As Morgan Murphy prepared for graduation from Georgia Southern University in 2011, the hospitality major imagined a life of fine foods and beverages while working at a posh hotel or ritzy restaurant.
He, like so many other graduates, had big dreams of bright lights in the big city. Sometimes, though, life takes an unexpected turn.
After four years in the kitchen at Dingus MaGee's in Statesboro and 18 months at the Westin Hilton Head Island Spa & Resort, Murphy found his calling in southwest Georgia. He packed his bags and headed back to his hometown of Thomasville.
"When I left for Georgia Southern, I never thought about coming home to work," Murphy said. "I did not think there would be an opportunity for me here to use my degree for tourism and restaurant management. I was wrong."
Thomasville is a city known for roses; however, the city is also making a name for itself in the world of cheese. For the past two years, Murphy has served as manager of Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop.
"A friend told me what the owners, Jeremy and Jessica Little, wanted to do here, and after talking with them, I fell in love with their concept because it's all about caring about your products," he said.
At the Sweet Grass Dairy, Murphy explained, the cows are treated more like people, and that has apparently led to a much better-tasting cheese produced from their rich milk. Murphy said these cows are not confined to stalls. They are free to roam the pasture with plenty of food, water and shelter and just be happy cows.
The work at the dairy has not gone unnoticed. Sweet Grass Dairy Cheese Shop was named one of the four Outstanding Retailers of 2013 selected by Specialty Food Magazine. Murphy and the owners traveled to New York on July 1 to be honored during the sofi Awards at the Summer Fancy Food Show for their outstanding commitment to premium food, service and loyalty to their community.
"This was the Academy Awards for specialty foods," he said. "We were able to share our story with so many magazine writers. Our phones have been ringing off the hook with companies wanting us to carry their products. This is a great way for us to get our name out to a national and even a global audience and show what we are doing."
Murphy's success doesn't surprise his former management professor, Dr. Leslie Furr.
"Many of our students do very well managing retail food and beverage businesses," Furr said. "Morgan is a classic example of a man who meshes personality with a management style that creates a near-perfect sales atmosphere for his store in Thomasville."
Sweet Grass Dairy now sells more than 60 cheeses. Some are made there while others are produced at farms around the world. The popularity has helped Murphy transform what he considered a retail store with three tables for dining into a restaurant/retail store with 15 tables along with a menu of sandwiches and drinks. A full-service restaurant opens in November, and Murphy will manage it, too.
Murphy credits his education with giving him the skills needed to help the owners grow their business.
"In Georgia Southern's hospitality program, we were always given real-life situations," he said. "It was challenging because the professors forced us to think on our feet and come up with quick, workable solutions to a problem. The university gave me the training and the confidence needed to know what to do and how to react to the variety of situations we face every day in our business."
Furr points out that Murphy is not the only Department of Management alumnus doing well. He recognized the accomplishments of other entrepreneur owners, including Thomas Duncan with Off the Docks Seafood in Atlanta, Chris Anderson with Pints and Slices in Atlanta, Jason Fitts with two restaurants in north Georgia and Brandon Miller with three Zaxby's franchises in Alabama.
"The Hospitality program seems to attract people who want to excel on their own terms," Furr said. "We give them tools such as a business planning course and basic human resource and accounting skills that seem to be necessary for successful small business managers. Georgia Southern University attracts and trains students who are destined to make a difference in our region. The students who apply themselves in our small business management/hospitality curriculum are willing to take hold of their future."
As manager, Murphy does a little of everything. In his world, a typical day includes accounting, pricing products, making sandwiches, slicing cheese and even mopping floors. He goes all in to make every day a successful one.
"The best part of my day is coming in, talking with customers and making them happy," he said. "We have people coming in from all over the United States to see, taste and experience what we are doing. It makes my day being able to serve and talk with them. It makes me proud of the products we represent when I see the smiles on their faces."
For Murphy, that is just good ol' Southern hospitality — Georgia Southern style.