On the eve of their 30th year in business, French Market Grille remains an Augusta favorite
Diners love consistency and continuity, so it’s really no surprise that French Market Grille is one of the most popular restaurants in town. For the past 29 years, those who walk in, whether they were born and reared in Augusta or are repeat Masters visitors, know that two of the first people they’re going to see are owners Chuck and Gail Baldwin.
“They do know that they’re going to see Grandpa and Grandma,” Chuck Baldwin jokes during a recent lunch service that, even at 2 p.m., is still going strong. “If I go out of town, I’ll come back and the guys will tell me that 200 people said, ‘Where’s Chuck?’ I learned the business from guys who are very front of the house oriented.”
Baldwin learned the business formally at Michigan State, where he earned at degree in hotel and restaurant management. But it was is very first food service job where he discovered he was a people person.
“In 1969 I was a delivery guy for the second Domino’s Pizza ever,” he said. “It was my first job in the food business and I just realized that I kind of liked the interaction with people.”
After college, Baldwin worked at Augusta’s the Green Jacket for a while and then moved to Michigan. Baldwin said it was at the Green Jacket that he met Craig Calvert, a person who would become instrumental in getting French Market Grille off the ground.
“We had worked at the Green Jacket together and stayed in touch,” he remembers. “He came back to Augusta before me and opened Calvert’s.”
The Baldwins wanted to return to Augusta, but it wasn’t until a bequest from Gail’s grandmother’s estate that the couple had enough money to do so.
“We came back in 1983, and I didn’t have a plan, really, so I just worked at Calvert’s,” Baldwin said.
A short time later the ice cream parlor that had occupied to corner spot on the upper level of Surrey Center closed.
“So Craig said, ‘Well, look at that. It looks like New Orleans. And, by the way, I met this lady who cooks Cajun and Creole food,’” he says. “So we all sat down together and she said that we ought to go to New Orleans, so we did. And we fell in love with it. I’ve been to Louisiana many, many times. I have an affinity for it. Maybe I was there in another life or something.”
The woman in question was Mary Mauldin, who also ended up being instrumental in French Market Grille’s success despite only being with the restaurant for a year.
“I don’t know how you put it, but she just had a feel for what people like,” Baldwin says. “The shrimp po boy? That’s her recipe. The peanut butter pie? That’s her recipe too. Roughly half of today’s menu, maybe a little less, is made up of her recipes. She was one of those people who was just really gifted.”
Just like that, everything seemed to fall in place: The Baldwins opened French Market Grille in 1984 with Calvert’s financial help and Mauldin’s magic in the kitchen. And while Baldwin admits that their first Masters Week (the restaurant opened just eight days beforehand) was a little slow, the restaurant gained name recognition and positive word of mouth throughout the years because of a combination of delicious food and inviting atmosphere.
It is an atmosphere in which all are welcome, from those who have been coming to the restaurant for nearly three decades to their children and grandchildren. Baldwin says he pays special attention to his youngest customers, probably because he himself is a grandfather and says that, in the long run, it’s those great memories of family meals that keep French Market so close to so many people’s hearts.
“We’re on our third generation of customers and we’ve been voted best restaurant in Augusta for years, but I don’t pretend to be the best restaurant in Augusta. There are a lot of outstanding restaurants in Augusta, especially on the high end,” he said. “But that kid, who now brings his kids here, has memories of being here when he was little. And those are the people who vote for us.”
The family atmosphere extends to the staff, he said. The kitchen staff averages 10 years of service, and Baldwin can name three people off the top of his head who have worked at French Market for 20 years. Heck, his daughter in law even works in the restaurant.
And it’s an atmosphere that out of towners notice and appreciate as well.
“I guess next year will be our 30th Masters Week and there are people who’ve been coming here every year,” he said. “We know every one and they’ll eat here two or three times that week.”
Masters Week, which Baldwin calls a story until itself and the restaurant’s 13th month, has become a science at French Market Grille, a time when a month’s worth of business is crammed into six days (the restaurant is never open on Sunday). How do they do it?
“Gail is very meticulous and organized,” Baldwin says. “She’s got all these detailed files on Masters do’s and don’ts, so all we do is refine it every year.”
Faithful Masters customers will encounter something new at French Market Grille the next time they visit. For the first time since opening, Baldwin revealed that the restaurant is changing it’s menu.
“Mostly what it is is a different format,” he said. “It will be relatively the same menu but it will look different. And we may drop a few things from the menu.”
That last sentence may cause regular French Market customers to panic, but Baldwin says that the most popular menu items will stay and that those taken off the permanent menu will reappear as specials. But, people person that he is, he says he knows that some will be unhappy and he is glad to talk to those people.
“I’m here to weather that,” he laughs. “They can vent on me. I can take it.”
French Market Grille
425 Highland Avenue, Surrey Center
Monday-Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m.
thefrenchmarketgrille.comYou Might Also Like: