Like many successful businesses, the Redneck Gourmet began as one idea that slowly morphed into another.
“A lot of people would probably be shocked to learn that we didn’t start out as a restaurant,” explains Cile Smith, who founded the Redneck Gourmet along with her late husband, Mike Smith, in 1991.
In fact, the restaurant was truly an afterthought.
Cile, then a stay-at-home mother of three teenagers, devised the idea for a store selling gourmet and fancy foods and gift baskets in an era before most grocery stores catered to this market. Mike, a long-time insurance executive, had recently sold his business. Suddenly finding himself with time on his hands, Mike offered to help his wife make her dream a reality.
After renting a building on the courthouse square in their long-time home of Newnan, Georgia, the Smiths battled over a fundamental part of the new establishment: What to name it.
Inspired by talking with friend David Boyd, the syndicated political cartoonist and illustrator who was just beginning a long-time collaboration with humorist Jeff Foxworthy on his You Might Be a Redneck If… books, Mike proposed “the Redneck Gourmet.”
Explaining that he was the redneck and his wife, well known locally for her culinary expertise, was the gourmet, the one-time state patrolman and University of Georgia football player sold hard. “I hated the name at first,” Cile says. “But I lost the argument.”
While Cile concentrated on making the retail store successful, Mike built a small deli bar in the back, augmented by three tables, where he served daily lunch specials.
“The restaurant really started as a way for my dad to serve lunch to his friends,” says son and current owner Casey, who helped his father cook and take orders from the start.
Quickly the demand for Mike’s home-made style sandwiches, hot dogs, Brunswick Stew and other specialties—all made from the freshest ingredients—exceeded the available space, so the Smiths expanded into an adjoining building. In no time at all, the Redneck Gourmet became the lunch place in downtown Newnan, catering to a devoted crowd of regulars. Soon the hours expanded to include breakfast and eventually dinner as well.
“The main reason the Redneck took off was the food,” says David Boyd, who co-authored the book Cooking With Lard with Mike Smith and Mike Steed. “Mike had very high standards in his cooking, and Cile makes some of the best deserts you’ve ever put in your mouth.”
Customers from Newnan and far beyond have raved for years about the Redneck’s famous Reuben sandwich, its elaborate menu of “nearly famous” hot dogs (served only on Friday and Saturday), and Cile’s specialty deserts, including homemade-style pound cake, cookies and kahlua crunch.
As Newnan quickly evolved from small Georgia town to fast-growing Atlanta suburb crowded with a long list of chain restaurants offering familiar fare, the Redneck Gourmet carved a distinctive niche as the local place with tasty food at a reasonable price and an inviting ambience, often referred to it as “the Cheers of Newnan.” Through the years, the restaurant has been featured on CNN, Atlanta’s WAGA-TV Channel 5, Southern Living, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other major media outlets—many first attracted, no doubt, by the unusual name.
In time, as area grocery stores began catering to specialty foods customers, Cile and Mike closed the gift store operation and concentrated their resources on the restaurant side of the business.
“It’s funny how things turn out,” says Cile, who still handles the restaurant’s catering and deserts.
After a long illness, Mike Smith passed away in 2002, but his spirit remains very much alive in the place.
Since purchasing the business from Mike and Cile in 1999, Casey Smith and his wife Melissa have taken the concept to an entirely different level, expanding the original Newnan location, opening a second restaurant in Senoia, Georgia, and preparing for the possibility of future Redneck Gourmets.
“We’ve experienced a tremendous amount of growth the last few years and we want to continue to grow the business,” says Casey, a savvy entrepreneur who has skillfully modernized the operation without sacrificing quality or atmosphere.
Under the next generation, the foundation remains a commitment to a quality food experience at a reasonable price. Casey has dramatically expanded the menu in recent years, meeting market demand for a wide variety of wraps, roll-ups, chicken and fish while maintaining the core deli staples that first made the Redneck popular.
“I want people to think of us as a place with good food that makes them feel at home,” Smith says. “It’s not real complicated, but maintaining the level of quality and consistency on a daily basis is very important to us.”
The original location was never perfectly suited to the needs of a popular restaurant, so after managing to purchase his building in downtown Newnan, Casey gutted it and methodically rebuilt it—handling most of the construction himself, with help from a small group of trusted employees.
“It wasn’t quite a demolition but it was close,” Casey says with a laugh.
The new restaurant, complete with a modern kitchen, seats nearly 100, a far cry from the dozen or so seats available in the first incarnation of the Redneck Gourmet—or the 40 seats at the time of Mike’s death.
“Casey had this dream of what the Redneck could become,” Melissa says. “There have been times when I was afraid he had bitten off more than he could chew…when he was out there swinging a sledgehammer and covered in dust, working till the wee hours of the morning…but he has always proven me wrong.”
Opening the Senoia location in the eastern part of Coweta County in 2008—which quickly built a steady following all its own—allowed the Smiths to start from scratch, building what amounted to a model restaurant in case they should ever decide to move forward on franchising.
“We’ve learned a lot from the Senoia experience…and also proved the concept works beyond Newnan,” Casey says.
As the Redneck Gourmet approaches its 20th anniversary, the Smiths continue to embrace growth while continuing to cultivate the intimate deli feel that made the place special.