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Houston County Living

Oil Lamp Restaurant

Jul 28, 2021 09:30PM ● By David Pena
     It’s a sad inevitability that the COVID-19 crisis has forever altered the landscape of the restaurant
  industry in our country. By end of last year, nearly 17% of U.S. restaurants were closed permanently. That basically amounts to over 110,000 dining establishments, and the number is unfortunately continuing to rise. Sadly, about half of the owners of these restaurants believe they will never be able to return to the industry any time in the near future.
     Despite that rather bleak outlook, there still is some good news for foodies, though. Small towns like Perry are usually home to some serious culinary action and are often the very thing that puts the town on the map. Take the Oil Lamp restaurant, for example. Judy Wenger’s Southern-inspired restaurant has offered folks a family-friendly environment mixed with home-cooked comfort food for over two decades. Along with the great food, Judy and her staff try to make every customer that comes through the door feel just like an old friend. “I have been coming to The Oil Lamp since day one,” says patron Kristen Driggers. “It kind of feels like home here, and Judy and her staff make you feel like you’re a part of their family.”
      Born and raised in Goshen, Indiana, Judy has fond memories while growing up in the Mennonite Church. Mennonites are known to have a rigorous, disciplined approach to their faith and are very loyal to their communities. “I basically learned to cook from my mother, who cooked more Germanic food than I did. I still cook a little like the Mennonites, but I (started to) specialize in good old fashioned southern style cuisine.”         Like her Mennonite family, Judy believes in holding fast to the virtues of frugality, hard work, and helpfulness. Still very faithful to her Christian beliefs, her upbringing has always been a part of who she is. “It will always be part of me, no matter where I go.”
     Judy learned additional tricks of the trade while working at several different restaurants in her hometown and Fort Valley. She also spent ten years at Yoder’s Restaurant after moving to Montezuma. There she worked in various capacities until she realized she needed a change of pace.
     After a decade in the culinary business, Judy felt it was time for her to go it alone. “I had been working
  for a long time for other people, so I began thinking of branching out on my own. I knew that owning my own business would be more fulfilling to me. I figured if I’m going to work at a restaurant, I want to do it for myself.”
     However, Judy only had one obstacle – she wasn’t really sure that she could pull it off. “I had a good friend who seemed to have more confidence in me than I had in myself,” she says with a laugh. “She really encouraged me to branch out on my own.” Along with her friend’s encouragement, Judy also looked to a very unique place for summoning the impetus to start her own business – namely, a picture. “I had an old picture of an apple tree with a lone apple at the end of a branch. It read, ‘You’ll won’t get the good apple if you’re too scared to go for it.’ Well, I figured that if I wanted that apple, I needed to be brave enough to reach for it.”
      Thus, Judy set about opening her very first restaurant in Fort Valley. “It only sat six tables, but I did a lot of ‘to go’ plates,” she recalls. “That was really a learning experience for me because I did everything all by myself.” The restaurant had a successful run for about four years before Judy decided to move on.
     She then traveled to nearby Perry to begin her newest venture. However, Judy recalls that she had to do a little detective work before selecting the location for her restaurant. “Driving around town, I noticed that Courtney Hodges Boulevard had a good bit of traffic,” she recalls. “I sat at one spot and counted all the cars that drove by from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. There was a pretty good amount of traffic during that time, so I decided then to open up at that location.”
     The building that housed her first restaurant was a little worse for wear, to put it lightly. It had been very damaged in a flood and needed a lot of TLC. “I had to clean it extensively and put new walls up,” recalls Judy. “I remember almost giving up because I would clean it one day and then the dirt would suddenly reappear the next.” However, Judy persevered and the original Oil Lamp Restaurant opened its doors on September 9, 1996 in Perry.
     The restaurant’s first location was located across from Centennial Park. Fourteen years later, however, Judy moved the Oil Lamp to its current location just down the street on General Courtney Hodges Boulevard. “We simply needed to expand because of the demand for our food. I have found over the years that if you make your customers feel welcome and loved, they’ll love you right back.” Another factor in her early success is that Judy has always used only the freshest and highest quality ingredients and actively supported local growers.
     Nearly 25 years later, Judy is still serving up some of the best home cooked meals in the area, like her
  famous barbeque meatballs, homemade meatloaf and an assortment of homemade pies. Along with her staff of fifteen employees, Judy says she still loves hearing the positive feedback she gets from customers. “It’s heartwarming to hear compliments about our food or the restaurant’s atmosphere. I always wanted everyone to feel welcome here.” This includes putting in new tables last year and installing a brand new sign for the Oil Lamp in early January.
     Five years ago, Judy was rewarded for all her hard work when she was recognized by the Perry Area Chamber of Commerce and Business Development Committee, who presented a plaque to Judy for her milestone of being in business for two decades. “It has always been my goal to make everyone feel at home when they come to the restaurant, so I guess (the award shows) I’ve succeeded in doing that,” says Judy.
      Jim Harden, a former Health Inspector for Houston County, says, “Judy is the greatest lady I ever had the opportunity to work with. Her food has never been anything but excellent, and if you can’t feel comfortable at her restaurant, you can’t feel comfortable anywhere. That’s why people come from everywhere to eat at the Oil Lamp - it’s just that good.”
     These days, Judy says she still recalls the picture of the apple tree from time to time, and how it helped to inspire her to reach for her goal. A quarter of a century later, her goals have remained as stalwart as her staff. “We’ve always been committed to making each meal unique and the best (food) our customers have ever consumed. Nothing fancy, just good old fashioned home cooking,” she says. “It may remind them of eating at their grandmother’s or their own house. I’d like to thank all my customers and employees for the last 25 years, and I guess I’ll keep doing it as long as they enjoy what I serve.”

Photography by: Tinika Bennett Photography
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