Twenty years ago, Tre’ Dunagan's grandfather, the late "Dickie" Dunagan, spontaneously opened a barbecue restaurant in Sparta, Georgia.
The Dunagan's all live in White Plains, but Dickie owned a logging company that frequented the Hancock County area, and his wife's family was there.
“He was always trying new things and there’s nowhere to go out to eat here, so he opened a barbecue restaurant,” Tre’ explained of the origin of Straw’s Barbecue restaurant. “The community loves this place; they’ve been coming here every weekend for 20 years,” he said. “It just feels like ‘ours.’ I like working with my my dad, my mom and my sister, and have a lot of pride because we’ve had it going successfully for so long.”
Tre’s name comes from the fact that he’s Richard Dunagan, III, and the restaurant’s name is his father, Richard’s, childhood nickname. As it turned out, being a restaurateur was not Dickie’s cup of tea; so Richard immediately took over the family business. Not only has Straw’s’ business increased fourfold in two decades; they’ve also catered a large dinner in Switzerland as well as member-exclusive parties at the Augusta National Golf Club.
They went to Switzerland in 2002 and cooked barbecue for then- U.S. Ambassador Mercer Reynolds’ July 4th celebration with 200 people. “I was worried about where we’d get the meat, but the pigs we cooked actually came from Germany,” Richard said, explaining that he made the stew at Straw’s and shipped it to Switzerland.
“Ted Baker and Jamie Reynolds asked me to do that dinner; we’re good friends,” he added. “And we had a ball in Switzerland. We stayed there for 15 days.”
Around a decade ago, the Dunagans began catering the Augusta National Golf Club’s end-of-year dinner known as “The Closing Party.” Each year, the club closes for the summer and a social event is held exclusively for club members – no guests or spouses allowed. The Dunagans catered the past nine events. “We cook the hog in a homemade pit right there on the grounds of the prestigious club,” Richard described.
“We do tons of catering,” Tre’ said. “We catered a dinner at Nathanael Greene Academy last year and cooked 300 chicken halves at one time. We have a huge pit back there,” he added, nodding toward the back room of the restaurant.
Behind the pit and outside is what Tre’ says is the secret to their barbecue’s goodness – stacks of hickory wood that are burned down into coals. Throughout the 10-hour cooking process, Tre’ regularly throws the wood into a burner that looks like a stack of double-beveled rims from a truck. The wood burns down into coals, which Tre’ transfers into the pit under the meat.
“I put my heart into the cooking,” Tre’ said. “I want it to be the best that I can do it. It’s not really a science; I can just tell if the coals are hot enough or if they need to be hotter. This is what separates us from other barbecue restaurants – we do it with hickory wood and it’s always freshly smoked. We never carry the food over from last week.”
It must work because Mark Smith said he worked in Hancock County and, for 14 years, he ate lunch at Straw’s every Friday. “My preference is the chicken, but their burgers are also one of the best I ever had. They’re fantastic,” the recently-retired Greene County resident said. Mark described how his brother, Jeffrey, used to drive over to Sparta and go to Straw’s, “and he’d walk out of there with pounds and pounds of meat and slaw for everybody in the family.”
The burgers are one of the only two changes the father-son team made to Dickie’s original menu of barbecue, chicken, Brunswick stew, and slaw. Along with hamburgers and cheeseburgers, they added ribs. Their barbecue sauce has a tomato and vinegar base. Tre’ cooks all day on Thursdays, and the restaurant is open every Friday and Saturday.
The other days of the week, Tre’ is a physical therapist assistant at Lake Oconee Rehabilitation and Physical Therapy, and Richard is a logger for William Coleman in White Plains.
“When I get tired of one job, I get to take a break and do the other. It really is the best of both worlds,” Richard explained.
“In my physical therapy job, I see people who are from all over the world, and I enjoy talking to them and learn a lot from them,” Tre’ said; “but out here (at Straw’s), it’s country people who’ve lived here forever. They’re like homefolk.”
Tre’ reminisced about helping his grandfather, Dickie, who died five years ago. “He used to milk cows before going to school. I remember helping him when I was young,” Tre’ said. “He was a hard worker and I am, too; but, I’m the first person in the family to go off to college and get a degree.”
When not working, Richard said he enjoys playing golf at Lane Creek Golf Club in Watkinsville, “and going to Tuscaloosa, Alabama to watch Crimson Tide football. I had a cousin who played for them, and he was always talking about Bear Bryant, and he sold me on ‘em.”
Tre’ doesn’t share his father’s affinity for Alabama football (he’s a Georgia fan) or golf; he’d rather be working in the wood shop. Most recently, Tre’ made a pecan-wood dining table for Straw’s that beauti-fully showcases the wood’s natural grain.
“We have great food, but I want the place to have atmosphere, too. So, I’m working on building tables,” he said. Currently, he is working on more tables with natural pine or cherry tops. “This place is going to be transformed when I get it all in here,” he said. “I feel like it’s who we are.”
Straw’s Barbecue Restaurant is located at 13232 GA-16, Sparta, Ga. The phone number is 706-816-0711; hours are 8 a.m. – 6 p.m. Friday, and 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Saturday. Hours can change during deer season (Oct. 17, 2021 through Jan. 10, 2022 in Hancock County), which is the restaurant’s busiest time of year.
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Story and photos by Lynn Hobbs, published in the Sept/Oct 2021
issue of Lakelife magazine.