Legendary Barbecue Owner Remembered
Friends and family members remember Howard "Hot" Thomas.
For nearly 30 years, the legendary Hot Thomas Barbecue off Highway 15 south of Watkinsville has drawn a fellowship of friends, family and barbecue lovers from near and far.
Howard “Hot” Thomas, the man who built the iconic country restaurant and served patrons behind the counter of an old country general store for three decades, died Tuesday. Thomas, whose health had declined recently after suffering a stroke, took his own life behind an Athens business.
Thomas, founded the barbecue restaurant in the early '80s, turning an old general store on the Greensboro Highway into a simple roadstop attraction renowned for barbecue.
In the beginning, Thomas wasn't the one in the kitchen. Hot's two sons, Mark and Mitch, manned the smokers and worked the store.
“My brother and I cooked to raise money to go to a football game – the Georgia Florida game,” Mark Thomas said. “And he saw it, and he took it from there.”
Today, reviews of the restaurant are included in books, like “Road Food: The coast-to-coast guide to 600 of the Best Barbecue Joints, Lobster Shacks, Ice Cream Parlors, Highway Diners & Much, Much More,” and online review sites such as Yelp and Urbanspoon.com.
A diverse resume
Before the restaurant, Thomas had several other careers, family members said.
Early on, he'd been a welder and a machinist, and danced across iron beams on new highrise buildings that were going up in downtown Atlanta. Back in Watkinsville, he worked the farm, tending to cotton, corn and other row crops. A few years later he raised 130,000 turkeys and a peach orchard, while joining a small group of volunteer firefighters as one of the first such services in the area, his other son, Mitch Thomas said.
“He didn't mind trying anything,” Mitch Thomas said. “He would stick his neck out and try different things all the time.”
But most people knew him for his barbecue, and would come from miles around for a pulled-pork sandwich and cup of Brunswick stew, friends said.
When Oconee County Administrative Officer Alan Theriault moved to Watkinsville from Louisiana, he was introduced to the place – and to the hot sauce – right away.
“I heard you had to go out to Hot Thomas and try his barbecue,” Theriault said. “Hot made a real believer out of me that some of his sauce was hotter than anything I'd ever tasted.”
Many locals believe Thomas' got his nickname for his temper and sauce, but the name was actually bestowed on him by a family doctor, who called him “Hot Shot,” after he became prone to fever spikes as a child, family members said.
“His pediatrician gave it to him and it just stuck,” Mark Thomas said.
Despite the nickname, Hot was known for expressing his opinions openly with friends and customers, Mark Thomas added.
“You knew where you stood with him,” Mark Thomas said. “He would call you out if he'd disagreed with your morals or viewpoints, but he'd also take the time to sit and listen to you if you'd be able to make a strong argument.”
Future of restaurant uncertain
Without Thomas, the future of Hot Thomas barbecue legacy remains uncertain, family members said Thursday.
“Right now, with it being so close to the funeral services and everything, we have not made a decision on the outcome of the restaurant,” Mark Thomas said.
Commissioner Melvin Davis, who ate at the restaurant monthly, hopes the family business continues, he said.
“It's an icon, and I certainly hope it can continue,” Davis said. “It's just a good down-home place in a country location with good service, good fellowship and good food.”
But it would never be the same without Hot, he said.
“He was always there at the cash register at the counter,” Davis said. “He would come out and talk to the folks at the tables while you were eating. That's one of the things that made it unique. He was very personable with friends and customers, because I think that's the way he viewed his customers.”