IT'S BEEN a long and winding road for the Ouzts family that led from Augusta, working in the restaurant supply biz, to being proud owners of one of Savannah's best-loved and enduring local treasures.
Frank Ouzts Jr, aka “Papa,” had a good head for business and a fine touch in the kitchen that naturally led him to a long-standing career in restaurant supply. When opportunities began to open up in the Lowcountry he came to Savannah in 1965 with his family and eventually his love of BBQ led him to open a little take-out on Bay Street...and that’s where the story really begins.
The original spot was a take-out branch of Carey Hilliard’s, but within just two years “Papa” had made it his own, reformulating the sauce that bears a distinctive vinegary tang, changing the Brunswick stew to something closer to his family’s secret recipe, and making a shrimp salad that seafood lovers declare is positively addictive.
Frank’s son, Frank Ouzts III, was brought in to assist this transformation, and when “Papa” passed away in 1974, Frank’s management of this little take-out place took on a personality all its own and accrued a fan base that stretched from one end of Chatham County to the other.
Lawyer’s offices, bankers, construction crews and local foodies began to call in their orders and lines meandered down the busy sidewalk—clearly “Papa’s” was outgrowing its original BBQ shack and need a place to stretch its wings.
Enter a vivacious blonde with a can-do attitude and a bright, friendly smile: Judy and Frank, Jr. met while sweatin’ it out together at the Bay Street venue, and between her great business sense and his years of experience as BBQ master, big ideas (as well as a blooming romance!) began to send up smoke signals.
Frank and Judy seem naturally paired: she’s an elegant dresser, talkative and full of ideas and energy; Frank, with his pony tail and baseball cap, is more laid back with an intense gaze that belies his calm demeanor.
When they moved Papa’s to the north side of Whitemarsh Island in 1988, tucked into a modest strip mall out on Highway 80, it was a moment of mutually inspired genius. Downtowners already formed an avid fan base, but throw Wilmington Islanders and Tybee locals and tourists into the mix to spread the word and soon the little parking lot was overflowing with new customers.
The rich and tasty Brunswick stew, tenderly succulent ribs, fresh shrimp salad and house-made desserts became the menu must-haves of a new generation in east Savannah. Bolstered by a firm and loyal generation of stalwarts who, to this day, make it all the way out Highway 80 just to satisfy their yen for creamy, sherry-laced crab stew and delectable smoked beef brisket, as well as a substantial boost from internet socializing and big review sites like Trip Advisor, “Papa’s BBQ & Seafood” far outgrew its beginnings as the little ‘Q hut on the corner.
Frank told me, “We have folks in here that have been eating here since 1972, bringing in kids and grandkids. We do a lot of catering too, so with weddings and parties the business began to outgrow even the second spot and we had to start searching around for a bigger place.”
“Oh, it had reached critical mass by the time we got into the first decade there!” Judy laughs.
The ambience at Papa’s is almost soothing, and at 4000 square feet there’s plenty of space for hungry patrons and their families, as well as a new full bar that holds many happy customers.
Check out the long wall on your left as you enter and you’ll see plenty of awards, thank-you notes from grateful charities, and even an encased stars-and-stripes from the governor—and sure, piggy sculptures too—hey, it’s a ‘Q place, folks! The hostess and servers and the GM Max Mattes are as nice as they come, obviously happy to be there.
Longtime staff seems to be the rule rather than the exception. Manager Sommer Smith has happily served here 14 years. Inez and Charlesetta have been baking and grilling, mixing Papa’s famous sauce and producing delicately fried seafood for over 30 years.
Pit-master George Bost has lent his skills in smoking and roasting for decades. It’s a place known for high quality, great taste, reasonable prices and generous portions.
“We get a lot of restaurant people in here too,” says Frank, “Herb Traub loved the place, and Paula Deen still comes in at least once a month.”
Judy, adds, “I could see a few years ago that tacos were fast becoming a fun food that had left Mexican restaurants and branched out, so we added shrimp, pork and brisket tacos that people just go crazy for!”
Frank remembers to keep the traditional dishes up front too, and freshness is the key: “We do stuff the hard way—our prep staff is huge!—because everything you order gets made from scratch—and it keeps people coming back for more!”