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It’s been a devastating twelve months for small businesses in general – and for the restaurant industry in particular – due to the coronavirus pandemic.  But like a salmon swimming against the stream, one local icon just opened its doors again to a whole new generation of Colquitt County diners.

   On Monday, March 15th, Dalton’s Restaurant (newly branded as Dalton’s Chicken – Steaks – Seafood) had its (re-)opening day under the ownership of third-generation restauranteur Kelly Dalton and his wife Amy.  Located at 715 Rowland Drive in Moultrie, Dalton’s will serve lunch and dinner six days a week, plus lunch on Sundays from 11am-3pm.

   If the name Dalton’s rings a bell, it should: Kelly’s grandparents, Raymond L. (known as R.L.) and Ida Belle Dalton owned many area restaurants dating back to the 1960s.  The well-known Dalton’s Chicken opened in 1990 on South Main Street after R.L. bought the building, installing Kelly’s aunt Patsy Dalton Akridge as manager.  After a number of successful years at that first location, the CVS corporation came in and offered to buy that corner lot.  The Daltons agreed to sell as the building was old and needed a lot of work.  The Daltons built a new restaurant at 715 Rowland Drive.  One year later, in 2006, Dalton’s Chicken re-opened, yet again under Aunt Patsy’s management.  Sadly, Dalton’s Chicken closed its doors in March 2013, and although Kelly’s dad Bobby Dalton and uncle Lewayne Dalton still owned the building, they subsequently leased the space to a series of small businesses over the years.

   To further cement Kelly’s roots in the industry, his parents Bobby Dalton and the late Pat Dalton owned Embers Restaurant – another local favorite – which closed its doors on First Avenue in January 2008 after 35 years in business.  With so much of the industry in his blood, it is no real surprise that Kelly decided to revive the family name.

   The building at 715 Rowland Drive had been vacant for six months before Kelly decided to rent the building from his dad and his uncle.  Kelly made a very public announcement on January 5th, 2021 that Dalton’s Restaurant would be re-opening in March, giving him and his team just ten weeks to completely renovate, decorate, hire staff, and stock food items.  And Kelly has done just that, driven by his lifelong dream and the help of an extended network of family, friends, and community.

   To understand Kelly’s motivation, it helps to know a little more about his background.  Parents Bobby and Pat Dalton raised their four children in the restaurant business, and all of the kids learned how to cook and run the family business.  But Kelly felt the connection a little more deeply than his siblings and always knew he would open a restaurant someday.

   All four of the Dalton children entered other fields upon reaching adulthood, including Kelly who worked in the poultry industry for Sanderson Farms for 15 years.  (Kelly jokes that he’ll now be going from raising and processing chickens to cooking them.)  But Kelly always had the idea of opening a restaurant.  “It’s in my blood, always has been.”  As for just when he would open a Dalton’s restaurant, “It was my Plan B.”

   Plan B came to the forefront this fall, just after Kelly married Amy and blended their families.  “From Day 1” Kelly talked restaurants with Amy; he just didn’t know when he would take that leap of faith and move from full-time employment to becoming an entrepreneur.  By late 2020, Kelly knew it was time for a change, “otherwise I’d be too old to do it.”  New wife Amy was supportive – “Go for it!” was her response – and soon Plan B was in play.

   Although this is Kelly and Amy’s business venture, the rest of the Daltons were anticipating the restaurant re-opening just as eagerly.  Kelly’s father Bobby Dalton is “as excited as a kid at Christmas” that the family name is on a restaurant again.  The senior Dalton is enjoying a well-earned retirement and won’t be working at the business himself, but Kelly says his dad will make his presence known.  “I may send him to the fish market to buy fish.”

   Kelly’s sister, Angie Dalton Cooper, lives in North Carolina. She will only be able to visit the new restaurant when she is back home in Moultrie.  However, Kelly’s two other siblings are involved – “everybody will be helping at the beginning!”  Sister Robi Dalton Jursik and brother Allen Dalton remain local and plan to support Kelly as much as possible.  Allen explains, “This is a big deal, a big deal for Kelly.  He’s pursuing his dream.  We were all raised in the restaurant business.  We all pursued our own careers, but Kelly always had the ambition to get back into it.  He just needed the right circumstances to do it!  I’m proud for him and his family.”

   Allen also acknowledges the impact this is going to have on Moultrie.  Referring to Dalton’s and Embers restaurants, Allen relates that “those two places were staples of Colquitt County and Moultrie.  It’s great to see them back [in this new restaurant].  Kelly’s done a lot of improvements to the building and invested some money.”

   Robi is also excited for her brother.  “I always knew that he would be the one that would keep the Dalton name going in the industry.”  For years, Robi has heard from her own clients how much they miss Dalton’s.  These past few months, she’s been telling clients that Dalton’s was about to return.

