take home their favorites. If all went as planned, Ms. DuPree figured the family could eventually close the restaurant on Sundays.

Then, on Halloween day in 2007, Ms. DuPree had a chance meeting with a friend, and they ended up praying together about the family's Sunday dilemma. "We asked God for clear direction about what we should do," Ms. DuPree said.

Four days later, on Nov. 4, 2007, the DuPrees got a predawn phone call alerting them that the restaurant was on fire. A malfunctioning fryer had started a fire overnight that was consuming the structure.

Later, as she and her husband stood watching the restaurant burn, Ms. DuPree was filled with melancholy, but in the midst of her sadness she remembered her midweek prayer.

"Jim," she exclaimed to her husband, "this is Sunday. This is what we've been praying about."

Suddenly, the decision to slow down was no longer just theoretical. It took almost seven months to rebuild and reopen BJ's, and for the first time ever, Ms. DuPree stepped back and took stock of her life.

"I didn't realize how tired I was until I stopped," she said. "I'd always been on the treadmill. I was numb from working so long."

Once the restaurant reopened, the Great Recession had begun to cripple the North Georgia economy. The carpet-industry catering business dried up, and even loyal BJ's customers trimmed their dining-out budgets.

"It was like going back 20 years," Ms. DuPree said.

Ms. DuPree tackled the work with her familiar resolve, but every week the family was dipping into savings to make payroll. One day in December, Ms. DuPree broke down to her husband. "We can't go on like this," she said.

BJ's closed its doors at the end of December 2008.

Days later, Ms. DuPree recalls all her frustrations surfacing.

"One day, I just had a pity party on the living room floor," she recalls. "I was like Scarlett (O'Hara in 'Gone With the Wind'), with her 'God as my witness' speech. I just had to scream it out."

Afterward, Ms. DuPree says she released her worries and surrendered unconditionally to her faith. She began to focus on a long-held dream to write a Southern-cooking cookbook featuring the dishes that made BJ's Restaurant a North Georgia phenomenon.

"The recipes were all I had left," she said.

Writing a cookbook was a stretch for Ms. DuPree, who had been so consumed by the daily grind of operating a restaurant that she had never learned basic skills like operating a laptop computer or corresponding by email.

Time and again, she visited a Bible verse posted on a plaque in her kitchen: "I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me" (Philippians 4:13).

Through tenacity and guile, she completed her cookbook, "Deliciously Southern" (Wimmer Cookbooks, $24.99, www.aletiadupree.com), found a publisher, began appearing at regional book signings and entered negotiations with Barnes & Noble bookstores to carry her book.

On the day we spoke last week, she had just gotten word from one of the nation's leading book distributors that it would make her cookbook available nationally.

The Great Recession altered Aletia DuPree's life, but it did not keep her down.

"My son told me recently, "Mom, we don't have as much money, but we're a whole lot happier," Ms. DuPree said.


As you think of people you know who are laboring through hard times today, let the blessing (or moment of reflection, if you prefer) be the most important part of your Sunday dinner.

And may biscuits with honey butter forever be your daily bread.

about Mark Kennedy...

Mark Kennedy is a Times Free Press columnist and editor. He writes the "LIfe Stories" human interest column for the City section and the "Family Life" column for the Life section. He also writes an automotive column, “Test Drive,” for the Business section. For 13 years, Kennedy was features editor of the newspaper, and before that he was the newspaper’s first Sunday editor. The Times Free Press Life section won the state press award for ...

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