Havird Usry feels pretty comfortable in races by now. He’s run seven triathlons in Augusta alone. But opening a new restaurant is a marathon in its own right, especially when you’re building everything from the salad dressings to the restaurant’s interior from scratch. Havird and his father Brad have more than enough experience to get the job done after running one of Augusta’s most successful longtime restaurants, Fat Man’s Mill Café, for years. Still, the father-son duo’s newest restaurant concept, The Southern Salad, is uncharted territory for multiple reasons.
First, it is essentially the culinary opposite of Fat Man’s. While the Enterprise Mill eatery churns out the “Soul Good” fried chicken and mac n’ cheese that have kept hungry Augustans coming back for the last 70 years, The Southern Salad will be more akin to what the Usrys eat on a daily basis: fresh, healthy greens, grains and meats, with clean eating being of utmost importance. Second, it’s a kind of restaurant that isn’t too common in the land flowing with biscuits and gravy, although healthy options have cropped up in bigger cities in the south. While it takes little more than a quick flash of the menu to get a southerner in the door at Fat Man’s, The Southern Salad will have to win some locals over. The Usrys have no doubt that their product will do just that.
Where did the inspiration for The Southern Salad come from?
Havird: We have had Fat Man’s as our family business since 1948, so these are our roots. But dad and I and my family…we live a fairly healthy lifestyle. So that was kind of the idea going into The Southern Salad. We wanted healthy options for downtown. We wanted folks to kind of eat the way that we eat on a normal basis. So we do have the fried chicken and mac and cheese that we’ll be serving at Fat Man’s, but we wanted to bring some different options to Augusta, and I think it will be accepted well. I think the excitement now is pretty crazy—the amount of attention people keep giving the concept. It’s heavily salad, produce, grain bowl-based. We’re also going to have smoothies, beer and wine. We’ve got some really cool dessert options as well that are healthy, if you can consider a dessert healthy. It’s a healthy lifestyle that can be attainable by everyone. That is our mission.
What makes this concept different from anything else?
Havird: We have bought a hydroponic greenhouse that is in Bartow, Georgia, and we are partnered closely with the Hancock Farm, which is the only certified organic farm within miles of Augusta. We just planted the first seedlings for the hydroponic lettuce that are going to be feeding into the southern salad. All of the greens that are going into our bowls will actually be provided by our greenhouse. We’ll be literally picking heads of lettuce, and they’ll be delivered to the restaurant a few days a week. Doesn’t get much fresher than that. That’s about as farm-to-table as it gets when we’re the ones also doing the farm aspect of it. So we’re really excited about that.
What does hydroponic mean?
Havird: Hydroponic organic is where there’s no dirt involved. It’s all in a very controlled environment where you can heat and cool, keep the temperature exactly where you want it. We start from seed and go into what we call a sprouting table, which is basically a sponge with a lot of different holes in it that soaks up the water that’s in the sprouting table. The root system starts to grow down into the water, which runs down a long PVC pipe. Lettuce heads start to sprout. And the root system is always getting nutrients, and it’s always getting water. We actually create the balance of nutrients. When they test these heads of lettuce—let’s say vitamin A or vitamin B or calcium—they can adjust the levels of nutrients in the water. This lettuce technically never has to be washed. It’s never gone in the dirt, it’s never been touched by hands except that have Latex gloves. It’s so controlled inside that you should be able to take a bite out of a head of lettuce when you pull it out of the finishing table. Essentially by the end of this process, we’ll be able to pull out 1,080 heads of lettuce a week.
Why did you intentionally partner with the Hancock Farm?
Havird: I had a past relationship with Cary purchasing some things from her that we used here in the restaurant. I knew that she was interested in some growth out at the farm. And it ended up being a very natural fit. It happened organically (laughs). Next thing you know, we were all pitching in about this greenhouse and this hydroponic system, and we’re here planting seeds. The system is up, greenhouse is up, so it all just kind of fell into our lap. And they were looking for a lot of growth and a more controlled environment. They had a tough season last year. So they were like, “We want to go more greenhouse.” What we are going to be growing is “certified hydroponic organic,” because we can’t be certified organic inside a hydroponic greenhouse, because it’s not actually in the dirt. I’m thinking we’re going to have a little bit of surplus for other restauranteurs and wholesalers as well. We want different restauranteurs in Augusta to jump on board and have some cool hydroponic lettuce in some of the dishes that they’re doing.
Let’s talk about the restaurant.
Havird: The address is 1006 and 1008 Broad, which we purchased about a year ago. And there’s a commercial space downstairs that we have a tenant for already. Our side, which is 1008, is going to be connected to the new CVB (visitors center), so different tourist or whoever’s visiting the CVB will be able to come directly into the restaurant in an adjoining door. And we’ll also have two apartments upstairs. The inside space of the restaurant is actually pretty small. It’s probably 2,000 square feet. We’ll have about 58 seats outside. And then we’ll have about 45 inside. We are one of the few businesses that has a rear entrance to the restaurant from Ellis Street. And we will have a back patio adjacent to our parking lot which is very unique to Broad Street, so our customers will have access to parking that is designated for us. I think we’ve kind of decided the back patio is going be “The Ellis Garden.” We’re going to have close to 50 seats out there. It’ll be a really cool urban environment with strung lights. It’s enclosed with three different sides. It’s going be cool.
I feel like Ellis Street has so much potential that I’m sure over the years will develop, but it’s cool that you guys are going ahead with that.
Havird: I hope that as business owners that back up to Ellis Street—and ones that are on Greene Street that back up to Ellis Street as well—we can gather the city’s attention to make that a nice corridor for the city. It does need some TLC, but I think that if it’s fixed up, Ellis Street could be a real asset to downtown.
