THE BAG LADY TRIUMPHANT

THE BAG LADY TRIUMPHANT

From Chicken Soup for the Entrepreneur's Soul

The Bag Lady Triumphant

When I graduated high school, I thought I knew it all. Therefore, when Daddy suggested that I attend school to become a dental hygienist, I let him know that I had no desire to smell people’s bad breath day in and day out. I counteroffered with the suggestion that I attend a modeling school in Atlanta. Unfortunately, that went over like a lead brick.

Instead of pursuing higher education, I decided to marry my high school sweetheart. Momma tried to get me to reconsider, but I possessed greater wisdom than my parents. I was determined to be the perfect wife and mother, and my fiancé would surely be the perfect husband and father.

But life changes quickly, and my fairytale existence was soon a shattered dream. Daddy died just seven months after I married, and Momma passed away four years later. At twenty-three, I was the mother of two boys under the age of three and was also raising my sixteen-year-old brother. At times, the future seemed overwhelming.

In the years that followed, I also realized that I was not the perfect wife and that the man I had married was not the perfect husband. For nearly twenty years, I lived in a vacuum. At times, I was simply unable to leave my home and unable to be the perfect mother I still longed to be. I existed but seldom lived.

When my marriage finally came to an end, I was faced with the reality that I had to have a way to earn money. Though I had worked as a bank teller—coming face-to-face with an armed robber had served as the catalyst to pursue another career—what else could I do? I was essentially uneducated and talentless. The only skill I had was the ability to cook.

Growing up, I had spent hours in my Grandmother Paul’s kitchen. At the time, I didn’t realize that I was receiving an education. Amid the laughter that echoed around us, I spent hours watching Grandmother Paul stir, pour, mix and knead. I learned the intricacies and techniques of preparing Southern food. You see, Southern cooking is a hand-me-down art, not a skill taught in culinary schools. Instead, it comes from within. It is, in the South, how we show our love.

So, with two hundred dollars in my pocket, I followed my fledgling entrepreneurial instincts and went shopping. I purchased a thirty-six-dollar cooler, paid fifty dollars for food and spent the rest on a license to start a lunch-catering business. I marched up and down the streets of Savannah, Georgia, knocking on doors of businesses, requesting permission to sell meals to the staff. With the support of my two sons, Jamie and Bobby, who were by then handsome young men, The Bag Lady was born.

I was up and cooking by five o’clock each morning in order to prepare the 250 meals that my handsome sons would deliver. Soon, the three of us had established a brisk business. I never found it necessary to advertise, and it was just as well because there were no advertising funds in the budget. Instead, dependability, spirit and great food established our reputation.

It did not take long before customers began planting a seed in my head. “Why not open a restaurant?” they asked. Thus, I again laid it all on the line and leased a space in a local hotel. Now, my boys and I were not only running The Bag Lady, but we were also full-fledged restaurateurs—proprietors of an establishment called The Lady.

For five years, I worked twenty-hour days to keep the businesses going. It was the hardest five years of my life, but the people came and even waited in line to enjoy the food at our eatery. Like a proper Southern hostess, however, I made certain that we took care of them well. Passing out fresh cheese biscuits to those waiting became a tradition.

It soon became obvious that I was handing out many cheese biscuits. Believe it or not, we needed even more space. We closed the hotel café, moved The Bag Lady back to my cluttered kitchen and began renovating a former downtown teacher’s supply store. For a year, my boys and I labored and struggled to create The Lady & Sons restaurant. Times were tough. In fact, there were days when I did not have change for the parking meter. By the time we finally opened, I was overdrawn in not one account, but two. My accountant was concerned, but I convinced him that if I could just get those doors opened, I could repay every debt. So I opened the doors, and thank God the people came.

These days, The Lady & Sons is at an even bigger location on Congress Street in Savannah. I still specialize in the comfort food of my youth, and people come from all over for classics made with Southern cooking staples like butter, salt, sugar, hot sauce, ham hocks and, oh yes, fat! In addition to The Lady & Sons, I have even managed to find the time to write a few cookbooks and host a televised cooking show.

Someone once told me that I possess an unfailing survival instinct, and I suppose that I do. It’s inherent in all entrepreneurs. The last several years have been a wild and amazing ride, one that I could not have taken without the constant support of Jamie and Bobby. Why, I never dreamed that a mere two hundred dollars would take us this far. I am living proof that we must accept the challenges that life offers. Whenever one door closes, another one always opens!

Paula Deen
As told to Terri Duncan

EPILOGUE: A trip to Savannah, Georgia, would not be complete without dining at Paula Deen’s award-winning restaurant The Lady & Sons. One of the coastal area’s most popular tourist stops, Paula and her two sons—Jamie and Bobby—frequent their establishment and enjoy visiting and serving Southern delectable delights to their loyal customers and tourists alike.

In addition to the restaurant, Paula has ventured into other areas. She has authored five cookbooks, the most popular of which is The Lady and Sons Savannah Country Cookbook (Random House, 1998). Paula also has the distinction of being QVC’s all-time bestselling cookbook author. As if those weren’t enough, Paula launched a bimonthly magazine last year—Cooking with Paula Deen (Hoffman Media).

Besides being a restaurateur, author and entrepreneur, Paula also hosts her own television show—Paula’s Home Cookingwhich airs twice daily on the Food Network. For those who prefer direct instruction from the lady herself, Paula offers a cooking school at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House.

The flair for Southern cooking is definitely a family affair, as Paula and her brother Bubba Hiers collaborated and opened Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House in December 2004. Also located in Savannah, the restaurant is known for its seafood, live music three nights a week and good old Southern charm. Check it out yourself: www.unclebubbasoysterhouse.com .

To subscribe to Paula’s magazine, purchase her books and other items, or to just learn more about this famed lady and her boys, please visit www.ladyandsons.com.

Terri Duncan

More stories from our partners