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The Don of University Avenue

Don Newcomb
Don Newcomb

Meet the man behind McAlister’s, Newk’s and Embers.

He went from fixing teeth to fixing the delicious dishes that get them delightfully dirty in the first place—and he’s not about to stop. With two of America’s most innovative fast-casual food chains under his belt, Oxford’s Don Newcomb is only getting started.
The former dentist’s blowing-and-going restaurant concern Newk’s Express Café, now approaching its tenth year, has brought in consistent crowds by not only plating premium, savory menu items but by wrapping it in a colorful, inviting package people want to hang out in. The success is a true team effort by Newcomb, the entrepreneur; his son Chris, the operational whiz; and Debra Bryson, his former dental office manager whose eye for design has made Newk’s not just another four-walled room in which to get your eat on.
“You’ve got to serve more than food,” Newcomb says. “You’ve got to build a place that people enjoy the atmosphere. Of course, the food has got to be good, and the service has got to be good. It’s hard to get all the pieces of the puzzle together, but we were able to do that.”
The good doctor isn’t ready for retirement.
The Talented Mister Ripley, Mississippi
Newcomb, who grew up in Ripley, Mississippi, first worked in food and beverage as a teenager at the only soda fountain in the county. After college, dental school, and time in the military, he opened his dental practice in Oxford, but something from the soda fountain days must have stuck in his mind. He launched franchises for Sonic and Danver’s in the early 1980s. But he always wanted to start his own restaurant.
When filmmakers shot the film The Heart of Dixie in Oxford in 1987, they converted a vacant gas station on University Avenue into a 1950s diner for scenes in the film. That building, purchased later by Newcomb, would become the first footprint of a march from state to state.
Considered by many as a pioneer in the fast-casual restaurant segment, McAlister’s Deli started as Checquers in that location in 1989 before rebranding itself with a name from Newcomb’s family as McAlister’s Deli a couple years later, when Newcomb and his team began opening new stores.
The incredible proliferation of McAlister’s units owed to its appeal, and that appeal owed to the diverse talents of the founding team—which included Newcomb’s sons Chris and Neil (who now, based in North Carolina, handles franchise operations for a pizza chain) and Bryson—coming together.

Don Newcomb (front, in blue shirt) and the crew at the original Newk's location on University Avenue.
Don Newcomb (front, in blue shirt) and the crew at the original Newk’s location on University Avenue.

“We were very fortunate that we had a team where our sum was greater than its parts,” says Newcomb. “In McAllister’s, I was just the person with ideas and willing to take chances. Chris became a superb operator of restaurants. He got along with employees and understood food and pricing, and he was a natural at that. Neil had a peacemaker personality, so we put him in charge of franchisees. Debra had an eye for texture and color, and she understood traffic flow. People really don’t understand when they walk into a restaurant why they feel good about it or why they feel bad about it. It took a team to do it.”
More Than Food
They sold their interests in the company in 1999 and the rights in remaining units in 2001. Don and Chris Newcomb and Bryson then began operating franchises of Moe’s Southwest Grille, but not for long.
“We had a five-year non-compete agreement [with McAllister’s], and we did Moe’s just to have something to do,” says Newcomb. “It didn’t turn out to be as much fun as we thought it would. It just wasn’t us.”
So, they went back to what they knew best: creating something original, but with the right inspiration.
“We did a lot of traveling to different areas of the country,” Newcomb says. “We would see things that worked, and we would put our own fingerprint on it—how we thought people in our area would like it. All the recipes are ours.”
Newk’s Express Café launched in Oxford in 2004 and since has opened 54 stores and counting. Newcomb says the key to success has been the team’s vision, which has applied to Newk’s as it did to McAlister’s, to offer the public something more than a mere commodity—more than food.
Newk’s doesn’t cut corners where it counts. Most of the foods are made from scratch in each restaurant, using high-quality, fresh ingredients. Even the cakes are baked fresh by Newk’s Bakery Company. While this culinarian approach makes the restaurants’ costs higher, it’s necessary in delivering the product customers want, Newcomb says.
“We didn’t consider other people in the restaurant business as our competitors, because you fail to succeed on your own doing,” he says. “Nobody can put you out of business; you put yourself out of business. We didn’t want to compete based on price or discounting or coupons. We wanted to create an atmosphere where people were happy to pay what we would charge. We didn’t want to overcharge, be we wanted to give them what they wanted.”
Biscuits and Barbecue
Newcomb’s restless entrepreneurial spirit never sits too long. From the Newk’s nerve center—Newcomb’s office, adjacent to the original Newk’s restaurant—he bristles with excitement talking about the recently opened Embers Biscuits & Bar-B-Que, located down the hill on University Avenue—which, as the history of the Newcomb restaurant empire goes, has become the launch pad for dreams that have no discernible limit in sight. The passion and determination bubbles in Newcomb’s voice, leaving little doubt that the world will soon line up for his take on biscuits and ‘cue.
But as with McAlister’s and Newk’s before, the world will have to wait and take a second seating. Oxford gets the first taste.
— Tad Wilkes, tad.wilkes@hottytoddy.com

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