Could you tell me a little bit about your personal, family background with this kind of lifestyle and how that affected your choice to do the restaurant this way?
Havird: My mother’s been in health and fitness for as long as I can remember. So we were raised on good, healthy food. I’m speaking for my dad here as he’s on the phone, but he’s a fitness fanatic as well, always on the bike. And with him being around my mom he has to eat well. I grew up playing soccer, played soccer in college. I’ve just embraced that lifestyle as well. I do a triathlon here in Augusta that I’ve done seven times now. It’s just something our family embraces. And I think we truly embrace Fat Man’s, and we love Fat Man’s, and Fat Man’s will continue. We’ll keep putting every ounce of this energy into it. But we wanted something that kind of represents our lifestyle. It excited us, and we were ready to seek a new opportunity. That’s where Jeremy kind of fits in. He shares similar views to us as far as food goes and the quality of food that he likes to eat. So we thought he was a great fit to bring on board. And he wanted to go into a new position where he felt comfortable serving food to his customers. We were like “Let’s do this.” And he’s helping us really fine-tune that menu. He’s going be kind of heading the ship as we move down to Broad Street, so he’ll be a face that’s in there every single day as well. This is what we’ve created, and we’ll see what Augusta thinks.
Talking to you guys, talking to Jeremy, talking to people who he’s worked with, a higher demand for healthy food has started to come up here. People do want more.
Havird: I think if you look around us—I mean if you drive to Atlanta, you go to Charleston, you go to Charlotte, you go anywhere else in the country that has a little bit larger population—you’re starting to see these places where the health-conscious are eating pop up. And we don’t have those options here. And we’re hoping this isn’t the only The Southern Salad we do. I hope this is something that we can grow throughout the CSRA. And that’s kind of pie-in-the-sky right now, but let’s get the first one up and running. I think we’ll be kind of a beacon of health downtown.
Brad: Also, with that said, what Augusta is blessed with is really, really class act restauranteurs. A lot of them are downtown. Sean White, Eric (Kinlaw). For our town, the size, we’re blessed with some really, really good restaurant business people who get it, and it’s not a lot of people. A lot of people say, “Well there’s too many restaurants, we’re dividing business.” Well, we’re not, because you have quality at these restaurants. It’s multiplying the business. So instead of dividing a hundred customers, you’re going to have a thousand people instead of a hundred people downtown to create this energy that Augusta so dearly needs down there. We’re getting it. It’s pretty cool.
What is the menu going to look like?
Havird: We’re going to have five signature salads, we’re going to have five different grain bowls. It’s an organic brown rice base, and then it has our set toppings on it. The grain that we have available is organic brown rice. Then we have smoothies, we have an acai bowl, which is a smoothie-based bowl that actually has toppings on it. It’s very progressive I think for Augusta, but I think folks will really get into it. Then you’ll have your option to build your own, which is what I think most folks will do. Very unique toppings…that’s where I think we kind of celebrate ourselves, not being like a glorified salad bar but having some cool ingredients that are really elevated—roasted golden beets marinated in a red wine vinaigrette, roasted marinated eggplant. Marinated shrimp, smoked salmon that we’re doing in-house. Everything’s going to be served with a jalapeno cheddar corn muffin, which is freaking awesome. Holeman and Finch, which is a bakery in Atlanta, has a sourdough that we’re using. We’re going to be hand-cutting sourdough, running it through the toaster. It’ll be just a lot of unique ingredients. We’ll be making all our own dressings, too. So all of them will be homemade and bottled in house, so we’ll be selling them as well. We’ve got a cashew-based Caesar, onion honey mustard, barbecue ranch, agave and apple cider vinaigrette. Kind of off-the-wall.
Did you guys go to similar restaurants to draw inspiration?
Brad: We visited places in California that served this kind of menu. We’ve got our own unique twist to it. We were so pumped. We didn’t have a location, but we went ahead and did all the branding, all the mission statements, all that was in place before we even had location. Even our menus to a certain extent were put together and ready to go. And that’s how fired up we were about it. It’s not something that we just did on a whim. I think we started about two and a half years ago. It’s been a work in progress, or I guess what you’d call a labor of love.
Havird: As far as the concept, there were a lot of places that we’ve been to. I feel like, creatively, we’ve done those without trying to look at other people’s menus. With the structure of the create-your-own one, we did kind of gather that from other places, but the signature items are the ones we wanted on there. There’s a lot that we’ve come up with that we’ve thrown out too. When Jeremy came on board before Masters week, he just sat up there in an apartment at Enterprise and made every single salad and bowl and brought it down here. We’d all sit around the table and taste. We’re like “Nah, this is trashed. Oh, hell yeah, we’re keeping this.” It was that kind of fine-tuning, which has been fun for all of us.
What is the design of the place going to be like?
Havird: I would say it’s pretty eclectic. We’ve been working with a local company here in town with the interior design. I’d say its modern with that southern, rustic feel. Brittany Cason Interior Design is who we’ve been working with. She’s been awesome. Kruhu’s been doing all of our marketing.
Do you guys have a date set for your opening? Or an idea?
Havird: Right now, we’ve just said summertime and kept it pretty broad. I think mid-July is safe. Dad will want to hang (at Fat Man’s) and do his thing, and then I’ll go down that way for probably the first six months with Jeremy and make sure everything gets off the ground the way it should. And hopefully we’re doing so well in six to eight months, we’re looking to find another spot for the next one. It’s a restaurant that is systematic and simple enough that we can duplicate this thing. And you don’t need a huge space for it, which is beautiful. You don’t need to seat a hundred people inside. Half the people that come in here are going to come up to the counter, grab their stuff and probably take off back to work or go home with it.
Article appears in the June/July 2018 issue of Augusta Magazine.