After three generations and 52 years of serving the best BBQ in Summerville, Georgia, the iconic restaurant started by J.D. Armstrong has finally closed the doors and turned off the neon pigs for the last time. While some people recall the early days of Armstrong’s with J.D. and Ethel serving their secret BBQ sauce, most people in Chattooga remember the decades of Johnny and Linda behind the counter and eventually J.D.’s grandson Wes taking his turn running the restaurant, the one face that has served customers for all three generations of Armstrong, is Debbie Brown.
Debbie Brown was the final waitress hired by J.D. Armstrong, founder of Armstrong’s BBQ in Summerville in 1978. “I was the last waitress hired by J.D. before he retired,” Debbie said. The BBQ joint had become famous since opening in 1965 for it’s secret BBQ sauce. While 22 year-old Debbie had never actually been to Armstrong’s prior to getting the job, her great customer service and small town charm quickly made her the face of the business.
Small town businesses often struggle to make ends meet and very few last for more than one generation of owners. Bryant & Sons Lumber and Armstrong’s BBQ sit across the street from each other and are two of the most widely recognized businesses in the county. Both withstood the test of time and the change of leadership that comes with a family owned business. Armstrong’s gained a loyal following of BBQ devotees with their world-famous BBQ sauce. Debbie recalls visitors as far as Missouri making the annual trip to Summerville just for a taste of Armstrong’s. Johnny and Linda’s granddaughter, Isabella, wrote a touching essay reviewing the history of her family’s restaurant and the journey through southern heritage it represented.
According to Isabella’s story, J.D. Armstrong visited Summerville in the early 1960’s with his wife, Ethel. J.D. saw a ‘For Sale’ sign on a lot where an old wood frame barber shop stood. JD was living in Birmingham, Alabama at the time and he liked everything about Summerville. The small population and the quaint location were just what he had been looking for. “He took everything he had, his wife and $5,000, and bought the property, it was where he started working on his dream,” The Armstrong family remained in Birmingham and, over the following two years, they commuted from Birmingham to Summerville. Working 10 hours a day, six days a week in Birmingham, J.D. would then haul supplies to Summerville, sleep on floors and eat off hot plates until the building was complete. The whole thing was in pieces. The blocks for the building were picked up as ‘seconds’ which J.D. would transport to Summerville in a U-Haul. He and a friend laid every block by hand. “It was his dream.” And in 1965 J.D.’s dream became a reality when Armstrong’s opened their doors for business.
As J.D. retired and handed the reins off to his son, Johnny Armstrong, the business continued to flourish. The Armstrong’s dining room became an extension of Chattooga County’s families own kitchens. Through the years, as the business grew, Debbie was always there. “Next month it would have been 39 years for me,” Debbie said. AllOnGeorgia asked Debbie what she was going to miss the most, “my customers, I have some that come in from out-of-state, one couple is from Missouri, I may never see them again.”
Johnny and Linda Armstrong still are owners of the property and restaurant and told AllOnGeorgia that the business will remain closed until they decide what they want to do with it.
Debbie watched the cooks and other waitresses come and go until only she remained. Hustling food orders out, refilling drinks and serving pie, always making customers feel like they were in a friendly place. Chattooga’s own version of Cheers.
Despite her decades of loyal service, the final closing came as a shock to Debbie, who drove by the restaurant to see a “Dining Room Closed” sign on the door. Within a few weeks, the closing was made permanent and Debbie moved on to waiting tables and serving country cuisine with a country smile in Lafayette.
Debbie said she had so many good memories of Armstrong’s she really didn’t know where to begin, “I loved that place,” she said. Debbie has already began working full time in Lafayette at C.J.s and hopes that some of her customers who became friends over the years will make the drive to come and visit her at work.
For those in Summerville, driving down Highway 27 past the Armstrong’s building with its neon pigs and white-tiled facade, there will remain a sense of loss, memories of a great family and a legendary sauce that will forever remain… a secret.
Debbie summed it up by saying, “I’m okay….it just happens.”
Restaurants that stay in business for fifty plus years are rare these days, but a waitress serving customers for four decades at the same the restaurant is both rare and special.
And while Debbie was a member of their staff, she became a member of our family.