Local restauranteur goes from dishes to ownership

Published 7:10 pm Thursday, May 13, 2010

When he first walked through the doors of a Shoney’s restaurant in 1984, he wasn’t looking to start a career. Nor would he have any way of knowing that some 26 years later, he would own two franchises of his own.

Eric Ashford, then 17, walked in at just the right time. His attention was focused solely on the foreign world around him—they didn’t have restaurants like this back in Carrollton, Alabama, Ashford said, and he’d certainly never seen a buffet before.

“When I walked in, a man started motioning for me to come over and talk to him,” Ashford said. “I thought I was in trouble.”

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The man, who to this day Ashford knows only as Mr. Miller, was the restaurant’s manager. He made his way through the lunch crowd gathering in the restaurant and asked Ashford if he wanted a job.

“I didn’t know what to say, so I told him I guess so,” Ashford said.

The manager then pointed across the street and told Ashford to go get a pair of brown pants, a brown belt and some brown shoes and he would put him to work.

“I only had like $15 or $20, so I couldn’t afford to get new shoes,” Ashford said.

Despite returning to the restaurant without the correct footwear, Miller put him to work. He gave him a T-Shirt and an apron and led him to the dish room.

That $15 was arguably the best money Ashford ever spent.

Armed with one pair of pants, one belt and a work ethic that he learned hauling pulpwood back in Carrollton, Ashford began a slow and steady climb up the corporate ladder.

“I was determined to be something,” Ashford said. “I didn’t ask many questions and I just worked hard.”

His relentless effort and yes-sir-no-sir attitude started earning him promotions.

Soon he was night cook, and then he became night prep cook. A few promotions later, he was assistant kitchen manager.

Rung by rung, he proved himself capable of doing whatever job he was assigned to.

“I loved what I was doing and it showed in my work,” Ashford said. “I was always taught that whatever you do, you should do it right and with respect and integrity.”

It was only a matter of time before Ashford was in charge of multiple restaurants, acting as area supervisor and moving up to regional director.

Then, the unexpected happened. He was offered a chance at ownership.

Ashford had to consult with his pastor.

“I told him I was scared, and he asked me what I did as a regional director,” Ashford said. “I said I am in charge of about seven restaurants. He looked at me and asked, what’s the big deal then?”

Three years later, Ashford owns and operates two Shoney’s franchises, one in Dothan and one in Greenville.

“Once I became a owner, I had a different outlook on how to run the restaurant because I had done every job in there,” Ashford said.

It’s more than a workplace, he said, it’s more like a big family.

“You have to really care about this business and respect your employees to survive in the restaurant world,” Ashford said.

As an owner, Ashford now has different duties, but he hasn’t forgot his humble beginnings.

“I try to open the door for every guest that walks in and meet all of my customers,” Ashford said. “But I still sweep, I still cook and I still wash dishes.”