Fresh Air Bar-B-Que

The following multimedia documentary was produced for “Documentary Photojournalism” during my senior year. It includes a 1700+ word long-form feature story, a collection of 42 images, and two audio clips.

Fresh Air Bar-B-Que: A Look into a Family’s Restaurant and Southern Barbecue Culture
By Marlee Middlebrooks

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The Barbecue Lunch Buffet
Hot, steamy, barbecue pork paired with a famous vinegar based sauce, hand breaded porkchops, fresh cole slaw and a salad bar, fried okra and onion rings, cheesy macaroni and cheese, squash casserole and green beans and banana pudding for dessert are just some of the hot ticket items that may appear on the “All-U-Care-To-Eat” Lunch Buffet at Fresh Air Bar-B-Que, a local family owned restaurant in Athens, Georgia.

The restaurant is open Wednesday through Saturday, and they offer their lunch buffet to customers Wednesday through Friday 11 a.m. until 2 p.m. Chris Brewer, co-owner of Fresh Air Bar-B-Que in Athens, Georgia, says that when the restaurant first opened people didn’t really know their food.

“That’s when I decided to do the buffet which greatly increased our lunch business and added to our reputation because more and more people were coming out here for a barbecue buffet,” says Chris Brewer. “There wasn’t anything like that here in town. That didn’t fit the mold of what we were trying to do, but sometimes, you have to do other things if things aren’t going the way you want.”

The customers agree with Chris Brewer. Melinda Matthews, retired, from Madison County, Georgia, comes to Fresh Air Bar-B-Que with her husband, Rex Matthews, also retired, because they are drawn to the atmosphere.

“For the buffet, 10 dollars for everything is just unreal. The food is fantastic. The barbecue is good. The pork chops are good. The chicken is good. And then, they have all of the vegetables you can even imagine. I’ve never had anything that wasn’t good here,” says Melinda Matthews. “They’re always very nice and friendly. The atmosphere and the food and the price make this place, and I hope it stays this way.”

The Restaurant History
Fresh Air Bar-B-Que originated in Jackson, Georgia, in 1929. The original location was owned by Wilson Caston, Chris Brewer’s grandfather, until he died in 1996. Caston had two daughters; Chris Brewer’s father, Jim Brewer, married into the family and into the business. Chris Brewer was raised in Jackson, Georgia, especially around his family’s business.

“The first recollection I probably have of working as a kid was peeling onions and potatoes. I never had much of anything to do with cooking the meat until I was probably 16. Until that time, though, many nights I would go down with my father—we were using strictly a stick burner type of pit—at 10 or 11 o’clock in my pajamas, and I’d watch him throw logs on there,” says Chris Brewer. “From the time I was 8, I was bussing tables. Then, I graduated up to working the counter and chopping meat. By the time I was out of high school, there was not a job that I didn’t know inside and out.”

When Caston passed away, his two daughter’s inherited the business. Jim Brewer handled his wife’s interest in the restaurant, and the other daughter’s interest was handled by her sons, George and David Barber. Today, the Barber brothers co-own the original Jackson location.

“We try to sell a good product, one that we’ve been serving for generations. We try to keep the price right and the quality up,” says David Barber.

Jim Brewer moved to Statham, Georgia, after divorcing his wife, and together, him and his son opened the Athens location in 1997. The Jackson location is still operating, though it remains more rustic in its appearance and more standard in its menu.

“It’s not broke, and they’re really not trying to fix too much. Obviously, they tweak things here and there, but they’re much more resistant to change because their customers don’t really want change. I’ve been able to do some things here that are a little different,” says Chris Brewer. “But over the counter, our product, I think, is the same or very similar. Some people say it’s the same. Some people say it’s not as good. Some people say it’s better. I really don’t know. I’m not trying to be better than them. I’m just trying to put the same product out there that I know, and sometimes, it just takes having to reinvent the wheel a little bit to stay in business.”

Malcolm Green, retired, from Macon, Georgia, has been coming to the original Fresh Air Bar-B-Que since he recalls there being “saw dust on the floors.”

“My family’s been coming here for many, many years. We used to come when this was the only Fresh Air Bar-B-Que. It was interesting to come here and see all of the [car] tags [of people] that came here because they were from Griffin, Atlanta, McDonough, Macon…a lot of people knew about it and came,” says Green. “Their barbecue has just been exceptional. That’s the reason people will make the drive to come here for it. They are just strictly barbecue, and they do barbecue and do it right.”

The Family Lifestyle Continues
Today, Chris Brewer and his wife, Kimberley Brewer, co-own the Athens location. They have two sons, Wilson, 16, and Charlie, 13. Wilson Brewer, a high school sophomore, was named after his great grandfather, Wilson Caston. Like his dad, Wilson Brewer, says, “my whole life I’ve grown up around the restaurant, coming here with my dad. I can’t think of a time in my life where I haven’t.”

