Natchez sisters make restaurant business a family affair

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, December 31, 2003

Somewhere at about the intersection of Canal and Washington streets, delectable aromas surely meet above the rooftops, wafting from opposite directions but mingling familiarly.

From Fat Mama’s Tamales to the south and

Pig Out Inn to the north, the pot almost always is simmering with good eats that attract regulars as well as newcomers &045; and with equal success.

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&uot;Aah, that is the best barbecue I’ve ever tasted&uot; and &uot;Ooh, how do you make those hot tamales?&uot; are not uncommon reactions.

Sisters and Natchez natives Britton Davis Gammill and Anne Vidal Davis Willett never imagined as they were growing up that they would operate special eateries only a couple of blocks apart in their hometown.

Looking back, however, they agree the events that led to the opening of the two restaurants were simply meant to be. Both love to cook. Both love people. And &045; perhaps most importantly &045; both married men who also love to cook and whose partnerships with their wives are vital to the businesses.

Britton and husband, Jimmy Gammill, made hot tamales for family and friends long before deciding to open a restaurant in 1989. &uot;Jimmy thought this would be a good little part-time job,&uot; Britton said, recalling how the couple set up shop in a log building at the intersection of D.A. Biglane Street.

Jimmy was working for the U.S. Postal Service then. By the mid 1990s, he retired from that job to help full time at Fat Mama’s.

&uot;When we first opened, we didn’t sell anything but hot tamales,&uot; Britton said. And the trade could be very slow &045; she remembers selling only three dozen on one day &045; or very brisk. &uot;In Natchez, you never know. You go from 15 people one day to 150 the next.&uot;

Today, Fat Mama’s sells other related dishes, such as chili, gringo pies and casseroles, nachos and condiments such as homemade fire and ice pickles.

&uot;One of the best things we added was the margarita,&uot; Britton said. Like the name of the restaurant, the margarita has a catchy title, too &045; Knock-You-Naked Margaritas.

Not only are they popular for walk-in diners; the margaritas now sell in a mix through the Internet. &uot;We sell in about 28 states,&uot; Jimmy said.

The Gammills’ son, David, was 5 when the family was cooking and tasting, trying to perfect the recipe, and was beginning to consider names for the restaurant. He overheard his mother say, &uot;Y’all will have to start calling me ‘fat mama’ if I don’t stop having to sample all these hot tamales.&uot;

The next morning, the 5-year-old greeted his mother with that name. That did it. The name seemed just right.

Now David is a junior business major at Mississippi State University, and he expects to return to Natchez upon graduation and gradually to take over the operation of the restaurant.

Success has been a joy, the sisters agree. Anne Vidal and her husband, Archie, moved to Natchez from Dallas, Texas, in 1996. He had worked in the food industry and she, in the floral industry.

&uot;We were going to open either a barbecue restaurant or a florist,&uot; Anne Vidal said. &uot;He won.&uot;

Like Fat Mama’s, the popular barbecue establishment Pig Out Inn received its name from the help of some family members. And like the Gammills, the Willetts also enjoy cooking. In fact, Anne Vidal operates a gourmet catering business in addition to the Pig Out eat-in, carry-out and catering businesses.

Both restaurants stay with the successful dishes and do not veer from what they know makes their eateries special.

Both offer what Anne Vidal calls &uot;instant gratification,&uot; in that &uot;you go up to the counter to order, and you have your food before you sit down. We can get big groups in and out fast,&uot; she said.

Both restaurants insist on quality and demand consistency. They are particular about the products they buy, especially the meats used in the tamales and the meat smoked and barbecued at Pig Out Inn.

&uot;We have a special spice rub for the ribs,&uot; Archie said. &uot;And we buy a special cut from one certain company.&uot;

All recipes are collaborative efforts between Anne Vidal and Archie at Pig out and between Britton and Jimmy at Fat Mama’s.

Pig Out serves homemade slaw, potato salad, baked beans and black bean and corn salad to accompany the meat, for example, with homemade pecan pie and sweet potato pie as dessert choices.

At Fat Mama’s, a favorite sweet is the praline, one of Jimmy’s specialties, billed as &uot;delicious Southern candy made with real butter and cream in an iron pot.&uot;

Running a restaurant is like having company for supper, Britton said. &uot;It’s a new game every day.&uot;

And, in truth, the businesses require absolute day-to-day attention, the couples agreed.

&uot;We are all very hands-on,&uot; Archie said. &uot;You always are concerned about quality and consistency. And we taste every day to be sure what we sell is up to par.&uot;

The smoker, made in Dallas especially for Pig Out, gets started every afternoon for slow cooking for the next day’s menu. &uot;The meat is slow smoked for 16 hours,&uot; Archie said.

At Fat Mama’s, &uot;It takes three hours to cook every pot of tamales,&uot; Britton said.

Both families are grateful their businesses give them the opportunity to live in Natchez. &uot;I think we’re so lucky that we can make a living in Natchez,&uot; Britton said. &uot;It takes tourists and locals, and we have both.&uot;

The restaurants host people from all over the country, Archie said. &uot;Tourism in Natchez runs coast to coast. We might have someone come in and say, ‘Our friends in Montana told us when we came to Natchez we had to eat at Pig Out Inn,’&uot; he said.

And the sisters and their husbands make sure their diners know about the other special little eatery down the street. No need to mention family or any of that &045; customers can follow that delicious aroma just a block or two down Canal to where it meets another.