Cooking Up a Legacy

For over 50 years, restaurateur Jim Stalvey owned and operated over a dozen dining establishments in Covington and surrounding areas. The late Newton County icon not only enjoyed serving food but loved supporting the community through various acts of philanthropy.

by Kari Apted

If you blink, you might miss Stalvey’s restaurant among the dozens of bright and bustling businesses lining U.S. 278 in Covington. The dark wooden building is tucked between Hardee’s and a pair of resale shops, across from a busy shopping center fronted by Chipotle, Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks. However, Stalvey’s has always held its own, the parking lot often packed full for lunch or dinner and especially on Sundays after church. 

Stepping inside feels a bit like dropping in on your grandmother, the walls covered in painted paneling and vintage knick-knacks. The table tops tell their own stories, worn from years of being scrubbed between the multiple meals and conversations that happen around them every day. The air is filled with the scent of something good frying in the kitchen. You cannot help but feel at home.

Anyone who has lived in Newton or Rockdale counties for a while has probably eaten at one of Jim Stalvey’s restaurants. If not lingering over a meat-and-three at his namesake establishment, you might have grabbed a Varsity-rivaling chili dog at the Butcher Block Deli down the road. Maybe you recall the ribs at Buddy’s BBQ or the flavorful chicken tenders at the three Quik Chick locations he used to own. Wherever you have enjoyed Stalvey’s food, you have tasted his own personal recipes. 

The local icon suffered a stroke in February 2022 and was in rehab for weeks. During his recovery, his wife, Sharon, fell and ended up requiring full shoulder replacement surgery. Married for 31 years, the couple spent the year being there for each other, giving and accepting the physical and emotional support only a spouse can provide. As they slept in each other’s arms on Jan. 6, Stalvey succumbed to the residual effects of his stroke. He was 80 years old.

“Jim was a visionary. He loved planning new menus, decorating the restaurants and talking to the customers. He loved all of it, and he never skimped on quality and consistency.”

Sharon Stalvey

Stalvey dedicated most of his life to the restaurant business. He was just 11 when he first stepped into a commercial kitchen at the Dairy Delight in Rome. That was where he fell in love with cooking for others and began developing his own way of doing things. When he moved to the Atlanta area as an adult, he built his career with well-known brands. He worked at Rich’s department store’s famous Magnolia Room and built one of the first Holiday Inn restaurants in Atlanta. Stalvey came to Covington in 1972. He and two friends bought the Crest Restaurant on U.S. 278, which was situated where the Racetrac gas station now sits. When the current building housing Stalvey’s became available, he relocated there. Stalvey called it Prado’s and wanted it to be a place to eat light fare and meet for a drink with friends. 

Serving alcohol was going to be a challenge, however, as no restaurant in Newton County had served it since Prohibition. Stalvey helped write the petition which brought back alcohol sales. 

“Jim got the support of the whole community—churches, as well,” Sharon said. “He promised that if and when the time came to serve alcohol on Sundays, he wouldn’t. And he never did.”

Over several decades, Stalvey opened 15 more restaurants in the area, trying out different concepts to see which ones worked. He had restaurants in Social Circle, Conyers, Covington and the Lake Oconee area, and he served as a consultant to help others open their own dining establishments.  

“Jim was a visionary,” Sharon said, noting that he loved everything about the restaurant business. “He loved planning new menus, decorating the restaurants and talking to the customers. He loved all of it, and he never skimped on quality and consistency.” 

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Stalvey also adored and respected his employees and, at the time of his death, still had long-term workers who had been with him for decades. One current employee has worked at Stalvey’s for 40 years, and another clocked in for 46 years, showing up daily to make salads and desserts well into her 80s. 

“Jim’s success wasn’t done by himself,” Sharon said. “It means everything to have people who love you and are loyal and want to see your vision come to fruition.” 

Jim’s vision included using only fresh produce from local farmers markets. The Stalveys never relied on pre-bagged salads or put ready-to-use breading on their shrimp. Even the salad dressings are homemade. Sharon revealed one of her most treasured possessions is a collection of six or seven notebooks full of Jim’s recipes, many of them written by hand. 

“When I have some free time, I’ve been laminating the ones in his handwriting. They are priceless to me now,” she said. “He has recipes for everything. He had to go on a fat-free diet once, and he created so many recipes to make the food taste better. He even figured out how to make texturized vegetable protein taste good.” 

“Jim was just creative about things,” Sharon added. “One night, he was eating something he just threw together at the restaurant. It was steak trimmings that he cooked together with mushrooms, onions and snow peas. A friend commented that it looked good, and that’s where our skillets came from. You can still order them today.” 

Another evening, a whole new restaurant was born when the Stalveys’ daughter, Maria, asked for a sub sandwich. They stopped at a national chain restaurant and ordered extra meat because the regular version looked rather skimpy. When they got home, Stalvey could not believe what they had paid for a sub that, in his eyes, was still subpar. 

“He said, ‘I know people will pay to get really good sandwiches.’ The next morning, he had the whole menu and concept for the Butcher Block Deli,” Sharon said. “That was in July. We opened the deli on Labor Day weekend.” 

Stalvey was also quick to help the community. For seven years in the early 2000s, he hosted an annual fundraiser for Newton Medical Center prior to it becoming Piedmont Newton. The Stalveys donated all the food for barbecue plates, serving between 2,000 and 2,500 people at each event. The fundraisers brought in around $100,000 that helped fund a digital mammography machine and neonatal intensive care unit equipment.

“Jim thought it was the best way to pay back the community that had given us so much,” Sharon said. “We set up tents and tables in front of Stalvey’s and had plates ready to go. The ladies’ auxiliary sold desserts, and nurses, doctors, everyone got out there and volunteered.” 

Jim’s philanthropy ranged from major fundraisers to one-on-one assistance. He never wanted anyone to go hungry and told his workers that if someone in need asked for food, give it to them at no charge. He provided meals for local homeless shelter residents during the Salem Camp Meeting in 2011. He continued to provide meals to the shelter every week and fed people at a fundraiser to award Newton County Art Camp scholarships to children. He also donated food to fill weekend packs for kids from low-income families attending Newton County public schools. As was written in his obituary: “Jim was very blessed and never forgot it.”  

A search of local newspaper archives shows that reporters sought Stalvey’s input when anything affected the restaurant community. He had a strong opinion on most issues and was not afraid to share it—on everything from restaurant alcohol ordinances to whether customers should be allowed to conceal carry inside businesses. Jim and Sharon also went to bat for their fellow local business owners when they testified at the Capitol building in 2012 about the red tape that hinders small business operations. 

As for Stalvey’s restaurant empire, it is down to two mainstays now: His namesake establishment and the Butcher Block Deli. Sharon feels it was providential for them to sell off their other eateries before her husband’s stroke and her shoulder injury occurred, as only one of their children shared their father’s love of the restaurant industry.  

“I understand that, though,” Sharon said. “The restaurant business is hard. If someone doesn’t show up, you have to.” When asked who would carry on the Stalvey’s legacy, she answered with a laugh: “You’re looking at her.” 

Though heartbroken by her husband’s death, Sharon continues to benefit from physical therapy and does not plan to retire anytime soon. She views their employees and so many in the community as family. “I’ve got a lot of people who are depending on me for their jobs and people in the community who count on us to be here,” Sharon said. “I’m not ready to let go. I can’t just turn it over to someone who’s not going to feel like Jim did about the business.” As Stalvey himself said in a 2010 interview, “My family has two constants: We love to feed folks, and we don’t give up.” 

Click here to read more stories by Kari Apted.

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