Venerable meat-and-3 Doug’s Place changes hands, but tradition stays on the menu

A customer walks by the Coca-Cola sign at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

A customer walks by the Coca-Cola sign at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

EMERSON – Word got around, as word always does in a small town with big news.

They’re closing! No, they’re being sold! They’re changing the menu! And this:They’re moving the restrooms!

For the record: false, true, false, true. When you are talking about an establishment like Doug’s Place, a longtime meat-and-three restaurant in southern Bartow County, you have to get this stuff right. Because Doug’s Place has been making things right for nearly three decades, six days out of seven, in a once-rural community that has seen Atlanta creep ever closer.

When news got out that the family that owned the community mainstay was selling the business to a Dallas restaurateur, folks were ... Well, Jack Dempsey, put down your fork and speak up.

”I was afraid they were going to change the menu,” said Dempsey, a regular. On an early November afternoon, the Acworth resident stabbed at his salmon patty and appeared to fret. But it’s not just the menu that has folks concerned, and new owner Mark Sullins understands. What ain’t broke won’t be fixed.

With the holidays approaching, it seemed particularly important that tradition, like a plate of collards, be savored.

”I think, when all is said and done, (people) will know I’m not going to hurt anything,” said Sullins. “Not reinvent the wheel.”

Fried porkchops with gravy is shown with three sides, pinto beans, baked macaroni and cheese, and green beans, at Doug’s Place on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

If Doug’s Place is a wheel, it’s supported by spokes – church groups, hard-hatters, office workers, families visiting the nearby LakePoint Sports athletic complex, cops, mechanics, more. Each has contributed to the restaurant’s success. Sullins plans to take that firm business foundation and build from there. The new owner estimates he will have invested more than $2 million by the time he’s finished with the place next year. This is on his plate:

  • Adding about 50% more space to boost the restaurant’s footprint to 6,500 square feet.
  • Increasing dining capacity from about 118 to 160.
  • Changing the drive-thru takeout so that it operates behind the building. Currently, takeout service is inside, crammed beside a register.
  • Creating a one-level restaurant. Doug’s Place now has three levels.
  • Paving a dusty, graveled parking lot.
  • Moving and enlarging the restrooms to comply with the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.

And perhaps the main course: A community room where folks waiting to eat can view a film detailing the history of Doug’s Place – and, by extension, that of the city of Emerson and Bartow County.

What’s not changing is the spot Doug’s Place holds in the hearts of its patrons and employees; that’s a love affair years in the making. History is a little hazy about when the wood-frame building took shape in Emerson, about 40 miles north of Atlanta. The best guess is that it was erected not long after the turn of the 20th century where Old Allatoona Road now crosses Gaston Westbrook Avenue.

What is certain is that an enterprising man named Union Paris opened a store there. It was hardly Le Cordon Bleu; Paris dished out pork and beans, crackers and hoop cheese.

In 1952, the Morris family bought it and expanded the menu to include chicken, fish, meatloaf and other stick-to-your-ribs entrees. Evenings, people gathered outside to do what they do best: talk.

Customer Bethany Jackson, left, has lunch with her father Steven Spradley, right, mother Debi Spradley, bottom right, and niece Tatum Walker, bottom left, at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Customers eat lunch at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

In 1994, the Morrises sold to Melissa and Doug Ferguson, who had a marketing plan: Rename the place, expand the menu and hire young women to hustle food from a kitchen that echoed with the clang of spatulas, the spatter of oil.

That was the environment 14-year-old Aaron Ferguson encountered when he went to work washing dishes at his mom and dad’s restaurant 28 years ago.

”He wanted people to have plenty to eat,” said Aaron Ferguson, who took an increasing role in the restaurant’s operations, especially after his father died in 2007. In an average week, Doug’s Place serves about 400 pounds of chicken breasts, another 200 in legs and just as many pounds of livers. Ferguson intends to remain in the kitchen, as well as the counter out front, as Doug’s Place goes forward under new ownership. He understands that the relationship folks have with the restaurant is more about heart than stomach.

”People panic when things change,” he said one November morning, sitting with Sullins. “A lot of people hold this place pretty dear.”

