Mary Sue and Inman were 25 and 26 years old when they bought The College Grill in 1956, renaming it The Paragon. The word Paragon means “the best.” They sold breakfast, lunch and dinner.
“We bought the College Grill with no money,” said Mary Sue Hodges. “We never had the option of doing something else today… We were going to work today.”
With the competition in the area, they felt they had to do something different, so they opened The Paragon as a buffet-style restaurant with regular seafood boils on Friday nights.
“People would line up all the way down the street because they could eat all the seafood they wanted,” said Hodges.
“We didn’t have any money to advertise with, so I’d sit every Saturday and call everybody in the phonebook between lunch and dinner.”
A personal visit with KFC’s Colonel Sanders
A few years later, Inman met KFC’s Colonel Sanders in Sylvania, Georgia and became interested in selling their chicken at the restaurant. He convinced Mary Sue to fly with him to Kentucky to check it out.
“I thought, well what is the matter with Georgia fried chicken?” said Hodges. “But we were going to Kentucky for fried chicken?”
Early adopter of KFC
The Paragon became one of the first few hundred places in the world that you could buy the now famous Kentucky Fried Chicken.
“We started with a franchise and all we had to pay was a nickel a head to operate it,” said Hodges.
They now owns 39 restaurants, which include a few different Taco Bells, Dairy Queens and, of course, over a dozen Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants in the area.
Colonel Sanders set expectations high
Having met the Colonel, Hodges said some of the newer iterations of him in commercials are better depictions of him than they have been in the past.
“[Sanders] was a character, he was,” said Hodges. “He was known to hit somebody in the head with his walking cane for lighting up a cigarette. He was very opinionated.”
“He’d walk into your store and if your product didn’t look to suit him, he’d just dump it out,” said Hodges. “But you can’t blame him. If it’s not right, it shouldn’t be sold.”
That’s exactly how the Hodges ran their restaurant. With consistency and quality in mind, they got to know who their customers were and what they wanted and expected from them every time they visited.
Hard work and focus on family
“You’ve got to be willing to put in the hours that it takes to make that business grow,” said Hodges.
Along with her work at The Paragon, Hodges also had plenty of work at home raising three children and trying to give them a “normal life,” she said.
“Most mothers were home, but mama worked,” said her daughter Janis Bell. “Mom spent a lot of time in the restaurant, but she would always cook us supper. We never ate out unless it was the Paragon.”
From one to many
Over the years, Mary Sue and Inman slowly built their business consisting of a chain of fast food restaurants. They began by building the first KFC right next to The Paragon in 1964 and eventually moving the restaurant to its current location off of Buckhead Drive.
Husband and Wife business partners
The president of KFC flew in for Inman’s funeral last year and asked Mary Sue about their relationship, since many couples aren’t able to work together as they did for so many years.
“I think that the way that we could work together as well as we did was because… he liked to work, and I was better with the people,” said Hodges. “So he was in the office, and of course a lot of times he was back there cooking.”
“I won’t say that we always agreed, but I always felt free to give him my opinion and I got the same thing back from him,” said Hodges. “I might not have liked it but I still heard it.”
The Hodges were married for almost 71 years, before Inman’s almost 15-year battle with cancer ended last fall.
“He was my best friend,” said Hodges.
Still making an impact
Nowadays, Hodges spends her time going out with family or friends or entertaining guests at the house. Even with COVID-19 limitations, she goes to church and participates in Bulloch County’s Garden Club, where she and her daughter both won Best in Show this year.
Hodges also visits her restaurants now and again to make sure everything is still running smoothly.
Wonderful example for others
The Hodges built a successful business based on love for each other, love for their family and love for their customers and community. This formula worked well and creates a wonderful model for future businesses to replicate.