Suds to Success

Published 12:00 am Thursday, February 9, 2006

Eric Ashford is a man who knows his business from the ground up. The new owner of the Greenville Shoney's can say he's &#8220been there and done that” for virtually every aspect of the business.

&#8220I started out as a dishwasher when I was 17. They thought I was a hard worker,” he recalled with an engaging smile.

&#8220The truth is, where I am from, you went to school or you hauled pulpwood – that's all there was. When you've hauled pulpwood half your life, washing dishes and mopping floors seemed pretty easy.”

The businessman, who also owns a Shoney's in Dothan, has come a long way from those early days in Carrollton.

The community in west Alabama where he grew up is much akin to the fictional Mayberry, Ashford said.

&#8220There were guys who would lock themselves into the jail cell each night at five 0'clock,” Ashford recalled.

&#8220They would work during the day pulpwooding and then do their time in jail every night until they finished their sentence.

It was that kind of place. Everybody knew everybody.”

As a teenager, Ashford figured he would most likely leave his hometown to go into the military or on to college.

But a visit to a Shoney's in Tallahassee, Fla. changed all that.

&#8220I'd never been to many restaurants. It was 1984 before I ever even visited a McDonald's. I walked in that Shoney's and the next thing you knew, I had a job,” Ashford said.

The industrious worker went on to become prep person, night cook, then day cook, before moving up to assistant kitchen manager at Shoney's.

From there, Ashford continued his rise through the ranks as kitchen manager, restaurant manager, assistant manager, general manager, training coordinator and area director.

21 years later, the proud owner says he &#8220knows and respects every area of the store – and I can step in and work anywhere if I need to.”

That means if a floor needs mopping and everyone is busy, &#8220I mop the floor. I mopped the entire dining room this afternoon,” Ashford said on Monday afternoon.

And he doesn't mind a bit. &#8220I love the restaurant business. In this business, you have to love people and love what you do. And I do.”

Rising through the ranks, as he has done at Shoney's, has made Ashford especially appreciative of his success.

&#8220It's one thing to own what you don't really know; it's another thing entirely, to own something you do know, something that's in your blood. It means a lot more to you.”

In the four to five months since Ashford has taken over the local Shoney's, he has instilled two mottos for his employees.

&#8220I tell them these two things. Ninety-nine-and-a-half won't do. And everybody who leaves here, you tell them we appreciate their business,” Ashford said.

&#8220After all, no one has to come here. They choose to come here – and I appreciate everyone who makes the decision to dine with us.”

The business owner said he is concentrating on &#8220hometown foods for this community.”

&#8220Since I am the owner, I have some leeway here. Sometimes, what works on a menu in the corporate office somewhere else, isn't what people want locally, you know?”

Ashford said he is seeing people respond to the changes in the food and the atmosphere he has implemented.

&#8220People say, ‘This restaurant is a lot better.' Folks are coming in for our collard greens, cornbread and catfish and other specialties,” he said.

&#8220If they ask for something and we don't have any cooking, I'll go back and cook it for them. The answer here is never ‘no.'”

Ashford said he encourages his staff members to see the city as &#8220the pie” and the interstate as &#8220the whipped cream on top.”

&#8220When you are a reputable business with consistent traffic from the local community, you don't have to worry about what time of year it is, whether it's spring break, summer vacation, snow birds, whatever,” he said.

Ashford is in the process of moving his family from Pensacola to the Greenville area, &#8220once we get all the school matters straightened out.”

Ashford and his wife of 15 years, Patrice, have three girls: Ashley, 9, Elesha, 12, and Ericka, 14.

Ashford is also looking forward to finding the family a new home church in the area.

&#8220We were really active in our church in Pensacola, Deliverance Tabernacle, where we were involved in the youth ministry. This is a good church community, too, I can see that.”

Ashford has also found he's a role model his young employees can look up to.

&#8220Some of the fellows who work for me, they see where I am at now, and they say, ‘Wow,'” Ashford, the first person in his family to own his own business, said with a proud smile.

&#8220I am an example that doing the right thing does pay off. It may take longer, but it sure pays off longer, too. It can give you a lifetime of happiness.”