   When asked to describe his “vision” for the new Dalton’s, Kelly explains that “Dalton’s Restaurant is a mixture of Dalton’s Chicken and Embers Restaurant with a modern twist.”  Loyal customers, fear not: “pretty much everything on Dalton’s original menu” reappears on the new one.  The classics such as the Dalton Burger are there, as are fried chicken, livers, gizzards, and hot wings.  (For those who don’t know, Dalton’s hot wings are unique in that they are “dry” hot wings.  The marinade goes on raw, and then the wings are deep fried, so the heat is in the meat instead of in a lathered-on sauce.)   Kelly notes that Embers Restaurant used to do a country buffet.  Although the 715 Rowland Drive location isn’t large enough to accommodate the buffet, Kelly’s going to bring in some of those dishes (casseroles, homemade dressing, different meats such as ham) for Sunday lunch.

   There are some new additions to the Dalton’s menu as well.  Steaks are being introduced, as are whole catfish and mullet on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights.  Since Kelly’s mother-in-law Sherrie Harper and Kelly’s wife Amy lived in Louisiana for over 15 years, expect to see some Cajun favorites appearing as well, to include shrimp and gumbo (listed on the menu as “Ma’s Favorite Gumbo).  Kelly will be introducing some specials later on that share the Louisiana recipes picked up by these ladies.  As for desserts, they’re on the menu.  However, Kelly purchases these from a bakery so that he can focus on what Dalton’s does best.

    Dalton’s Facebook feed leading up to the grand opening revealed two new chicken sandwiches that are on the menu: “the Melvin, grilled to perfection,” and “the Carl, a bit spicy.”  The names are derived from chicken-themed paintings in the dining room that reflect Kelly and Amy’s disparate personalities.

   Kelly and team have a counter service at lunch, with dinner being full-service but in a casual setting.  When asked what “feel” he went for in the dining room, Kelly shares that it is “country decorated.  I want customers to feel at home and welcome.”  Adding to the homey feel will be the regular presence of Kelly’s family.  Kelly’s wife Amy is a schoolteacher who plans to come to the restaurant after school most days (and during the summer).  Kelly’s 14-year-old daughter Kenlee Dalton “will be doing a little of everything: cashier, waitress, hostess.  I’m going to teach her like I was taught.”  Amy’s daughters Gracyn Walden, 8, and Annie Walden, 5 (although officially Kelly’s stepdaughters, he laughs as he says “I claim them as mine”) won’t be doing much at first except charming the customers.

   Kelly is quick to express his gratitude for his extended family and members of the larger community who showed their support, even before the restaurant opened.  Brother Allen Dalton and his wife Miranda Holloway Dalton paid for the new TVs in the restaurant’s dining room.  Artwork for the dining room was created by Will Burt’s students in the Colquitt County High School’s Ag Mechanical class.  Justin Hill of Hill Landscaping took care of the lawns and flower beds in advance of the opening.  And seamstress Wanda Godwin Sellers is to thank for the handmade curtains in the dining room.

   Dalton’s Facebook page already had over 3,000 follows before the restaurant opened, and the owners’ postings plainly show the gratitude that Kelly and Amy feel for all of the support.  Photos show a gleaming establishment with shiny, new equipment; the captions underscore how appreciative the Daltons are.  The Facebook page also reveals the palpable excitement of a community happy to welcome back the Dalton name to the local restaurant scene.  Pre-opening comments were long and plentiful, ranging from prayers for the new restaurant’s success to menu item customers were most excited to order.  Some of the comments were even more expressive.

   “Did a happy dance when I drove by and saw this today!”

   “Can’t wait to order some fried chicken livers and sweet tea.”

   “Momma so excited.”

   “My preggo belly needs this!!!”

   As for those closest to the action, even family members have their favorites.  Allen Dalton shares how spoiled his own kids are since they ate at the original Dalton’s “all the time” when they were younger.  “I think they’re more excited than anything!  My boys are looking forward to the hot wings.  I make ‘em at home, but they’re not quite the same.”

   One of Robi Jursik’s favorites is another unique item: the Dalton Burger.  Robi explains, “The hamburger is dipped in our special seasoning sauce and then fried.”  She hastens to add, however, that she “will try anything on the menu – everything is good!”  Robi was already planning to stop by on March 15th to support her brother’s new restaurant.

   Now, several weeks  following Dalton’s grand opening, Kelly says he is feeling “Overwhelmed, in a good way.”  The first week, Dalton’s opened from 11am-2pm every day… and customers started lining up at 10am.  People were willing to wait in line one hour, just to place an order at Dalton’s counter.

   “We’ve received lots of good support from the community,” says Kelly, in perhaps the understatement of the year.  “Customers are patient with us to wait, and they’re proud to wait.”  He reports that their hot wings are the most in-demand item on the menu: “We’re going through 3 ½ to 4 cases of wings each three-hour day.”  To provide perspective, each case contains 40 pounds of wings.

   And there is no sign of this enthusiasm abating.  Fortunately for all of those hungry customers, Dalton’s is open for both lunch and dinner (11am-9pm) Monday through Saturday (with lunch only from 11am-3pm on Sunday).

   Kelly laughs in amazement at the community’s response.  Some of the folks who waited an hour in line have explained to him, “It’s well worth the wait – I’ve waited 9 years just to be able to taste this food again!”  There surely is no higher compliment than the patience of a hungry patron. 

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