Deacon Blues BBQ owners Arthur Barefoot and Karen O’Neal opened the place June 12 and so had a couple of months to bring it up to speed before their near neighbor Georgia Southern University welcomes thousands of hungry students for fall semester.
At 721 South Main Street, Deacon Blues is in the retail complex with Dish Lifestyle Boutique, near the beginning of the Blue Mile and across from the university’s historic Sweetheart Circle entrance.
“We kind of wanted to get open and work on things before the students got here, and we have. We’ve learned a lot,” Barefoot said. “Our food is good, it was good to start with, but our efficiency is so much better than the first day we were here. I mean we’re able to do something really good, really fast. We’re getting everybody’s food out pretty quick.”
For the first two weeks the restaurant served dinners only, and the owners invited some friends and dignitaries for special meals. Now Deacon Blues is open for lunch and dinner Monday through Saturday and for lunch on Sunday. They have also experimented with breakfast, but Barefoot said he is not ready to make it a regular part of the schedule yet.
Meats on the menu include pit-cooked chopped pork, ribs, beef brisket and barbecued chicken. There are combo plates of any of these and a selection of sandwiches for lunch specials. Sides include collard greens, Brunswick stew, coleslaw, baked beans, potato salad and macaroni and cheese.
The Brunswick stew gets the most compliments, Barefoot reports. He adapted it from his mother’s recipe.
Some friends who are very successful in the restaurant business have told him he should charge more for the food, Barefoot said. But he wants to keep the prices low.
“We want to make money doing this, but the primary thing we want to do, we want to make people happy,” he said. “We want to make somebody’s day better by the food we feed them.”
O’Neal and Barefoot are a couple as well as business partners.
“Both of us have been in other businesses before, and we’re both entrepreneurs, but the restaurant business is definitely different than anything we’ve ever done before,” he said.
He still owns a Dish TV franchise, Advantage Cable, and has been in the satellite television business since 1984, but said it is a fading industry because of the rise of streaming services. Besides, he was approaching his mid-50s and looking for a new challenge.
“If I want to have a good time, I invite 10 or 15 couples to the house and we’ll feed them, and I decided, you know what, if I’m going to have a second career before I die, it’s going to be something I’m passionate about,” Barefoot said.
O’Neal, who grew up in Statesboro, has been a healthcare executive for the past 20 years. First a licensed practical nurse, she went to Georgia Southern for her accounting degree, and the combination carried her to experiences such as 11 years as CEO of the hospital in Reidsville. She now travels around the country doing consulting work in healthcare management.
Her income from this and willingness to invest in the restaurant made it possible, he said.
You will not always see O’Neal at Deacon Blues, but you can find Barefoot there almost any time when it’s open, and he starts his day several hours before opening time. He got his grill master certification online before launching the restaurant and has done several catering gigs since it opened.
It’s his passion
“This is his dream. This is his passion,” O’Neal said. “Arthur is the one who gets out of bed early every morning.”
“About 5 o’clock,” he said.
Barefoot even did all the remodeling work on the interior of the place, except that O’Neal’s son Danny Brinson built the food service bar as a gift for his mother.
The walls are painted Eagles blue and festooned with photos and other Georgia Southern sports memorabilia.
Yes, the owners like the song by Steely Dan, but that isn’t why they named the restaurant “Deacon Blues,” they said.
The “deacon” part, at least, is a tribute to his father, Henry Arthur Barefoot Sr., who passed away about two years ago after long service as a deacon at a Baptist church in Cordele.
“My dad was a quiet man – unlike me – but he was a quiet, humble man, involved in the church,” said Arthur Barefoot. “He was a deacon there, and some of my fondest childhood memories are of my dad barbecuing for the church, and then it got to the point later in life where it became barbecuing for anybody in the community, and he never charged anybody anything.”
“So the deacon is my dad, and you’ve got to have some blues with barbecue, and ‘Blue’ is a wonderful word when you’re a Georgia Southern fan,” he said.