Four Winds Restaurant, home of the Ranger Burger, looks to reopen sometime this week, with a professional basketball player who grew up in the Buena Vista, Ga., area now operating the once-popular restaurant after its closure at the end of June.
"Whenever I leave home and talk about my area, I talk about the Four Winds Restaurant. I hate to see it closing and go through what it's gone through the last two years as far as changing management and temporary closings," said Charles "C.J." Jackson, who has played basketball in Europe for five years, the last three in France.
Jackson, 28, played for Tri-County High, which is now Marion County High, before attending the University of Illinois and Hawaii-Pacific. His wife, Nicole, is from Chicago.
Susan Cox, who founded Four Winds with her late husband, Donald, in 1979 in Cusseta, Ga., about 25 miles south of Columbus, said she has faith that Jackson can keep the restaurant afloat. The former operator, the family that once owned Pate's Barbecue in Louvale, Ga., had run the restaurant from January until its closing on June 30.
"They took the Ranger Burger off the menu," said Cox, 65, who still owns the building at 464 Ga. Highway 26, not far from Fort Benning's southern boundary. The Pates' major move and some staffing changes prompted the "joint decision" for the family to pull out of the venture, she said.
Prior to that, the restaurant had been closed for several weeks after Columbus restaurateur Mark Jones decided to not renew the lease. He, too, Cox said, had made too many alterations to the Four Winds menu, including changing the recipe for the Ranger Burger.
Through the years, Four Winds had been very popular with soldiers -- from privates to generals -- and local residents alike, some of whom would attempt the original Ranger Burger challenge. It consisted of devouring four of the one-pound burgers topped with two slices of cheese and two strips of bacon on a large bun.
Jackson said priority No. 1 is to bring back the famed cheeseburger and other items that made the eatery the gathering place it once was. That includes hiring a cook who worked more than a decade with Susan and Donald Cox.
"She has a lot of experience in the kitchen. She knows how to cook everything on the menu from memory," he said. "I want to get it back to the original state, and the first thing is to make sure the food tastes like it used to taste."
While Cox and her husband originally opened Four Winds in 1979, she now lives behind the 7,545-square-foot larger replacement restaurant that she and Donald constructed from 1986 until 1992, with the help of Army Rangers on their days off. Donald died two years ago on July 29, with her mother passing away shortly after that.
Jackson said he is asking Cox to consult with him on the operation of the revived Four Winds. He also is bringing in an experienced general manager to run the restaurant efficiently.
"I wish him all the best," Cox said of Jackson. "He wants me to come in and show him how I done things and get him started, and then I'm going to step aside and watch him do a good job."
Jackson, who will head back to Europe by mid-August for the upcoming basketball season, where he is a power forward, said being an absentee operator should not be a problem with the right people in place.
He talked of instilling the business with organizational qualities, pushing gross sales and using proper marketing techniques to give Four Winds the best chance possible to survive and succeed long term. The key, he said, is convincing people that your place is better than that of the guy next door.
"You just have to make sure the people come, you take good care of them, and that they have a great experience and keep coming back," Jackson said. "If you take care of them, they'll take care of you."
Asked if he had approached Cox about possibly purchasing the Four Winds property, Jackson said now is not the time, although he already is looking ahead to business opportunities once his ball career comes to an end in the next few years.
"For her to sell that and not be able to have the access to go in there and see it prosper, I think that wouldn't be in her best interests right now," he said of Cox, whose health has declined over the last two years and with her now grappling with the anniversary of Donald's passing. "I think it's a little too fresh to even consider her giving up everything she's ever worked for."