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Inside Bulloch Business with DeWayne Grice - Back from the brink: R.J.'s Grill survives
Randy Nessmith Web
Randy Nessmith looks through some of the clippings he has collected through the years as owner of R.J.'s Grill. - photo by DeWAYNE GRICE/Staff

              Our community was rocked last week by the abrupt announcement that R.J.'s Grill, a Statesboro landmark, would close. Fortunately, local Statesboro businessman Stacy Underwood stepped forward and purchased the restaurant with a commitment to operate it as the R.J.'s we all know and love. And to put his own stamp on it in the coming years.
        The reaction to the initial announcement was shock and disappointment that yet another great landmark was about to disappear. I sat down with Randy Nessmith the "R" in R.J's, and owner of the restaurant, to reflect back on what brought him to his decision to close and how he sees R.J.'s future under new ownership.
        Established in 1981 by Nessmith and James Albert Brannen, hence the name R.J.'s, the restaurant quickly became a local favorite. In 1986, Randy bought Brannen's share and has been the sole owner ever since. It has been an interesting lesson of survival looking back at how Randy has made additions and adjustments through the past 35 years. Nessmith completely renovated and rebranded the restaurant to R.J.'s Grill in late 2015. The changes included a complete interior renovation, the removal of the line service and salad bar, freshening up the menu and introducing alcohol.
         "When we opened the restaurant, South Main Street was vibrant and a center of activity for the community," Nessmith said. "The land around the mall was being farmed by local farmers. Our original building was 7,500 square feet and business was brisk. We continued to expand the building and the business to our present size, which is 11,500 square feet, seating around 325 total.
        "In the early 90s, which was the peak of our business, we were serving 4,500 customers per week through our line.         Then in the late 90s our community passed liquor by the drink. That opened the door for chain restaurants to enter the market. The first one that really affected us was Longhorn's. I made a conscious decision at that time to not introduce alcohol and keep our business model focused on high quality food that was reasonably priced, with a family focused atmosphere."
        In 1996, R.J.s was recognized by the Georgia Hospitality and Travel Association as the Food Industry Leader of the Year for the entire state. Through the years, Randy received numerous awards and recognitions for his commitment to the communities he served and his innovative spirit.
        Randy was never afraid to try new concepts. This was one of his secrets of his success in keeping the restaurant fresh. He prided himself on listening to customers and filling their needs.
        Responding to customers wanting more meeting space brought about his first physical expansion of the building. That was when he added the banquet rooms. This extra space made it possible to introduce the popular Sunday buffet. Seeing a need for a fine dining experience, he added on again and created Julian's. With this expansion, he added a second kitchen.
        After moving away from the Julian's concept and converting that area to two more small meeting rooms, R.J.'s quickly become the destination for meetings of all sizes. The best part about this addition was having two kitchens so he could dedicate one completely to catering, which has since become a huge part of his business.
        Randy always offered free meeting space to local businesses, civic clubs and other groups -only charging for food. The concept really helped grow the meeting business at R.J.'s.
        The recession of 2008 proved to be a storm that was difficult to overcome.
        "Like most small business owners, our best years were the early 2000s," he said. "We saw a good bit of expansion in the mall area and a plethora of new chain restaurants opening. Normally when a new restaurant opened we saw a dip in business for a few weeks then things leveled out. That does not seem to be the case any longer.
        "We seemed to lose a little more market share each time a new restaurant opened and really struggled to regain the lost business. At 74, it just wasn't as fun as it had been to compete as hard as we had to do to survive. The sale of my additional parking lot to Little Italy injected much needed cash into our operation. I made the decision to not burn through this but use it to give me the cushion I needed to make the hard decision of shutting down the restaurant. I have always run my business with a goal of honoring God in everything I do, treating others as I wished to be treated and through it all hope that I made a difference in my employee's and customer's lives."
        I asked Randy how he thought things would be more successful under StacyUnderwood's ownership.
        "He is younger and understands the new world of computers and technology which have become integrated in our business at every level," Nessmith said. "He can make tweaks faster and more efficiently than I can. Stacy has a passion to succeed and, more importantly, lead our staff and treat our customers the way I have done all these years.
        "In addition, he has three other successful restaurants to back him up and rely on if he needs it. Not to mention the exposure and focus on revitalizing the Blue Mile, which is our front porch. It is wonderful that others are now learning that we are America's Best Community through this process.
        "His ownership will allow me to still be involved but not in control. That is much different. I look forward to improving my handicap in my golf game and enjoying much needed time with my family. I will be forever grateful for the trust and confidence of all of my customers and employees. Because of them, we made a difference in our community and with their support great things will continue."
        We all want growth and something new in our community. The history of R.J.'s is a great example of how others are affected when the current customer base is divided with new entries into the market.
        I hope this serves as a reminder of how critical it is to never take a local business for granted. Finding ways to shop local and support locally owned businesses returns great dividends to our community.
        Please email DeWayne at or give him a call at (912) 489-9499.

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