T.J. Riddle carefully stacked a piece of crispy fried fish atop a mound of white cheddar cheese grits. Eyeing it from every angle, he made sure that it was plated to perfection.
His father, Travis, sat at a table watching and beaming with pride.
“He’s a chip off the old block,” the elder Riddle noted as his son delivered the dish to him.
It was just one moment, but it underscored an important point about Travis Riddle — of all the things he’s been in his life, being a father is clearly his favorite.
In fact, it was this aspect of his life that launched his music career 20 years ago.
“I graduated from Glynn Academy in 97, and in 1999 I had a son, so in 2000 I wrote a song called ‘Daddy’s Little Boy’ that ended up getting played on the radio here,” he said.
“I was on MTV and BET. Then, I moved to Atlanta and had a record deal with Universal.”
Over the years that followed, Riddle continued to make music as well as explore business ventures that inspired him. His latest endeavor allows him to combine two of the things he loves most — food and family.
The Brunswick native and entrepreneur is currently in the process of renovating a restaurant space at 3300 Norwich St., Brunswick, that will soon open as Country Boy Cooking.
The name is the same as a food truck and catering business he operated in Atlanta prior to returning to his hometown.
“I actually started with an ice cream truck, then I got bored with ice cream so I tried this and it really took off,” he said.
Country cooking comes easily to Riddle, and its these classic dishes that fill the menu when his doors open in August. Many of them are easily recognizable to those raised in the South, where deep frying is good for the soul and mac and cheese is definitely a “vegetable.”
“I spent time working in different places, like the Ritz Carlton, learning different styles of cooking. But I really learned my cooking from my mama,” he said with a smile.
“I opened up the food truck in 2014 on Memorial Day. We got a contract with the high schools up in (Atlanta). We were doing pretty good with it.”
In February, however, the tragic death of Ahmaud Arbery led him to return to Brunswick. As a successful businessman, many locals hoped he could help shine a light on the circumstances surrounding the shooting.
“People called me and said, ‘Hey there’s something going on here, and we feel like it’s being swept under the rug,’” Riddle said.
So he came back to town and helped to organize marches, while working to promote a sense of unity rather than discord. Through his popular social media channels, he was able to connect and share that message far and wide, racking up thousands of hits and engaging celebrities.
“I started sharing things online about the Ahmaud Arbery and they were picked up by people like LeBron (James),” he said.
After the protests, Riddle was approached by community leaders about ways he could continue to serve as a positive influence for the Black youth in the city. Opening Country Boy Cooking provided an anchor for Riddle and a way to create a hub of positivity.
“I was living good in Atlanta, but I figured that I could help these young folks out down here. I’ve raised both of my children since they were six months old,” he said. “So I found this location and we’re going to open up a branch here.”
The opening is highly anticipated — with many would-be diners popping by during the renovation process.
“People are excited about it,” Riddle said with a smile. “The idea here is that you can pick your own poison. We want to offer some healthy stuff, like avocado toast, kale salad and quinoa, but we also have the usual — the ribs and bacon. So if you want to lose weight, we can help you ... if you want to gain weight, we can help you.”
Many items have come straight from his mother’s kitchen, celebrating the long held tradition of Southern cuisine.
“My mama, Dora, is the magic behind it — the ox tail, the collard greens, those are all of the things that she’s always made,” he said.
“These are really our family recipes so whenever you come in it will always taste the same.”
While the food served at the restaurant will surely fill bellies, Riddle is also hopeful that it will serve as an opportunity to inspire young hearts.
“I’m from here and I grew up in Arco. But I never got into the drinking or smoking or selling drugs. You don’t have to do that. I want kids to know that it’s OK to be different. I want them to see what’s possible,” he said.