Emerson is a place where folks hold each other dear, too. When longtime Mayor Al Pallone and his wife, Camillia, were killed in a car wreck a few weeks ago, Doug’s Place became a place to remember the beloved couple.

“Emerson is a better place because of Al and his leadership,” Sullins said in a post on the restaurant’s Facebook page after the accident. “Doug’s Place would like to extend our condolences to the Pallone family and let them know they are in our thoughts and prayers. If you can, take a moment and say a prayer for everyone involved.”

Assuming ownership of a place in such a close community is not for the faint-hearted. Sullins is not. As a young soldier, he watched the Iraqi War unfold from the gunner’s door of a Huey gunship. He returned to his native Cedartown and joined the family cleaning business, soon starting his own. He also bought a laundry and some rental properties. In 2017, he bought Big-Un’s Biscuits in Dallas.

And his latest venture?

”If you get the right people in place,” he said, “everything will be fine.”

Folks like server Jessica Shaw, who started work at Doug’s Place after finishing high school 20 years ago.

”I told them they may have to wheel me around in a wheelchair,” said Shaw, the mother of two who also shows maternal affection to diners, offering a hug along with their meals. “They can’t keep me away.”

Server Tammy Sierra gives customer Jack Dempsey a hug at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

The U.S. Census doesn’t have a lot to say about the Etowah Valley, an area including the municipalities of Cartersville, Emerson, Adairsville and White. Population surveys for those towns indicate that the region is growing, if slowly. Cartersville grew by about 4,000 people from 2010 to last year. Adairsville added more than 300 residents in that time. Kingston managed to add 100. Emerson has remained steady at about 1,400.

The gradual change, said Emerson resident Bill Popham, is apparent to any Doug’s Place regular. Increasingly, he sees newcomers crowding into a place that was already standing-room-only. It’s particularly noteworthy during spring and summer youth baseball season, when players and their families visit LakePoint, a mile from the restaurant. They’ve got to eat somewhere between games.

The restaurant also enjoys international cachet, Popham said. A few years ago, Popham and his wife were on a Caribbean cruise he when struck up a conversation with a guy beside him. When Popham mentioned that he was from little old Emerson, Georgia, the other man responded, ”Doug’s Place!”

A photograph of Doug Ferguson is shown at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. Doug Ferguson is the founder of Doug’s Place. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

”A lot of people didn’t know about Emerson until they heard about Doug’s Place,” Popham said.

Emerson is set to gain some notoriety, said Joe Head, vice president of the Etowah Valley Historical Society. He plans to work with the new owner on the film detailing the area’s history. As the movie folks say, it’s in development.

”He seems to have the right spirit for renovation,” Head said. “It’s going to be successful.”

If Doug’s Place continues attracting the likes of David Greeson and Starr Gragg, its bottom line is assured. They arrived at 10:59 a.m. the other day, having driven nearly an hour from Chatsworth, to squeak in just before the lunch rush begins. He’s partial to the pork chops; she likes the meatloaf.

”It’s good country cooking,” said David Greeson, who is retired.

“When we started dating, he brought me here,” said Gragg, who a nurse. They reckon they’ve been 100 times since then.

A server delivers lunch to three customers at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Two walls away, clustered at a table just large enough to accommodate them, sat Cartersville residents and regulars Tatum Walker, her mother, Bethany Jackson, and her grandparents, Steven and Debi Spradley. For Tatum, Doug’s Place has been a lifelong destination. She’s 5.

”Our initial concern was that they’d change it,” said Debi Spradley.

”It’s a great place to get a meat and three,” said Jackson, her daughter.

”As long as they don’t change it,” Steven Spradley said, “things will be great.”

Customers David Greeson, left, and Starr Gragg eat lunch at Doug’s Place, a meat and three restaurant, on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Doug’s Place owner Mark Sullins, right, is shown with Aaron Ferguson outside at the Doug’s Place sign on Old Allatoona Road, Thursday, November 3, 2022, in Emerson, Ga. Aaron is the son of founder Doug Ferguson. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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Credit: Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com

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