John Garner was back to routine Monday morning, arriving to work by 7:30. He began his kitchen prep work for the day, rattling the pots and pans at the site of his A&J Tasty Pig restaurant in Grayson. But over in Snellville, home to the original version of his barbecue joint, things are far from normal.
There, at the corner of U.S. Highway 78 and Ga. Highway 124, what's left of the Snellville eatery is covered in soot. A fire late Wednesday destroyed the restaurant, demolishing a place dear to the hearts of many who enjoyed breakfast biscuits, good barbecue and lots of conversation at the Tasty Pig.
A Snellville institution, it was a place where politics and high school football were discussed with equal fervor. A place where you could catch up with old friends. A place where Garner knew most everyone's name.
"If (a customer) was sick, you'd talk about it and find out how they were doing," Garner said. "You knew that certain people came in and ate on Tuesday nights and certain people came in and ate on Wednesday nights.
"It was like a family because you knew everyone."
Losing a place like that hurts a community. Even more so these days when chains rule the restaurant industry. Gwinnett needs more places like A&J Tasty Pig - places with character and stories - not less.
A good example of that independent nature is how the Tasty Pig came to serve potato wedges instead of fries. One day the kitchen ran out of fries and Garner sent an employee down to the store to buy potatoes, which he cut up and served.
"They went over so big we didn't even serve fries anymore after that," he said.
Garner said he's always enjoyed the freedom that comes with owning his own place, but over the last few days he's learned it's more than a business. Since receiving the call Wednesday night that his place was on fire, he's heard from dozens and dozens of well wishers, even finding a hand-written letter placed in front of the restaurant offering condolences along with details of the many times the man's family had eaten there.
"It's very touching," Garner said. "In this business - any business I guess - you just work and you work and you work, and you don't think about things like that. All the gestures and phone calls, all the people who have been supportive, I'd like to thank each and every one."
Garner bought the restaurant nine years ago, and the name came with it. The name worked well for Garner, whose children are named Allie and Jack, and the restaurant worked well too. In addition to dine-in customers, Garner provided catering, serving food to everyone from Brookwood, Shiloh and South Gwinnett high schools to the Boy Scouts and local churches.
The restaurant had a homey feel to it, with pictures of local teams and local residents covering the walls along with pigs of every shape and size sitting wherever there was space. Garner, who closed the Snellville store last fall while concentrating on the new Grayson location, said many locals stopped by asking for those pictures during the restaurant's hiatus.
But less than a month ago, he opened the Snellville venue again and things were starting to pick up. "I was just starting to get customers back," he said. "We were just getting the word out."
Now the pictures have been taken down, most ruined by water damage. And the pigs sit in the kitchen area, soaking in 55-gallon drums filled with bleach, a plan Garner hopes helps him salvage the mementos.
The memories, however, are a different deal. He'll have plenty of help saving those.
Todd Cline can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears on Tuesdays.
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