Automatic for the People
Glynda had some business with my brother Houston, in Athens, so I offered to drive her down in exchange for a leisurely day taking photographs. Turned out to be a good road trip through Georgia, stopping at several interesting points and a couple of landmarks in the university town. The highlight, though, was a stop at Weaver D’s Automatic for the People, a culinary and rock and roll landmark in Athens.
Dexter Weaver, a Georgia Native, moved to Baltimore early in life, where his classmates gave him the nickname “Weaver D 43″, from his high school football jersey number. Weaver D found himself in a variety of retail and fast food settings. Through these endeavors Weaver crafted his catch phrase, “Automatic for the People,” to indicate efficiency, caring and quality. A co-worker suggested that if he ever went into business for himself, that should become his motto.
Fate eventually brought him back to Athens, where he used his business and culinary sense to establish a catering business in the late 70′s, early 80s. His business flourished, and he made a name for himself catering events for frat houses and other university events. In 1986 the old Riverside Cafe closed down, opening an opportunity for Weaver D. He leased the building and opened his soul food restaurant.
Because he had catered so many university events, the place was immediately popular with students as a restaurant where they could get good home-cooked food. One of the patrons was none other than Michael Stipe of REM. In 1992 Stipe approached Weaver about using his catchphrase for the title of an upcoming Album, and Weaver agreed. Released in 1992, Automatic for the People was the eighth album by REM, and received a Grammy nomination. The album has the hits “Man in the Moon” and “Everybody Hurts.” It was also used as the title for a Sarah Connor Chronicles TV episode.
Here’s a video interview Weaver did for the Southern Foodways Alliance…
…and another video from Oxford American…
Alas, even Weaver D’s has not been immune from economic hard times, and has recently been threatened with closure. More on that later, though.
Weaver D’s is a small place right on the banks of the Oconee River. The dining area is simple. There are two long tables – everyone sits together in a communal gathering. Patrons order at the counter from the Man himself, proceed to the kitchen window where the “church ladies” dish up the plates, then have a seat.
The walls are covered with memorabilia, including REM posters and other rock groups, posters for Weaver D, and various awards, including a 2007 James Beard award.
The cuisine is meat-n-three Southern soul food. There are no menus, but a board does list the day’s specials, which on this day included fried and baked chicken, pork chops, and steak and gravy. Sides include squash casserole, broccoli casserole, macaroni, dressing with gravy, black-eyed peas, greens, and just about anything else you could imagine. Prices depend on the type of meat ordered and the number of side, but typically hover just under the $10 mark for an average.
As a concession to a younger student population, some fast food items have been added, such as chicken wings and chicken fingers. There are also a variety of cakes and pies for dessert. Canned sodas are available, but the drink of choice is either lemonade or sweet tea served up from two huge buckets on Weaver D’s counter.
Each of us got something different. I got steak and gravy over rice with broccoli casserole and black-eye peas. Glynda and Houston got pork chops with over vegetables. Lynda got the vegetarian plate.
Everything was fantastic. My broccoli and peas were seasoned perfectly, and needed no additional salt or anything else. The steak and gravy were likewise tasty.
Should things not be seasoned to your liking, there were a variety of homemade condiments on the table, including this rather interesting okra relish:
Lynda raved about the dressing. She said that it was light and fluffy, not dense as many Thanksgiving dressing dishes turn out. All said that the macaroni was perfect.
“Automatic for the People” lived up to its billing – great food served up quickly. Weaver D was quite the character, taking time to talk with us, answer questions, and pose for photos.
Trouble on the Horizon
As mentioned previously, Weaver D’s has been having some rough times over the past several years. According to several local news sources, in November Weaver announced on his Facebook page that he would be closing the restaurant and selling assets.
The UGA paper Red and Black picked up the story, and rallied community support to save the landmark. Here’s a video report from Red and Black about Weaver’s fight to stay open:
It worked. Weaver was able to buy a reprieve and keep the restaurant open. This was announced on his Facebook page in December.
Times are still tough for Dexter Weaver and Weaver D’s. When we got there it was a bit later than normal for lunch, but there were still a couple of patrons. A van out front indicates that the catering business is still going on. There are jars for donations to keep the place open. I tossed in a few dollars as we left.
The food is fantastic, and the story behind it is just as interesting. Weaver D’s is an excellent excuse for a road trip down to Athens. Even after 28 years, I hope Weaver D 43 can hang on, and keep turning out soul food that truly stirs the soul.