By Allison Law
Most folks don’t venture into the restaurant industry during their retirement years. But for Don White, the decision to start running a restaurant was rooted in a desire to help his family as well as a commitment to the little community he calls home.
White’s investment in the South Forty restaurant, which is served by Southern Pine EC, has been a boon to the tiny town of Repton in Conecuh County, population 282. There are few dining options around, and to have a place that serves a variety of hot, tasty food three times a day is invaluable.
“It’s been very good to us, and we’ve enjoyed it,” White says.
After he retired from the railroad, he and his wife, Patricia, wanted to help their sons get started with a business. The idea was for them to buy the existing South Forty restaurant, work together as a family to build up the customer base, and then White would step back to let the younger generation take over.
But sons and their families found success in other businesses. Many of them still help out at the restaurant, so it’s very much a family affair, but no one is really in a position to take over full time. So White has put it up for sale, but has had to counter the rumor that he was going to close the restaurant.
“I told my wife, it won’t sell overnight. You’ve got to be patient and wait. Somebody will come in and buy it. You’ve got to find somebody who wants to step out on a limb. We definitely stepped out on a limb.”
He’s been approached by a couple who asked if he would stay on while if they purchased the restaurant. He has no problem with that, he says; he wants to see someone succeed. “You work 10 years for something, then to just watch it go down? I don’t want that.”
Steaks, burgers and more
The prices at South Forty are tough to beat: A 16-ounce ribeye with a side, beverage and a salad is just over $20. White can keep his costs down, thanks to family members who pitch in to help; because he has his retirement from the railroad, the restaurant isn’t his main source of income.
“I’ve got one up on everybody else, because I can set my prices like I want,” he says, but that doesn’t mean he skimps on the quality of the food.
The South Forty’s steaks, which are fresh cut weekly, are popular choices, but burgers are his biggest sellers. These are no skimpy patties: they’re one-pound, all-beef burgers. “When I bought (the restaurant), people said, don’t change them,” and he hasn’t.
Besides the beef burgers and ribeye steaks, there are dinners featuring catfish, chicken tenders, fantail shrimp, country fried steak and more; appetizers (including the “South Forty Roundup” – homemade potato slices loaded with cheese, bacon bits and chives, a holdover from the previous owner); sandwiches; and loaded baked potatoes.
And there are salads, including the “Trashcan Salad,” another holdover from the previous owner, with grilled and fried chicken, popcorn shrimp, ham and turkey.
“How she came up with that name, I don’t know! The salad is huge – you cannot eat the whole thing,” White says, laughing.
It’s about community
White is proud of the charitable contributions South Forty makes – “probably more than we should.” They donate mostly to local causes and organizations, and have been known to comp the meals of first responders as well a few folks, “who, you know they’ve been through a lot.”
One of those folks was Steve Fugate, known as the “Love Life guy,” who lost a son to suicide and daughter to an accidental overdose. Fugate has walked across the country multiple times to spread his message of loving life, and to use his tragedies as a way to encourage others.
His travels took him near the South Forty, and when White’s family saw him, they fixed a meal for him. Fugate made an impression on White, who felt moved to contribute toward his cause; Fugate, in turn, mentioned South Forty in his book.
Given its rural location, the patrons are mostly locals; White says To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee and her sister, Alice, would come to eat from nearby Monroeville, “and nobody would bother them.”
Perhaps the Lee sisters also liked the friendliness of the staff. “We put an emphasis on friendliness and pleasing the customer,” he says. Whatever the complaint, White says they’ll make it right.
“If they’re not happy, they’re not coming back. If you don’t have repeat customers, especially in a small place like this,” you won’t succeed.