He began attending deliveries with his dad at age 5. At age 14, he came in to learn how to make brunswick stew. Most recently, at 16, he has begun working behind the counter.

“Before, I was as tall as the carts that we use to push stuff around. I would be underneath them watching things get done. Then, I went from doing that to working behind the counter and serving food to people,” says Wilson Brewer. “It’s opened me up as a person more being able to interact with a lot of people I’ve seen my whole life coming into the restaurant.”

Chris Brewer says that he has never wanted to push his kids toward the restaurant business, but “ultimately, they’ve just grown up here.” Since Wilson Brewer is 16 and because he has been homeschooled since fifth grade, Chris Brewer says he has had the most opportunities to be involved.

“I don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen to this place, but I try not to let that consume me. I just really want them to experience what this is about. I try to teach [Wilson] a little bit of this and a little bit of that and try to instill in him what we’re all about, but I’ll let him decide where he’s at. It’s been fun,” says Chris Brewer.

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Wilson Brewer hopes that Fresh Air Bar-B-Que is preserved the way it was when his great grandfather was running it and that it remains a name.

“I don’t know for how long I’ll presently be working at the restaurant. I have no way of knowing what way my life will go. Regardless of what direction my life goes, I am pretty dedicated to making sure Fresh Air Bar-B-Que will stay true to my great grandfather,” says Wilson Brewer.

The Committed Customers
Though there are some differences between the locations, one rule that is standard to the Fresh Air Bar-B-Que culture from Jackson to Athens are its committed customers. Jamey Greene, an electrical contractor, from McDonough, Georgia, is a loyal customer of the Jackson location.

“I remember coming here as a young child. I’m 43, and I remember coming when I was like 5. I come here at least 4 times a month because I work in the area, and it brings back lots of good memories because I used to come with my dad and grandad,” says Greene. “The food is always consistent. Barbecue is definitely a staple in the south. There’s so many different restaurants, and there’s lots of different styles of barbecue, but Fresh Air is my favorite for their vinegar sauce.”

Richard Gordon, retired, from Athens, Georgia, was first introduced to Fresh Air Bar-B-Que at the original restaurant in Jackson, and he has maintained his loyalty to the food and the people ever since.

“My first venture in with Fresh Air Bar-B-Que was down in Jackson. I had a friend in the Air Force, and he came home, and he hollered at me one day during the week and said, ‘Come on, let’s go somewhere. I want to carry you somewhere to eat that’s good.’ Down the road we went,” says Gordon. “We got down there, and it was the old original Fresh Air, and I don’t know…I fell in love with it after that. Then, when I saw the sign coming up over here, I said, ‘Wow, Fresh Air’s coming to this area.’ I was excited, and I watched the building go up. It was a big thing to me to see them open up because I had seen the one down in Jackson—the old original.”

Gordon has remained a loyal customer since that opening day in 1997. He still comes in for the “good okra, good corn, and the very, very good barbecue pork.” He says it is by far the atmosphere that keeps him a steady customer.

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“A place like this just invites people to make themselves a part and to talk to me. When people see me, they always want to ask me questions about this and about that, and I always do my best to help them understand what I do,” says Chris Brewer.

Wilson Brewer says that generally the workers put the food on the counter and call the customer’s name when his/her order is ready, especially when the restaurant is busy. However, if it is a slower day and it is a person who has been coming a while, he says he will take the food to him/her and talk to and get to know a little about him/her.

“It is cool having dedicated people who come in here once or twice a week to eat our food. Getting to talk to different people who are from all different parts of Georgia and the world but for whatever reason are now in Athens and have come to eat Fresh Air Bar-B-Que is cool,” says Wilson Brewer. “I’ve grown up here my whole life, and [this place] has always been a part of my life, but the fact that it’s a part of other people’s lives as well is really cool.”

4 thoughts on “Fresh Air Bar-B-Que

  1. Thank you for doing such a great job on this documentary about my family’s business in Athens and Jackson. I was really thrilled when my sister-in-law Kimberly shared it with me and you have really captured a lot of great information, photographs and history of my grandfather’s legacy. I hope you don’t mind me sharing it with a lot of rabid barbecue fans! Best of luck with your future, which this shows will no doubt be successful! Michael Brewer

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for reading it. I am so glad she shared it with you, and I would love for you to share it with as many people as possible! I so enjoyed producing this documentary, and I am very thankful that you feel that I was able to capture your grandfather’s legacy. Thanks again! All the best, Marlee

      Like

  2. Chris Brewer, wonderful article! Remembering you & Mike, my boys, the Phillips boys, the Leverette girls in our neighborhood. Great memories! So proud to see you’re keeping the Butts Co Fresh Air Bar-B-Que legend alive & successful in Athens. Wishing you well and successful in all areas of life!
    Nancy Waits

    Liked by 1 person

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