History is written on the wooden walls of the building that sits at 500 West Magnolia Ave.
Momma Goldberg’s has left its mark on countless patrons and they’ve left their marks on it. Scribbles – names of couples written next to the booth where they met, “for a good time call” phone numbers, unforgettable football scores – cover every corner of the building, telling its 40-year story.
Don DeMent said he has always been keenly aware of changing trends. That’s why he started having doubts about the future of the Locker Room, his successful clothing store in downtown Auburn, in 1976.
Students used to dress up for class, Don said. But the styles made popular by the children of the Vietnam-era counterculture – the long hair, the blue jeans, the sandals – hit Auburn in the mid-1970s.
There just wasn’t a market for the Locker Room’s suits and ties anymore.
“In the ‘70s everybody was having a big time, dressing in tank tops and flip flops,” Don said. “I wasn’t going to sell that.”
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Don and his wife, Betty, could’ve sold the building, he said, but the location was just too good to give up.
He decided to close the Locker Room and open a sandwich shop in its place.
Don’s first job after college was with Pizitz, a major regional department store chain, in 1963. He worked as an assistant buyer in the furniture department at the chain’s flagship location in Birmingham.
Chester Goldberg was his boss.
“You get a background in school but you really learn business in practice,” Don said. “[Goldberg] was my mentor. I admired his hard work ethic, but mostly he was a kind, kind man.”
When it came time to name the restaurant, Don said it only seemed right to honor the man who taught him everything he knows about business.
The Goldberg name meant something special and, Don said, it created a Jewish-feel for his kosher-style deli.
But there were few Jewish students on campus at the time and deli-style sandwiches weren’t yet mainstream. Don wanted a cozy, home-style name that appealed to as many people as possible.
“Who are students going to call when they’re in trouble? They ain’t gonna call Daddy,” Don said. “They’re calling Mama.”
Mike DeMent, a graphic designer and Don’s brother, was tasked with creating the sign. Don told him the restaurant’s name – “Mama Goldberg’s” – but never spelled it out for him. A misspelled sign arrived a few days before the grand opening.
“Well, there wasn’t much we could do at that point,” Don said. “I thought about it and I liked the way it sounded.”
Thus, Momma Goldberg’s was born.
The restaurant started seeing success after several strategically worded ads in The Plainsman, Don said. Business really started booming, however, after an Alabama law prohibiting the sale of alcohol within one mile of a university campus was declared unconstitutional. Momma Goldberg’s was among the first restaurants in the area to receive a beer license.
There was no menu when the restaurant first opened, Don said. Each sandwich was custom made. They had to come up with a faster system, though, because some customers took their time ordering.
“Marijuana got to be real popular back then. Kids would come in stoned at 10 or 11 o’clock at night and just stand there looking at that menu for 30 minutes,” Don said as he laughed. “I had to come up with pre-made sandwiches to speed the line up.”
“A Momma’s Love” – roast beef, ham, hickory smoked turkey breast with muenster cheese served on a seeded hoagie bun – was one of the first staples on the menu.
Don welcomed everyone into his shop with open arms and tended to his customers’ specific needs. The ROTC students could cool off after practice with a half-priced tea. Pi Chis (sorority members who led potential new members through recruitment) could unwind after a long day’s work with a free sandwich, provided they brought in their rush group.
The sense of camaraderie set Momma Goldberg’s apart. The students knew they could count on Don and Don knew he could count on them.
Soon, the restaurant started to attract some big names. Sportscaster Brent Musburger stopped by for a meal when he was in town for a game. Musburger was so impressed with his sandwich, he said he would come back and feature Momma Goldberg’s on primetime.
Don rallied all the regulars he knew. They showed up to support the little deli – people were elbow-to-elbow when Musburger was scheduled to arrive at 4 p.m.
“People were drinking, having a good time,” Don said. “Four o’clock came and went. Then 4:30 [p.m.] came and went.”
Musburger never came. At 11 p.m., though, “they were still running around asking ‘When’s ole Brent going to get here?’”
No night at Momma Goldberg’s stands out to Don quite like the one during the blizzard of ‘93, though. People came to the restaurant and made “fun out of disaster.”
Campus and most businesses were closed, but he decided to keep the shop open. They sliced the meat by hand and poured beer by candlelight.
“I poured more beer that day than any other day,” Don remembered. “They shot pool by candlelight until probably 3 o’clock in the morning.”
Don made 14 more years of memories at the restaurant before he decided it was time to retire.
The first Momma Goldberg’s franchise opened in 2007 in Homewood, Alabama. Don stayed with the company until 2014, through eight more franchise openings.
“It just got to be more work than I could do so I sold the franchise,” Don said. “It was pretty tearful cleaning out my office, but I haven’t really looked back.
He passed the torch to Auburn graduate Nick Davis, who now owns and operates all the Momma Goldberg’s locations in Alabama.
“Don and Betty created a place that’s not just great food, a great atmosphere, but also an Auburn icon,” Davis said when Don announced his retirement. “There is a core group of customers who are extremely loyal to the brand.”
Momma Goldberg’s is turning 40 years old this year and Auburn is celebrating its oldest independently-owned restaurant as hard as it can.
Mayor Bill Ham, Opelika Mayor Gary Fuller and Sen. Tom Whatley have proclaimed Sept. 22, 2016 as “Momma Goldberg’s Day.”
“Don and I have been friends since the ‘70s,” Ham said. “Seeing a homegrown business expand and franchise is really a great thing. I’m very proud of Don and Betty and I’m glad Momma Goldberg’s continues to do well.”
The celebration will coincide with the release of “Momma’s Love,” a book by local author Mary Ellen Hendrix.
Hendrix, a longtime friend of the DeMents, said the restaurant is a “home away from home” to members of the Auburn community, near and far.
Don created an atmosphere that is still unique to Momma Goldberg’s, Hendrix said. He is the reason people come back with their children, decades after they graduate from Auburn. Hendrix called the restaurant “both a rite of passage and a pilgrimage destination.”
“He provided students a safe space,” Hendrix said. “He was giving and forgiving of their antics, and they've loved him and Momma's because of it.”
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