Country cookin’

Published 11:00 pm Friday, September 7, 2012

Mary Finlay poses for one last photo near the buffet at Country Kitchen.

Finlay closes doors with 40 years of friends and memories

Mary R. Finlay always said that she would work in her restaurant until she fell over and died.

“Well, I fell over but I didn’t die. Thank the Good Lord,” Finlay said, with a smile.

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Finlay suffered a debilitating stroke in December 2010 but was determined to be back at the door of the County Kitchen greeting customers and thanking them for coming.

“But I finally gave in,” she said of her decision to close the doors of the Country Kitchen on Aug. 31, after 40 years of serving the community three hot meals a day.

“My husband, Tom, and I opened the restaurant on June 4, 1972,” Finlay said. “He and a friend had started out with a produce stand out here on the highway. They threw away more vegetables than they sold. Tom’s friend was cooking and selling barbecue out back and it was going good. So, I decided I’d like to try putting in a little restaurant and sell barbecue and good home cooking.”

The Finlays rented a building and gave the restaurant business a try.

“We started out with a $509 investment, five tables in one small corner of the building. In two week’s time, we had people standing around the walls waiting for a table,” Finlay said. “We had a good crowd from the shirt factory but they only had 30 minutes so if they didn’t get a table, they would leave.”

Finlay could see customers and dollars going out the door so she knew it was time to expand the business.

“There was another room off to the side and down a step or two,” she said. “It looked like a hippie joint with writing all over the walls. But we cleaned it up and put in tables that we bought at junk places and we had places for our customers to sit.

“We didn’t have an ice machine so Tom would take two buckets and walk way up to the old Holiday Inn and borrow ice for our beverages. He wouldn’t borrow the money to buy an ice machine. He said a business should pay for itself.”

The Finlays owned a farm that supplied most of the produce served and the restaurant became “the” place for locals to dine.

“We served plates,” Finlay said.

“And all of our vegetables were fresh during growing season. We had a garden and we bought from local farmers, too. We had good food and we got well known for our banana pudding.”

The restaurant also became known for its Boston butts, camp stew, catfish and dressing. It was also the only place in town with an oyster bar.

Seemingly, the restaurant had everything – except a name.

“Bill Beck told Tom that we’d been in business for two years and we needed a name for our restaurant,” Finlay said, laughing. “Tom said we’d been doing all right without one but, if Bill thought we needed a name for the restaurant, he could give it one. So, he named it the Country Kitchen and it stuck.”

The County Kitchen offered great food and great service and with the personal touch of Mary Finlay.

“J.B. Bowden’s Café down toward Brundidge had catfish that everybody raved about and Wilson’s was the place to go for barbecue. Both closed and we picked up a lot of their customers,” Finlay said.

Ingram’s “fine dining” also closed and Grady Ingram gave credit to the County Kitchen.

“He said that woman with the paper plates closed me up,” Finlay said, laughing.

“We only served on paper plates and used Styrofoam cups, except steaks got platters.

The Country Kitchen became a popular place for breakfast and meat and threes. The Finlays added two rooms and could serve 150 people at one time.

In 1998, the restaurant began serving from the buffet. Finlay said if she had it to do over again, she would stay with the plates.

Not only did locals beat a path to the Country Kitchen so did people of note including, Gov. George Wallace, Loretta “Hot Lips” of MASH, Will Geer of The Waltons, Jerry Clower, “PeeWee” Reese, Mark Martin, Fred Ware and the Pennsylvanians, Hank Williams, Jr., Kidd Rock and several soap stars from “As the World Turns” and “Days of Our Lives.”

“We never put any pictures of the celebrities on the wall,” Finlay said. “Tom said they put on their britches just like anybody else. Why should they have their pictures on the wall?”

Forty years of memories are hard to separate. Finlay said every day she spent at the Country Kitchen is a fond memory.

“If I had to pull out one, it would be the night after a big football game at the college,” she said. “All of the girls that worked at the Kitchen decided we wanted to pull an all-nighter. We advertised that we were going to have eggs benedict and margaritas and people came from everywhere. We all took turns cooking and serving until three o’clock in the morning. We had the best time you could ever have.”

Finlay said she couldn’t think back on the years without remembering those who stuck with her so long.

The cooks, as best she could remember, were Lizzy Ella Davis, Grace Woods, Bessie Jones, Stanley Holt, Lorene Folmar, Annie Hampton, Annie Wheeler and Katherine Talbot. Among the “girls” were the sisters, Geraldine and Pat Golden, June Shaw, Janie Rogers, Bertha Gates, Charlene Green, Janet King, Lucy Green and Judy Bryan.

“We were all like family and the restaurant was a joy in my life for all those years,” Finlay said. “I want to thank all of those who worked with us and all of those who ate with us. They made those of years life so wonderful. I’ve got such good memories to keep me company.”