n the spring of 1924, a star was born in the sleepy southern town of Savannah, Georgia. Not the type of star you might find at a Hollywood gala, but the type that burns bright in the eyes of the generations that would grow up dancing and dining at Johnny Harris Restaurant. Initially erected at the corner of Bee Road and Victory Drive, the restaurant was hardly more than a roadside Bar-B-Que shack. Built with a white clapboard exterior dotted with black shutters and a sawdust floor inside, Johnny Harris Restaurant would rise from its humble beginnings to enjoy the loyal following and reputation of today, as one of the largest and most popular full service restaurants in the city.
Johnny Harris first dreamed up the concept of the new restaurant, and less than three years later, was joined by a man named Kermit "Red" Donaldson who together with Mr. Harris would create this successful restaurant venture. Red Donaldson began his restaurant career with duties that included dishwashing, cooking and manning the cash registers. Besides putting in the long hours required in this new business, he walked to and from work in all kinds of weather; leaving his families modest house at Abercorn and Duffy streets in the early morning, and returning late at night.
The restaurant soon flourished and Red assumed managerial duties and became indispensable to Johnny Harris. Subsequently, the place became too cramped to handle the crowds who came to feast on the two specialties of the house: the famous bar-B-que and fried chicken. It was quickly decided that the present site was too small even after considering additions, so plans were drawn to build a completely new establishment a block down the street. In September of 1936, the new restaurant that Red helped to build opened for business at its present location -1651 E. Victory Drive.
Through the years, the original specialties of the establishment still have a tremendous following, both locally and throughout the Southeast. Many a traveler has stumbled upon the restaurant, only to return year after year. Tourists enjoy the historic feel of the dining rooms that despite having been up dated many times, still retain the aura of yesteryear. The menu has grown to include many succulent foods that would please the palate of even a roaster gourmet.
Johnny Harris, the founder, died in April of 1942. Red continued on as manager and part-owner. The business continued to prosper under his competent leadership. This growth was due to a combination of fine food and the congeniality of the man. He met all with an easy smile and a sincere hello. In later years, the restaurant was truly a family affair and it was not uncommon to find his wife by his side working as their children grew.
In 1955, Red purchased full control of the restaurant, and for the next four years business continued to flourish under his supervision. It was in April of 1959, due to illness, that Mr. Donaldson regrettably decided to lease out the restaurant. During the two years that he did not operate the restaurant, he concentrated on his bar-B-que sauce business. The fine foods of Johnny Harris' would not be complete without its famous bar-B-que sauce. Much of the restaurants reputation was spread by this enviable sauce which, like most Southern sauces, achieved its distinction through trial and error over a period of time. It was, and still is, found on every table in every booth. In addition to the original flavor, ten years ago a hickory flavor was created, which has a loyal following of its own. Many years ago, the sauce recipe was originated by a black cook named John Moore, who generally kept the ingredients relegated to memory. As time went on, Johnny Harris finally wrote it down and passed it on to his descendants and employees, one of whom was Red Donaldson.
Loyal fans of the sauce requested samples to purchase for home use. Being produced by hand in the back kitchen of the restaurant, the first bottles sold were bottled in empty soda bottles. Demand soon surpassed the production capabilities of the busy restaurant's kitchen, and in 1950, the official Johnny Harris Famous Bar-B-Que Sauce Company was the tradition of the now famous sauce was his son Phillip. In 1962, a warehouse and office area was added to store the more than 400 cases being shipped out every two weeks.
The marketing and sauce selling operation was and remains a full-time enterprise for the younger Donaldson, and recently the day-to-day operations have been handed over to son-in-law Bernard "B.J." Lowenthal. Subsequently the little sauce company has been enlarged to accommodate growing family involvement. During the past year and a half, two new products have been created and marketed by B.J. and his wife, Julie, who was 8 years old when her grandfather Red died in 1969 at the age of 59. These new products include a Steak Sauce and a Honey Bar-B-Que Hot Wing Sauce which have opened to rave reviews. Both products were developed as offspring of the original sauce and hints of that addictive tanginess are evident in each.
After Red Donaldson passed away, his wife Maude Donaldson remained at the helm of the restaurant, arriving early each morning to open up and staying until after the lunch rush. In addition to the Sauce business, son Phil assumed the role of manager of the restaurant, with brother in law Norman Heidt as his right hand man. Norman has since developed the catering side of the restaurant as a major enterprise in itself, serving as few as 10 at a business lunch, to as many as 10,000 when president Carter campaigned through Savannah.
In the years of operating the restaurant, the family has seen many celebrities, sports heroes and political figures dine "under the stars" in the large ballroom styled main dining room. Many of their autographs can be seen on the covers of the menus mounted on the walls in the back hallway, affectionately known as the Hall of Fame. Many of the older patrons remember fondly the years long ago when they were "courting" at Johnny Harris. Now their children and grandchildren have joined the following. The sauce is now distributed throughout the southeast and shipped worldwide in gift packs. Sauce has been sent to servicemen overseas, relatives up north and friends at all points in between. It is still manufactured on site and the heavy aroma of bar-B-que fills the air around the restaurant on "Sauce Makin' Days". Although Red Donaldson's smile has long since faded away, his legacy still lives on in the hearts and minds of his family, friends and loyal following, and the Sauce he helped to lovingly create.