January is as much a time for new beginnings as it is a time to look back and see how far you’ve come. This past year was a mixed bag of blessings and setbacks for me, but as long as I keep puttin’ one foot in front of the other, I feel like I’m making progress. I just hadn’t realized how far I’d come until a couple of weeks ago when I circled the wagons, bringin’ together my entire Savannah team, which includes folks from The Lady & Sons, Uncle Bubba’s, the Paula Deen retail store and Paula Deen Enterprises.
The two restaurants and the store had temporarily closed for the holidays so I saw this as the perfect opportunity to thank everyone for their years—and in some cases decades—of service, and to get them excited about the New Year. Thinkin’ back on my high school days when I was a cheerleader, I wanted to recreate that pep-rally excitement—people comin’ together under one roof, whoopin’ and hollerin’ and getting excited about what we do best: makin’ people happy.
But no one was happier than me that morning, standing in a huge hall at the Savannah Riverfront Marriot surrounded by the more than 300 people who make up the “Deen Team.” In the 22 years I’ve been in the restaurant business, it was the first time we’ve been together in one place—and it was downright overwhelming.
Some people, like my “soul sister” Dora Charles, have been with me every step of the way, starting off with me at The Lady—the first restaurant I opened in a Best Western more than two decades ago. Others have only been with me for a couple of months and are just cuttin’ their teeth. But as I see it, we’re all in this together for the long haul.
I expected we’d have ourselves a party that morning, but I didn’t expect to get so overcome with emotion. I don’t think I really had a sense of how far this stubborn little girl from Albany had come. I’ve had so many setbacks over the years—Mama and Daddy dying so young, divorce, poverty, agoraphobia—but seeing all those familiar faces and listening to my boys talk about how far we’ve come together, I thought to myself, “Well, ain’t this somethin’.”
And then when they called me up on stage, everyone started cheering. “Paula! Paula! Paula!” they yelled. I stood there for a few moments, dumbfounded, and I got a little choked up. I’m rarely at a loss for words, but I finally managed to say what I felt deep in my heart: “This takes my breath away.”
Moments like these are few and far between, but it’s the sweetness that flavors my life—the reason why I keep moving forward. And the reason why I’m always excited about what’s to come.